Spielberg doesn’t really do downers. Sure, you can find them; his early attempt to make a movie in line with his peer group (Sugarland Express); the Oscar bait of Saving Private Ryan (softened by an interminable coda). And doubtless, unless he really messes with the plot, West Side Story will not be ending on a note of good cheer.
And then there are the back-to-back science fiction outings that opened the century, both standing apart as rather curious fish. At first glance, Minority Report concludes very much with a prevailing sense of order restored; the bad apple in an otherwise honest system is removed, which is very much the Hollywood norm for nominally conspiracy pictures (Enemy of the State, for example). But even with that questionably affirmative conclusion, this adaptation of the 1956 Philip K Dick short story merely offers the continuation of what is unquestionably a Grade-A dystopia.
Minority Report’s cunning is that it dons the garb of an “acceptable” dystopia. Spielberg’s 2054 isn’t, on the face of it, one where the populace has been beaten into subservience or subjected to (physically) invasive monitoring. Nevertheless, they have very much accepted pervasive surveillance as the norm, even as they live identifiably “regular” urban existences; this is just one step beyond, the step it appears we’re about to fall in with.
Spielberg and Scott Frank’s version of Big Brother is the iris scan, effectively utilised to keep tabs on everyone everywhere – and everywhere is metropolitan, give or take – by virtue of where it does or does not allow you to be. With that and the very capable support of spider drones, fully authorised to enter citizens’ properties without notice in order to discharge their duties, you have this future’s “new normal”. In a current era where drones are everywhere and we’re encouraged to believe offering eye recognition software to unlock our phones is a good thing – along with, now, track-and-trace apps – it would be easy to regard Minority Report as predictive programming. Although, it’s easy to conclude anything coming out of Hollywood is predictive programming, even a disposable old episode of The Dead Zone (The Simpsons does however, have quite a convincing track record).
Spielberg assembled a think tank of futurists to produce a “2054 bible”, one that apparently soft pedalled some of the more utopian concepts in favour a “much grayer and more ambiguous” tone (however, he said “I wanted there to be a transportation system that doesn’t emit toxins in the atmosphere. And the newspaper that updates itself…”). Somehow, for all the driverless cars (with security lockdown easily enabled to trap a passenger), GMOs (very literally), and personalised ads (GAP is still a thing), there are still newspapers – gimmicky moving visuals, so maybe they are a niche, poseur thing 34 years from now – so not everything here is desperately sharp.
Indeed, the PreCrime concept itself – one announced by Attorney General Bill Barr last year – displays somewhat fudged logic, aside from its causal and deterministic complexities. The twists in Dick’s short story are more concerned with the personalised effect of precognition on freewill (three crucial minority reports have been produced, each reflecting the knowledge of the previous one on the subject); Frank, who was reworking a screenplay by Jon Cohen, is more preoccupied with the minutiae of how the infallible system can be fooled (this being a key difference between his and Cohen’s draft, where Colin Farrell’s Danny Witwer is the bad guy).
Unfortunately, Frank manages to creates logistical problems for himself along the way, even as the “echo” that allows Max von Sydow’s PreCrime founder Burgess to pull off his villainy is quite neatly defined. PreCrime has reduced the murder rate in Washington to zero, and a nationwide rollout is planned; how are the same three Precogs expected to service an entire country (if a murder was taking place every thirty minutes in the USA in 2017, I guess it’s possible, but still, it’s a stretch)? The answer is that there would be programmes to produce more of them (the imagery here is very much that of MKUltra, shaved heads and haunted expressions; this was surely an influence on Stranger Things’ Eleven, and the series itself was inspired by the Montauk Project legends. The Precogs are, after all, adults maintained as infantile).
Minority Report is well cast, so the actors wrestle professionally with frequently ungainly exposition (Farrell in particular is required to ask lots of questions he’d surely know the answers to anyway). Dr Hineman (Lois Smith) tells Cruise’s PreCrime Chief John Anderton “You think the three in the tank come out of a test tube?” They are the progeny of neuroin addicts (“merely the ones who survived” who were able to martial their mutated skills). There isn’t much in the way of a backup plan in this scenario (or the short story), so any government whose operations were contingent on the trio would need to be thinking ahead.
There’s also little in the way of ethical debate about their use; “Better if you don’t think of them as human” is about as far as the discussion goes (“They’re a hive mind”). It might have been nice if there was a tacitly complicit societal acknowledgement that any chance of a life they had was being sacrificed “for the greater good”. Even their staunchest defender, Daniel London’s carer Wally, is in a creepy class all of his own. It’s why, with this leap already instituted, the idea that “the system would collapse” if people found out there was a flaw in Precrime is a bit of a stretch; if society has gone this far, it would surely not be too fussed at the occasional unfairly-consigned-to-stasis victim (in Matrix-inspired confines).
