Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002) — 10 Years Later

Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton in Minority Report

I listed Minority Report as my #1 film of 2002, and ten years later the thing I find most surprising about that fact is how brave I felt and counter-cultural I thought I was being. 

In 2002 it had been four years since Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Saving Private Ryan and almost a decade since Schindler’s List marked the director’s ascension in the public perception from the rank of gifted, popular director to elite artist. With that ascension came (as it always comes) the inevitable backlash. There will be sycophants and yes-men wherever there is success, but there will also be naysayers who find fault with the popular as a means of making themselves feel or look more enlightened.

Minority Report looked and felt like a return to Spielberg’s roots. Coming after the critical success of the previously mentioned films, it seemed less an adolescent refusal to grow up than a laudable refusal to grow old. Recall too that the summer of 2002 was the first blockbuster season after 9-11-2001 and that George Lucas was already releasing the second of the underwhelming Star Wars prequels. For those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, the world had changed in some fundamental ways, and I wonder if there was some part of us that needed rather than wanted something as solid and dependable as a Steven Spielberg, popcorn thrill ride.

Fast forward to 2012 and cinephiles sneering at Steven Spielberg have become so commonplace it is almost cliche. Munich and War Horse both garnered nominations aplenty, though the latter did so in an era where nominations for best picture were doubled. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did more to kill nostalgia for the director’s signature franchise than it did to repopularize it. Catch Me if You Can garnered good reviews, but its hard to look at it today through the lens of hindsight and see Leonardo DiCaprio about to transition to a more successful creative partnership with Martin Scorsese.

Given his credits as a producer and his role in founding Dreamworks SKG, it is hard to think of Spielberg as anything less than one of the most important and influential figures in American cinema. As an artist and a director, however, Spielberg had a reputation that was so high it was perhaps inevitable that it had to come back to earth a little. Minority Report may have been the last time where the director’s name carried with it the sort of buzzing excitement that expressed itself with terms like “I can’t wait” instead of “I wonder what he is up to now?”

What I Said Then

Let me state up front that I think Minority Report is the best film I’ve seen this year and one of the best, most thoughtful summer action films I’ve seen in a long time. It is, like almost all of director Steven Spielberg’s best efforts, a good story, well told, but it is also a film with and about ideas. One of the main questions addressed by the film is the age old query of whether human beings have free will and how, if at all, such free will is compatible with the phenomenon of prophecy. Part of what makes the film well crafted is that its plot and setting truly address the thematic question, so the film engages and raises the ideas as a good work of art should. In less artistic films (such as Murder By Numbers) the thematic idea is tacked-on or explained, often in the form of “position speeches” where a character gives a sound bite regurgitation of the philosophical position while waiting for something to happen.

While my admiration for the film is apparent, there were two or three points which prevent me from placing it in the category of fully realized “great” films. A discussion of these aspects is not possible without reference to specific plot points, so I encourage those of you who have not seen the film to skip the rest of the review if knowing plot points ahead of time adversely affects your ability to enjoy a film.

As with A.I., there are tonal shifts in the presentation that distract from the overall effect of the film. Other reviewers have echoed this complaint (Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker) and the general trend is to say that Spielberg’s optimism is sometimes at loggerheads with the more pessimistic or dystopian themes that his partners (Stanley Kubrick in the case of A.I.) or material (Philip K. Dick’s short story inspiring Minority Report) explore.

These lapses are particularly noticeable because of one of the things the film does well, which is explore the more subtle and insidious ways in which technology integrates itself into our lives. Innovations such as eye-scanning are used not just for security measures but also for intrusive marketing, with billboards and storefronts that announce your previous purchases and assault you with personalized pitches. Digital newspapers integrate wireless technology to update headlines almost instantaneously. The effect of these touches is to create a credible near future world where conveniences are bought at the price of privacy and other rights. The tone here is muted and pessimistic, but also credible. Yet other advances, such as the mechanized cars, police jet-packs, quick moving plants, and surveillance “spiders” come across less as functionally integrated elements of the fictional world and more as gee-whiz movie gadgets needed for a particular plot point. When they appear the tone of film shifts from dramatic/philosophical to action/adventure.

There is nothing wrong with having a chase scene, but Anderton and his pursuers crashing into dinner tables plays more staged and comic than the rest of the film. The scene with a woman and a genetically altered garden is more camp than creepy, as is the scene where Anderton arranges a black market eye transplant. It’s like Spielberg took a break in the middle of the movie and decided to see if he could emulate Terry Gilliam. Later, when Anderton tries to use his surgically removed eyes to break into his job site (they would not have locked a convicted felon out of the system?) and he drops them, the ensuing chase down a ramp before his severed eyeballs fall through a grate plays like half Goonies half Saturday Night Live. It is a cheap laugh and unworthy of the film, the kind of shortcut to a response that hasn’t been earned that Spielberg seems to drop into every movie at least once.

