Minority Report (2002)

2002, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Max von Sydow, Kathryn Morris, Patrick Kilpatrick.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?A
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Ordinary and sci-fi gunplay and other violence; fleeting depictions of real and illusory sex acts; illicit drug use; some profanity.

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Minority Report (DVD)

By Steven D. Greydanus

Movies just don’t come any better made than Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. They can be more important (Schindler’s List) or more innovative (Memento), more challenging (Black Hawk Down) or more rewarding (The Fellowship of the Ring) — but they don’t come more solidly put together. For sheer craft — for the ideal marriage of bravura storytelling, rip-roaring action, dazzling visuals, moody atmosphere, masterful effects, and evocative social and philosophical implications — Minority Report is an achievement of the highest order.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (who also provided the source material for Blade Runner and Total Recall), Spielberg’s film combines the virtues of good science fiction, good film noir or crime fiction, and good popcorn summer action. It’s simultaneously futuristic and retro; it’s effects-laden but story-driven; it touches on issues of moral and social freedom, but doesn’t get all cerebral on the audience. Those who felt shortchanged by either or both of last year’s dark-themed sci‑fi offerings from the same director or star (A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Vanilla Sky, respectively) will find themselves more than repaid.

Set little more than a half-century in the future, Minority Report takes place in a world in which magnetically powered cars race along the sides of skyscrapers, ubiquitous retinal scanning technology is used for everything from subway access to direct marketing, and data is stored on small clear cards or projected onto enormous transparent screens.

Most importantly, an experimental law-enforcement project called "Pre-Crime", headed by hotshot John Anderton (Tom Cruise) and masterminded by patrician Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), has successfully eliminated murder and virtually all violent crime in Washington, D.C. for over five years, and is on the verge of going nationwide.

At the heart of this operation are the "Pre-Cogs," a trio of strangely gifted individuals able to glimpse future events hours or days before they occur. Kept semi-sedated in a nutrient bath, the Pre-Cogs share collective dreams of future atrocities, their every thought holographically recorded and carefully analyzed.

The system seems perfect. The Pre-Cogs’ determinations appear impossible to mask or counterfeit, thanks to one of the film’s loopier conceits — a laser-powered device that carves the name of the future killer and his intended victim into custom-crafted billiard-sized wooden balls with a unique grain pattern that can’t be duplicated, served up via a Habitrail-like system of plastic tubes.

The examination of the recorded visions is carried with a punctiliously observation of ritual: There are two witnesses in remote locations, and a vocal record of the findings is kept as the examiners ferret out clues to when and where the crimes will occur. Of course, because "Pre-Crime" is so good at what they do, the crimes never actually do occur. The images the Pre-Cogs witness, then, are potential crimes, not actual ones.

Does this mean people are being arrested and sentenced for mere intent to commit a crime — intent they might never actually have followed through on? Anderton argues not: "The Pre-Cogs don’t see what you intend to do, only what you will do." Will do, that is, unless prevented from doing so on the basis of the Pre-Cogs’ visions.

Still, questions remain. Federal agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a skeptic investigating Pre-Crime, acknowledges that the program has been successful at catching potential criminals — but how do they know that their intervention has always been the only factor standing between the potential criminal and the uncommitted crime? If the future is written in stone, how can it be averted at all? And if it isn’t written in stone, mightn’t at least some of those uncommitted crimes have gone uncommitted even without the intervention of Pre-Crime — averted by some other, unforeseen factor?

Anderton refuses to contemplate these questions — until one day when he has no choice. That day comes when the Pre-Cogs’ visions unexpectedly show him something he can’t accept: himself, less than two days in his own future, killing a man he doesn’t even recognize.

Here the story shifts into murder-mystery mode: Has the infallible system failed? Or has someone done the impossible and framed him somehow? Or, even more unthinkably, could he really be guilty?

Then comes the impossible task of running in a world without anonymity, hiding in a transparent city, fighting a force with a perfect track record of winning all its fights. Here Spielberg proves that, even if the last Indiana Jones movie was over a dozen years ago, he’s still an action virtuoso. Standout episodes include a stunt sequence involving jumping from vehicle to vehicle in gravity-defying traffic, a battle involving jetpacks, and a combat sequence on an automated assembly-line conveyor belt.

If those three scene descriptions sound oddly reminiscent of three parallel sequences in this year’s other big sci-fi movie, Attack of the Clones, rest assured Spielberg is doing something very different from what Lucas did. (The conveyor-belt battle in Report, in particular, is far more effective than the rather bloated parallel sequence in Clones, and has a terrific resolution. This movie’s jetpack combat is also cooler, if only because there are more guys in more jetpacks and the battle actually gets airborne. As for the traffic sequence, while there’s no upstaging the mad charm of Lucas’s aerial car chase over Coruscant, the more restrained sequence in Report is equally memorable.)

Spielberg has always known how to manipulate an audience’s emotions, a knack he makes effective use of here. Humor alternates with squirming discomfort and emotional release as the director pokes fun of Cruise’s sex-symbol status in a couple of funny incidents, then leaves us wincing with a number of scenes involving eyeballs, or a character fumbling blindly for the one edible sandwich in a squalid refrigerator. There’s also a thoroughly enjoyable Fugitive-like chase scene in a mall that involves some of the more dramatic applications of the Pre-Cogs’ abilities.

Along the way, Minority Report raises questions about social freedoms as well as existential or moral freedom. Washington, D.C. may be a murder-free zone, but it’s also a city in which talking billboards know your name — and spending habits — and policemen can send creepy arachnoid robot room by room through a tenement building, optically scanning and identifying every warm body they find, whether the inhabitants happen to be sitting on the toilet, having sex, whatever.

Then there’s the matter of the Pre-Cogs themselves. Is it moral or humane to keep them in a nightmarish stupor of atrocities for the sake of the rest of society? "It’s better not to think of them as human," advises a Pre-Crime technician, a comment with obviously sinister resonances of slavery, the Holocaust, abortion. And the way Pre-Crime deals with its interrupted offenders obviously calls for a revised conception of what is not cruel and unusual punishment.

As with most time-bending movies, issues of temporal logic aren’t necessarily worked out with total consistency. (The Pre-Cogs’ visions seemingly always reveal what would happen if not for actions that take the vision itself into account — except for one crucial vision of events that are precipitated by the vision itself.)

Another plot hole involves one character’s continued optical access to a facility long after the point when his access should have been revoked (and without setting off any alarms for the people who are theoretically waiting for him to show up on some optical scanner). Despite these flaws, the film proceeds with such authority that you can’t help believing it as you watch it.

Spiritual allusions and references appear throughout the film. A few are explicit and literal: a character making the sign of the cross before a mission, a dying man kissing a holy medal, an agent who’s an ex-seminarian. Others are figurative or symbolic: The protected room in which the Pre-Cogs dream is called "the temple," and one of the Pre-Crime team suggests that they’re "more like priests than police officers." And is all the immersion imagery (the Pre-Cogs in their nutrient bath; a pair of drowning sequences; a pair of life-changing moments in which a character is submerged, first in a swimming pool, then in a bathtub of ice water) meant to be some kind of baptism motif?

In any case, these religious echoes resonate with the movie’s theme of fate and free will. Spielberg doesn’t explore this question in any kind of profound way, but he takes it seriously, and offers an answer that’s satisfyingly humanistic while respecting the ground rules established by the movie. It’s a fitting touch in what will very probably turn out to be far and away the best escapist entertainment of the summer of 2002.

Tags: Dystopian, Action, Science Fiction

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