There’s also the rather weak explanation for murder being the focus of PreCrime over rapes, assaults or suicides (there’s “nothing more destructive to the metaphysical fabric that binds us than the untimely murder of one human being by another”). It shows the makers were at least alert to potential plot holes, just not enough. As such, we are later informed “PreCrime has eliminated the need for conventional detectives”. What, even the ones solving rapes, assaults and petty thefts?
But Dick’s premise is a strong enough one that Frank and Spielberg are just about able to sustain the conceit; predictive AI might have been the more realistic option (certainly the one that is really being pursued), but it surely wouldn’t have been as dramatically potent as Samantha Morton’s extraordinarily affecting performance as lead Precog Agatha. It’s the same deal with the eye-scan device. Had Spielberg’s forward-thinking futurists envisaged a fully-operational Internet of Things where every movement is inevitably tracked and traced, the narrative straightjacket on telling an engrossing murder-mystery would surely have been too immense. As it is, the idea that, to survive off grid, one will have to sacrifice one’s eyes (“I want to keep my old ones… Because my mother gave them to me”) is sufficiently extreme and icky a concept to be queasily tense and engrossing as it unfolds (the spider-drones sequence, tracking the recently eye-transplanted Anderton, De Palma-inspired in its use of overhead visuals, is a highlight of the picture).
Indeed, the picture has a much more mordant sense of humour than most Spielberg fare, some of the material seemingly quite atypical. The knockabout stuff of jet packs bursting through floors and lighting hamburgers is definitely all him. And the car assembly plant chase, revealing Cruise inside a new model, was surely inspired in part by that Hitchcock notion for a scene he could never logically justify including in North By Northwest (where a car is seen being put together at an auto plant, only to reveal a body in the boot when it rolls off the line).
But Peter Stormare’s Dr Eddie isn’t the stuff of a typical ’berg movie (“I put them out!” he protests when Cruise is unrepentant over having brought the ex-doctor to book for setting his patients on fire). And Eddie’s fridge full of rotting food and drink, which the temporarily blind Anderton proceeds to consume, isn’t either. Nor is the sight of him chasing his own eyeballs down a corridor. The puke sticks (no EMF crowd control here) are somewhere in between.
Maybe this tonal edginess partly derives from the movie’s origins as Total Recall 2 (Verhoeven’s movie’s totalitarian elements are fairly vaguely defined, Mars aside, even if there are equal opportunities for tracking individuals and their disguising themselves). This kind of viscera, though, along with the “Everybody runs” tag, is by far the picture’s strongest suit. Ironically so, given that, by this point, Spielberg had largely forsaken the Indiana Jones approach for something more awards-circuit vetted. He called Minority Report “fifty percent character and fifty percent very complicated storytelling with layers of murder mystery and plot”, which is a reasonable if unornate summation. But like many a murder mystery, the reveal itself is ultimately a bit of a fizzle. It was a smart move to red herring Farrell’s character as actually a good guy, and the wrong-footing there, and a fine performance, pays dividends, but von Sydow’s essential piece of the puzzle never feels that essential and can easily be marked out as what it was: a late addition.
I was highly impressed by Minority Report on first viewing, regarding it as the kind of movie I didn’t believe the director had in him anymore. Except for the ending, that is, which seemed like a typical cop out, a sop to wrapping things in a bow. But even then, I was suspicious at just how brazen it was, depositing its poor sullied Precogs in an idyllic country farmhouse (the kind of idyllic farmhouse no one but the one percent will be occupying once Agenda 21 has been enforced). Was it an intentional dupe on the director’s part, akin to the white-out ending of Total Recall (which, according to Verhoeven, represented Quaid’s schizoid embolism)? Was Anderton still in stasis? Where, according to a splendidly ghoulish Tim Blake Nelson “They say you have visions. They say your life flashes before your eyes. That all your dreams come true”.
An apparent change to the home release, where Spielberg removed the line that “Upon the end of PreCrime, murders had returned to Washington” implicitly seemed to confirm this (curiously, that reference has been excised from the Wiki page, but can still be found here). After all, Anderton’s dreams have come true; he is back with his wife, who is pregnant – yes, ideally his dream would be getting his son back, but that would obviously be too much of a tip off – the PreCogs are safe, and order has been restored. There’s also the manner in which John’s wife Lara (Kathryn Moss), who is barely even a character prior to this, is suddenly given decisive agency. She is vital to the picture’s “successful” resolution, a Mrs Anderton ex-machina. Consequently, I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt as a purposefully unbelievable ending.
