Minority Report at 20: How Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise envisioned our problematic present in a not-so-distant future
(from left) Samantha Morton as Agatha and Tom Cruise as John Anderton in Minority Report.
Twenty years after its theatrical release in June 2002, the futuristic thriller Minority Report remains an intriguingly immersive and remarkably prescient blockbuster. Minority Report was the first Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise film (the director and star collaborated again on 2005's War of the Worlds) and garnered wide audience attention, grossing nearly $400 million at the box office, a huge taking for the a movie back then.
But it wasn't just the star power of the Spielberg-Cruise pairing that drew moviegoers. Adapted from Philip K. Dick's story of the same name, the film worked its themes of invasive technology and constant surveillance in 2054 into a story that resonated in 2002 - and will continue to resonate in 2022 as we continue to engage with technology deal with pervasive and all too often insidious influence.
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Minority Report's ambitious vision of the future, with sets designed primarily by Alex McDowell (The Crow, Watchmen) in collaboration with director Steven Spielberg and an expert forge, set a distinctive tone for the film. The future was constructed as a collage of neo-noir and modernist aesthetics: blue-toned streets at night, hauntingly reflective holographic displays, sleek omnidirectional cars, and highly eerie, constant eye scanners – reminiscent of our own cellphones and laptops – in pursuit every person in Washington D.C.
The screenplay, which was adapted by Jon Cohen and rewritten into a character play by Scott Frank (Logan, Queen's Gambit, Out Of Sight), was developed separately from the design of the film's world. The result is a stunning cinematic portrayal of how gross invasion of privacy has become an irrevocable, inescapable facet of American society.
Tom Cruise, (future) crime fighter
Cruise plays John Anderton, a high-ranking officer in Washington D.C.'s Precrime Division, an experimental and well-funded police corporation looking to expand nationwide. Three imprisoned psychics known and sometimes revered by society as Precogs witness visions of murders before they happen. The program was so successful that first degree murder in D.C. belongs to the past. Now the precogs only see crimes of passion; Visions triggered by the emotional intensity emanating from spontaneous killings. These visions are then viewed by Anderton, whose conductor-like haptic gestures rewind, fast-forward, and pan the visions through opaque glass that reflects the sterile, desaturated faces of himself and his colleagues.
Our initial exposure to this process is from three perspectives in the opening scene. First we observe the lead Precog, Agatha (a poignant, sinister Samantha Morton)'s vision of a man murdering his wife and her lover with scissors. Next, Anderton and his team match Agatha's vision with public records to triangulate the murder scene. Spielberg then alternates the present scenes of Anderton's search with scenes in the presence of the expected killer as he gradually picks up the breadcrumbs that reveal his wife's infidelity.
The dramatic and temporal irony in these scenes reflects the manner in which Anderton is initially disconnected from the world in which he lives. By exposing viewers to the perspective of this would-be killer, the world ensnares them in the possibility of him getting hurt. Agatha's vision is not necessarily set in stone, and the discrepancy between Anderton's dramatic view and this man's conflicting view of Anderton's world raises doubts as to whether or not he really would have killed his wife.
John Anderton (Tom Cruise) uses precognitive vision to solve a crime before it happens.
The emotional limits of limitless technology
Anderton's ignorance of the surrounding perspectives and belief in the dystopian system are fueled by his grief and exacerbated by his addiction to illegal synthetic drugs. While high, he watches specially ordered holographic videos of his presumed dead son Sean - who was kidnapped at a public swimming pool while he was watching - and his estranged wife Lara (Kathryn Morris). Anderton, whose personal life is an indigo veil of retrospective pain, is unable to see beyond what is initially presented to him by both the Precogs and his duplicitous partner and mentor Lamar (played with disarming mischief by Max von Sydow). , the director of the Precrime unit. It is only when the world comes crashing down on Anderton and the Precogs' vision shows him as a murderer that he loses the ability to exercise his power over others and is consequently challenged to see the fascist implications of his predeterminist perspective.
In Minority Report, invasiveness—personal and otherwise—is a given. During Anderton's desperate efforts to prove his innocence, Spielberg's camera (in collaboration with the keen eye of cinematographer Janusz Kamińsky) captures Anderton's unreasonable demands on this world. As he fends off the jetpack-wielding staff he's trained and ordered to take him in, he makes life miserable for any civilian who stands in his way. Anderton smashes his attackers through a window while one family is preparing dinner, then hurls the attackers through another family's dining table upstairs. He escapes at the expense of others' privacy. Anderton maintains his delusion of innocence and insists on running away, unaware of the disruption he is causing in the lives of those around him.