[Discussion of Anderton’s choice not to kill the man he thinks killed his son and whether or not it is in character.]

The tendency to look at choices as unconditioned responses to immediate circumstances is also evident in the overly simplistic happy ending of Minority Report. Once the Precrime unit is revealed to be corrupted (and corruptible) it is disassembled and the prisoners arrested for Precrime are released. While such a swift and idealistic public response is certainly possible, it is not very credible and certainly would not happen without resistance or counter argument. A commercial in the early stages of the film has people saved by Precrime give their testimonies and ends with the blunt tag line that “Precrime Works.” By the middle of the film characters are using religious language to talk about the Precrime technology with the policemen called priests and the precogs revered alomst as gods. This language lapses by the end of the film because it is not compatible with the reversal of public opinion leading to the morally idealistic ending. People don’t simply choose to disassemble their gods at the first sign of a problem. Washington, D.C. has been at or near the top of murders for a long period of time. Would people really give up the elimination of murder so easily because the cost of having it was problematic–especially when that cost is born by others with less power and privilege? Freedom is a great value, and nobody is going to get in trouble espousing it. Nobody is against civil liberties in the abstract or ideal. But safety is a great value, too, and people have oft shown themselves throughout history as being willing to sacrifice a certain measure of freedom for security (or the appearance of it). I am not arguing that such a choice is right, or that it is impossible that people would ever say “no” to the technological imperative on moral grounds, just that the witness of history as well as the film up to the very end argues that they would not do so readily. Heck, modern culture is at a point where it finds it hard to say no to technology if doing so means giving up comfort or convenience, much less a certain measure of increased security. Cultural movements also have momentum; as with the personal decisions, so too with the corporate. When you develop a habit of making certain choices (in this case capitulating to technology), you don’t give up your freedom to make contrary choices, but you do make the exercise of that freedom more difficult and therefor less likely.

[Discussion of Christian responses to the film.]

Minority Report, for all its technological advances, is, ultimately, traditionally humanist in its soul. It sees Anderton’s and society’s transformation and being as self-determined and self-decided. While I enjoyed and admired the film a great deal, I suspect it is not a film that I will want to revisit, since, unlike “great” works of art it argues for a position rather than revealing a truth. Great plots entertain us, but great ideas engage us and sustain us until their truth persuades and transforms or their limitations render them of increasingly less effect. Minority Report is a very entertaining film that flirts with greatness but does not quite achieve it.

What I Say Now

Minority Report held up well on a revisit–better, in fact, than I anticipated. In retrospect, I am also pleased with the initial review. The things that bothered me then bother me still, particularly the tonal lapses. The chase scenes, especially that of Anderton’s initial flight, strike me as even more interminable and even more needless, but the ideas still resonate.

I was particularly struck in retrospect with how false the ending comes across, even to the point of entertaining the notion that everything after Anderton’s incarceration is some sort of hallucination or dream. Perhaps it felt necessary, given the film’s skepticism about systems of incarceration, to have an innocent man placed within the system. The eleventh hour turn of Anderton’s wife into a plot agent just doesn’t scan, though, even with the overarching theme of female superiority that imbues most of the script.

A decade after Minority Report was released America is further away from the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, but the fear induced by potential terrorist attacks is used to justify the erosion of civil liberties. Indefinite detention, even of American citizens, is now the law of the land. Inevitability is a key political justification, and the speech between Cruise’s detective and a skeptical federal agent played by Colin Farrell looks absolutely prophetic.

In retrospect the end of the film is problematic not just thematically but also structurally. The terminal scene, focusing on the precogs and their release from their own kind of indefinite detention is a puzzling mix of messages with its idyllic, domestic setting and its muted emotional weariness. It’s almost as though Spielberg is searching for an ending, unwilling to tie up everything too neatly but unsure how to signal culmination in any other way.

The scene I liked best in a rewatching the film is one in which the precog, Agatha, gives the grieving parents a glimpse of an alternate future for their son. While any logic tying the act of precognition to some sort of prophetic ability to discern alternate reality stretches the suspension of disbelief to new levels, there is an emotional truth in this scene that drives the rest. In the final analysis, Anderton believes he has free will for the same reason many do; the alternative–that the hand that creates all life and directs all action is either absent or indifferent–is just too painful to contemplate.

 

 

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