As a future vision, then, it could be argued Minority Report envisages exactly the kind of palatable dystopia that is the more dangerous for its creeping acceptability. Nothing appears to be too too bad unless you are a too too bad person, or antisocial in some way. And if you are an unfortunate innocent, you’re likely to be one of the few, so the checks and balances still come out in its favour.
Kamiński’s overlit, desaturated look has since become a drab and dreary norm, but at the time, it was quite strikingly different. It makes for an effective contrast with the slick stylisation (the cars, the Schubert-accompanied swiping tech that predicts our now essential smart devices). Yes, the rendering is a bit too busy and CGI-heavy in places, but in contrast to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull half a decade later – also over-reliant on ILM – Spielberg’s visual acumen is never in doubt. He appears constantly energised, rising to the challenge. Standouts include the opening sequence that puts you on side with the ethically-compromised PreCrime concept in order to prevent a murder, and the extended chase, during which Agatha helps Anderton dodge her pursuers with her acute abilities (the fugitives pause behind balloons at a crucial moment).
I mentioned before that Minority Report went hand in hand with its Spielberg sci-fi sibling A.I. Artificial Intelligence in respect of its downbeat ending (if you’re prepared to interpret Minority Report’s ending as downbeat). A.I. is a very peculiar film, one in which artificial boy David, finding himself in the far, evolved-AI-occupied future, is granted his dream of a final day with the real mother who rejected him. Thus fulfilled, he can happily succumb to “death”. Spielberg presents these proceedings in expectedly treacly fashion (which makes them all the more unsettling and unseemly, added to which the Haley Joel Osment creepy kid factor). Accordingly, while a Kubrick project, the through-line of the director’s “Peter Pan” syndrome manages to live large here, by way of Pinocchio.
So it is that Spiebergisms can distract one into thinking he’s at he’s being typically tepid in terms of substance; anything potentially challenging gives way to the wishy-washy. The essential miasma at the core of A.I. only comes into revealing focus when one considers what it may really be about, subject matter that could fit quite comfortably into Kubrick’s sphere of unsettling sub-realities, but which seems askance to Spielberg’s usual furrow. Some have suggested Kubrick’s oeuvre as a whole forms an exposé of the elite, ranging from MKUltra to Moon landings to secret societies doing unspeakable things. Some have further suggested that guilt may have formed a part of this, a recognition of his own compromised position on whatever level(s).
The idea that A.I. is really about paedophilia really does seem to make sense of its more bizarre conceits (just why would a couple want a child who would never grow up? What could that say about them?), particularly given this future world’s other main artificial character is expressly tailored towards the adult market? Could Minority Report be offering a similar subtext? With its stolen orphans pressed into government programmes. And its guilt-wracked parent playing and replaying videos of his abducted son (told “The man lost a child, for Christ’s sake”, Witwer replies “Six years ago”)? We never find out who abducted him, but a significant subplot focuses on a fake-out child killer; the perpetrator is never brought to justice. There is, of course, much rumour regarding Spielberg, rumour that doesn’t seem to be in any danger of going away. But like most of these rumours, it never seems to be substantiated either (almost as if, just as Hollywood celebrities function as a monumental distraction, so do their purported crimes, something to focus on instead of the bigger picture). Coincidentally, the director’s next picture was Catch Me If You Can.
Does Minority Report have anything specific to say about the world we are inexorably sliding towards? Well, Washington in 2054 appears fairly affluent, aside from the odd (presumably permitted) drug addict. Virtual reality escapes and fantasies (in pods) are a prerequisite, something Spielberg would return to in Ready Player One with diminishing returns. However, it’s unlikely that, in a brave new world of social distancing and limited movement, we’ll be encouraged to leave our homes in pursuit of such delights.
And the threat of disease? Well, there are two different approaches on display, curiously. In response to Burgess’ complaint that “You’d think we’d have found a cure for the common cold by now” his assistant simply says “Stress” and gives him a herbal tea with honey. Perhaps she’s a proponent of German New Medicine? In contrast, Eddie, great globs of snot exploding from each nostril, exclaims “This damn cold!” But he represents the (disgraced) allopathic medical establishment, boasting “Don’t worry, I could cut open your chest and sew a dead cat in there and you would never get an infection. Now with the spectrum of antibios I’ll be shooting into you”. Very old school. Not a student of Bechamp.
So does Minority Report tell us how to deal with a dystopia? Even if you take it that the ending is real, and PreCrime was disbanded, this is no future to relish. It functions very much on the principal that you’ll be alright if you’re law abiding. Until you fall foul of the system. And in the meantime, just in case, you’ll be tracked and traced everywhere. Well, we won’t have to wait another three decades for all of that.