This scene is later mirrored when Anderton becomes even more desperate. After realizing his every move is being tracked by the eye scanners that D.C. monitor, he hires the underground network from whom he buys drugs to have his eyes replaced with someone else's. While he recovers from the surgery, Anderton's colleagues use a cadre of spider-like drones to search for him, scanning the eyes of everyone in the apartment complex where he is hiding. In a virtuoso overhead one-shot, Spielberg follows how the persistent spider drones interrupt people in their most private moments (a couple having passionate sex, a taciturn man sitting on a toilet) to scan their eyes and verify their identity confirm everything before the crawling bots are finally approaching Anderton.
The camera's expanded perspective hints at Anderton's evolving perspective: by literally seeing the world through another person's eyes, Anderton places himself in a more vulnerable position, that of a civilian. Just as the Norse god Odin sacrificed his eye to see Ragnarok, the end of the world, Anderton is now better privy to the dangers of weaponizing premonitions to invade the intimacy of others.
Samantha Morton as Agatha in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report.
A police officer wakes up from the perspective of a criminal
These are the moments when the intersection of Minority Report's imaginative world and story feels most compelling; when the design of the world pushes Anderton through a physical wrestler, wearing him down to the point where he can see the ramifications of his actions. Beaten up and literally deformed by an enzyme disguising his face, Anderton kidnaps the precog Agatha in search of his minority report - the alternate version of the future Agatha sometimes sees - as proof he will not commit murder. But in pursuit of that goal, he becomes more open to the suffering of others in his world and gradually reveals the truth about Agatha, whose mother was killed by Anderton's mentor Lamar to preserve the Precrime program.
John never gets the minority report he wants from Agatha. She instead helps remind him that he has a choice; that the mercy he was unable to show to those arrested, the foreknowledge of his own murder, is also the possibility of making a different decision. Though Anderton chooses not to be a murderer—at least not intentionally—the film moves to a resolution where Anderton works with Agatha and Lara to uncover the crime that gave birth to the Precrime program. Lamar commits suicide, Precrime is resolved, Anderton reconnects with his wife, who becomes pregnant again, and the Precogs are allowed to spend the rest of their lives in a cabin far from other humans' chaotic futures.
Before all of that, however, Agatha delivers another unexpected minority account, a vision triggered by the love she feels in Anderton and Lara's prodigal son's room, and a touching counterpoint to the emotions of anger and despair that her visions of Commit crimes with passion. John loudly admits how much he misses his son and bonds with Agatha, who reflects/reveals that her mother was murdered because she wanted Agatha back after abandoning her due to drug addiction. He asks Agatha to tell him who killed her mother. She yells for John to run, but it's too late. He is captured and imprisoned.
Tom Cruise as John Anderton in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report.
Exploring the mysteries of the third act
There is a theory that the film's third act, full of resolutions that might be gratified, is the dream of the captive Anderton. A haunting shot that closes the film's second act is the strongest evidence of this. We see John in a coma in a graveyard of glowing, floating pods, all people he locked away while he worked for Precrime. “You say you have visions,” says the amused jailer, “that your life flashes before your eyes. That all your dreams come true.” Anderton's pod descends, leaving him alone in a darkness whose only illumination is the glowing halo that keeps him unconscious.
From this point on, we never actually see Anderton escape the facility, but the film's third act seems to live up to his deepest desires; his wife is assured that he was not a murderer, justice will be done for Agatha's mother. Even Lamar, who comes closest to being a father figure, apologizes as he collapses and dies by his own hand. But if it's a dream, where is Anderton's prodigal son Sean? But admitting his grief after Agatha's account of Sean's alternate future, the unexpected but more meaningful minority account, may have opened his mind and heart to desire another resolution beyond his loss. Especially in Spielberg's sentimental hands, there's little reason not to accept the film's warm resolution. But the possibility of an even darker ending, where the villain wins and Anderton pays for his lack of perspective, is consistent with the film's sci-fi dystopia and noir roots.
Minority Report was the first of two feature films released by Spielberg in 2002, in which a main character ran frantically from the inescapable, policing influence of a larger American institution. The second was Catch Me If You Can, and running proves futile in both films. And yet both films have disarmingly positive endings. But what is remarkable about Spielberg's filmmaking is the contrast between compelling, emotionally inviting imagery that takes us to the symbolic foundations of Western society and the shadows of corruption that haunt it.
Whatever the "right" ending to Minority Report, its doomed path toward a surveillance state marches on into our current all-seeing, all-recording present. But the fact that Spielberg has historically tended toward sentimentality as one of his greatest tools makes him particularly prescient when depicting next-gen technologies; for, as Anderton demonstrates, it is the intimacy - and power - of emotion that can ultimately mark the right (or wrong) choice between seemingly preordained futures.
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