Dystopian. Orwellian. After 15 years, Minority Report is still a both beautiful and gritty depiction of our future. Alternating between technological eye candy and the crumbling realism of urbanization, the film has a remarkable authenticity—a kind of futuristic setting that is still just familiar enough to remain plausible. Director Steven Spielberg’s vision of 2054 was surprisingly optimistic, given the warning at the heart of the story. Like many dystopias, the film weighs the costs of a safe, orderly society against the price of the freedoms it inhibits. At its center remains the complex, theoretical question of whether we are inherently flawed or our own saviors.
The Power of Vision
Minority Report’s world is predicated on the idea that the innocent man has nothing to hide. If your thoughts can indict you for crimes you haven’t committed, if you can be tracked anywhere you go by iris scans, then the only true power lies in being invisible. The Precrime Division itself is made of glass walls, suspended in air. It practically exclaims hiding is futile because all is seen anyway. Touted as a “perfect” system, Precrime relies on three Precogs, genetically altered children who can predict murder with unfailing certainty. But their visions are dark, chaotic, and fragmented. They jump forward and back in time, and often need clues teased from them by the insightful Chief Anderton (Tom Cruise). While the Precogs are practically deified, Investigator Witwer (Colin Farrell) notes, “The oracle isn’t where the power is anyway. Power has always been with the priests, even if they had to invent the oracle.” Here the film hints at its own reveal—the inherent flaws in a “perfect” system are human.
The physicality of sight is incredibly important in this world, too. The eyes might be the windows to the soul, but they are also the currency of criminals. One of the most interesting challenges of Anderton’s flight is how he able to hide in plain sight—replacing his eyes. Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith), inventor of the precognition system, tells Anderton, “Sometimes in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.” In one of the film’s more gruesome shots, Anderton clings to his removed eyeball by a sinewy thread. They are still the literal keys to his old life.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski heightens these portrayals with his use shadow and light. Anderton buys drugs from a eyeless dealer, shrouded in darkness. Again, invisibility is its own kind of power. The sprawl where Anderton undergoes his eye replacement is dimly lit and gray, a seemingly perfect place to hide until it’s invaded with iris-scanning spyder-bots. All this sharply contrasts Kaminski’s treatment of Agatha (Samantha Morton), gifted Precog and Anderton’s savior. Agatha is nearly always bathed in light. She appears ethereal in the scene in which she tells Anderton and his wife (Kathryn Morris) about their son’s would-be future, had he lived. Yet while her vision may provide some kind of comfort to the grieving parents, we know it isn’t a reality. Their son is dead. Again, this system based on sight—on infallible truths—is in fact founded on what-ifs. No one person’s vision is absolute.
Powering a Perfect System
If the technology of Minority Report seems eerily tangible, it’s because an incredible amount of work went into the formulation of nearly every aspect of its conception and design. Spielberg sequestered a team of scientists, urban planners, architects, and writers, as well as the film’s science advisor John Underkoffler, production designer Alex McDowell, and screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, in a three-day “conference” that would serve as his think tank. The group postulated what a not-too-distant future might look like in the Capital of the United States, examining everything from advances in medicine, weapons, transportation, and even art.
Some of the designs seem predicated on idealistic policy shifts. The maglev transportation system—magnetically levitating, self-driving cars—were conceived from the idea the US would end its dependence on fossil fuels. The “sick-stick,” a baton that causes victims to instantly vomit, and the recharging sonic gun were based on the idea that police would move towards non-lethal law enforcement. The maglev technology is indeed being used in Japan’s bullet trains today, but there is an obvious lack of progress towards national implementation in the US. In this way, revisiting Minority Report highlights exactly how little has changed politically in 15 years.
While we may not have jetpacks, several other concepts have proven prescient. The self-updating newspapers are available in the ubiquitous smartphones and tablets of today. While iris scanning identification exists, but has yet to become common, facial recognition is already being tested in airports. But perhaps the most familiar concept of the group’s foretelling is the targeted advertisements. According to production notes, “the gradual loss of privacy was a near unanimous prediction” by the think tank. Screenwriter Scott Frank explained, “The reason is not so people can spy on you, but so they can sell to you.” With data from your internet browsing history, store loyalty cards, and location tracking, merchants know more about your personal history and shopping habits than ever before. While this has yet to be implemented into the aggressive call-out-your-name marketing reflected in the film, it begs the question: how will another 15 years impact our privacy? Will we have any at all?
The Flaw and the Failsafe
While it’s easy to get distracted by the world Spielberg and his think tank envisioned, what makes the film so relevant after 15 years is that it ultimately remains a story about deeply conflicted characters. Witwer prophetically proclaims if there’s a flaw in the perfect system, it’s human. Anderton is a grief-stricken father, plagued with guilt over his inability to protect his own son. Should his self-medicated descent be overlooked for his ability to prevent crime? The Precogs also present a complex question of human treatment—is the sacrifice of these three individuals worth the prevention of countless murders?
Similarly, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), Director of Precrime, is complicated villain. He becomes so deeply invested in the success of Precrime, he is willing to commit murder himself. At its conclusion, Anderton asks him:
“You see the dilemma, don’t you? If you don’t kill me, the Precogs were wrong and Precrime is over. If you do kill me, you go away, but it proves the system works. The Precogs were right. So, what are you going to do now? What’s it worth? Just one more murder? You’ll rot in hell with a halo, but people will still believe in Precrime. All you have to do is kill me, like they said you would.”
While the film may resolve this paradox neatly, it does still raise the question of whether any system can truly be perfect with humans at the helm. Minority Report is relevant as ever. The enduring progression of technology means there is bound to always be a question about the costs of invention. Japan’s newest anti-terror law aims to make thought crimes a punishable offense, as it targets plotting crime, even if merely mentioned in discussion or on social media.
But if humans and their systems are inherently flawed, hopefully we are also our own fail-safe, too. One would hope that in any system, we can catch our own glitches and self-correct. Maybe another 15 years will tell us if we’re any closer.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox