Minority Report

The following is an abridged extract from the forthcoming Citizen Spielberg.

In the summer of 2002, Steven Spielberg again explored the dystopian future he first envisioned in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) taking themes which engaged his imagination from his earliest movies into darker and more precarious territory. But unlike the largely negative popular and critical response to the earlier film, Minority Report struck a responsive chord with critics and audiences, garnering excellent reviews and quickly crossing the $100 million box-office mark. The same director whom critics earlier disparaged for creating the blockbuster mentality and infantilising the cinema now found himself hailed for going “against the grain” by challenging “the big fluff of summer” and offering “a counterpoint to…the dumbed-down standard for summer fare” (Lyman, 17). Amidst a summer season stuffed with endless car chases and mindless explosions, pale sequels and comic-book heroes, Spielberg emerged as the thinking man’s filmmaker: always recognised as having the technical skills to dazzle the eye and the narrative gifts to quicken the pulse, he was now hailed (as he was for Schindler’s List [1993] and Saving Private Ryan [1999]) for having the intelligence to engage the brain.

Author Philip K. Dick wrote the 1956 short story upon which Minority Report is based. Laid out in 36 novels and over 100 short stories, Dick’s disturbing literary worlds form the basis for ‘realistic’ movie fantasies such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990) and Screamers (Christian Duguay, 1995). Though the subject of an avid cult following, Dick attained broad, popular acclaim only after the success of director Ridley Scott’s 1982 film based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which appeared soon after the writer’s death from a stroke at age 53. Dick’s bleak, intense, often paranoid visions inevitably focus on the complexities of human memory and psychology, rather than technological gadgetry and flamboyant aliens: the brain, not the computer, remains the focus of his futuristic thrillers. As such, Dick, who called himself a “fictionalising philosopher,” fits more comfortably in the tradition of Kafka than that of Asimov, as one of those writers who turn personal paranoia into communal nightmares. In particular, his consistent motif that “humans are becoming increasingly mechanical while machines are evolving to meet them halfway” (Edelstein, 7) becomes a significant theme Spielberg examines in both A.I. and Minority Report.

Like its literary source, Spielberg’s foreboding, expressionistic film starts with an engaging plot premise – the social and personal repercussions when people can be convicted of murders before they commit them – and expands the concept into a political warning and ultimately a compelling meditation on the ancient question of whether human beings are predestined to execute certain acts or possess the free will to decide their own fates. It also maintains Dick’s tortured central character, a futuristic cop psychologically wounded from the loss of his child, addicted to illegal drugs and assigned to prevent these ‘pre-crimes.’ Simultaneously, Minority Report explores the potentially disastrous misuses of modern technology, particularly how digital manipulation can destabilise visual images permitting their abuse for ideological reasons.

Minority Report

The resulting movie functions on at least three linked levels: the personal, the political and the philosophical, each accompanied by an interlocking set of visual motifs. Stylistically, Spielberg cites the influence of master directors of film noir like John Huston, Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller and emulates their classic techniques to produce an ominous landscape of fear and foreboding: 1) complex, overly cluttered spaces that swallow up figures; 2) stark and opposing areas of light and dark that contain uncertain points of refuge and danger; 3) undiffused, low-key lighting that harshly illuminates characters; 4) great depth of field that keeps most frame elements in focus; 5) distorting, disorienting camera angles; 6) suffocating close-ups that chop off parts of the anatomy; 7) irregular, discomforting spacing between objects and characters. Such techniques allow him to capture what he characterises as “the photo-realism of film”:

We decided to put the film through a process called bleach bypass, which essentially takes all of the Technicolor out of your face and makes your face much more pale. What it does is take those happy, delightfully rosy skin tones away from people that are naturally that way and washes everything out. Then we shot some of the scenes on 800 ASA film stock which creates a kind of graininess that makes it feel more like an old film noir (Lyman 26).

These elements of noir construction create, as J.A. Place notes in her essay on film style, “a visually unstable environment in which no character has a firm moral base from which he can confidently operate” (Place 338). “You shouldn’t trust anyone,” Dr Iris Hineman (Lois Smith) tells the distraught police detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise), advice accentuated by the film’s visual style. By entering this threatening noir sphere, Spielberg creates an ideologically equivocal and inherently treacherous atmosphere that remains far more personally tangled, politically duplicitous and morally relative than in many of his previous films.

This destabilisation appears in particular through one recurring visual and thematic motif: water. Minority Report is awash in images of water on every imaginable level. To cite just the most obvious, Agatha (Samantha Morton) and the other Pre-Cogs transmit their visions of future crimes while floating in pools of nutrient–enhanced water; the water sprinkler in the Marks’ front lawn rotates throughout the crime sequence; the Sprawl is filled with puddles and often seen through rain showers; Lara’s hologram image wants Anderton to “watch the rain” with her; Anne Lively (Jessica Harper) is drowned in a lake; Anderton and Agatha leave the shopping mall in a downpour; Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith) waters her exotic plants as she converses with the frustrated Anderton; Anderton and his now-pregnant wife Lara (Kathryn Morris) watch the rain outside the windows in their final scene; and the Pre-Cogs eventually live in a cabin alongside water. When Anderton seeks to escape from the surveillance ‘spiders,’ he immerses himself in a bathtub filled with ice water, though a single air bubble betrays him to the invading horde of mechanical spies. Most crucially, Anderton loses his young son while underwater: playing “how-long-can-you-hold-your-breath” with Sean (Spencer Treat Clark) at a public pool, he sinks to the bottom and, when he resurfaces, finds the child gone, abducted by an unknown and never-found kidnapper. In an ironic reversal of traditional baptism symbology, he emerges from the pool a different man, one reborn not into spirituality but into emotional pain. While present in the idyllic settings surrounding both Lara’s house and the Pre-Cogs’ cabin, water functions more as scenery than substance; elsewhere, it obscures clear sight, particularly when Anderton’s son is stolen and more pivotally in the ambiguous visions of the Pre-Cogs. As such, water functions as both positive and negative imagery throughout the movie, a component of meditative creation or psychological destruction.

The film’s second level is the political, and Spielberg once again taps into a sensitive communal nerve. Though conceived, shot and edited long before the current crisis in domestic security spawned by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers, Minority Report hit movie screens at a time when questions about how much personal liberty Americans were willing to sacrifice for the promise of public security stimulated an ongoing national debate. Can we trust the FBI and the CIA to exercise appropriate restraints, to monitor only those who endanger our safety and not those who hold unpopular opinions, if given greater power to patrol our lives? Will President Bush’s and Tom Ridge’s Department of Homeland Security prevent violent activities or routinely engage in unjustified surveillance of our personal lives? Does the former justify the latter? It is also a time when, while ethicists debate the ramifications of the latest scientific findings about genetic predispositions, prisons throughout the United States contain people arrested because the government suspects they would have committed future crimes.

Minority Report

Minority Report offers a sobering scenario of how dangerous it is to exchange individual freedoms for governmental assurances. A dire warning lies at the heart of the film: because human beings create and control the necessary machines, as well as the system that employs them, no safeguards can infallibly shield citizens from violence. Even more importantly, all mechanisms, however sophisticated and refined, remain open to human interpretation and, by virtue of that fact, such devices are inherently susceptible to corruption and misuse. The cynical Witwer (Colin Farrell), though he misjudges his true enemy, understands this: “The flaw is always human,” he tells Anderton. Spielberg beautifully illustrates this fatal flaw via layered visual constructions that mesh with his narrative. The Pre-Cogs, called “pattern recognition filters” by one officer, project images of future crimes, drawn from their tortured consciousness, onto the tripartite, screen-like apparatus attached to their temple’s ceiling. From there, the images get transferred onto a transparent video screen where Anderton, using specially designed gloves, manipulates the colliding image fragments, ultimately orchestrating them (to the strains of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”) into a coherent narrative.

Thus, the Pre-Cogs function as authors – or at least transmitters or channellers – of the text, the images as the physical text itself and Anderton as its reader, the one called upon to fashion the disjointed images into a coherent story, identify the scene and prevent the crime. Because the meaning of these narratives inevitably shifts from reader to reader, as Spielberg demonstrates throughout the film, governmental actions based on those constructed patterns rest on a shaky foundation of interpretive selections. The images themselves flash so quickly onto the ceiling screens that an immediate, accurate understanding of their meaning is never possible. Also open to question is whether or not each Pre-Cog projects identical scenes: do they see the same angles, events, sequences and outcomes simultaneously? (Viewers finally discover this is not always the case, since “minority reports” provide alternate endings.) Only after slowing down the rapid images, and then re-arranging them into a seemingly logical narrative configuration of cause and effect, does the government take action. But the apparently precise montages sutured together by Anderton prove inherently ambiguous, a series of actions open to competing interpretations despite their ostensible clarity. As numerous theorists have demonstrated, a viewer’s subjective positioning always colours both the individual reception and interpretation of visual images: we inevitably see what we have been trained to understand and, sometimes, what we want to see (as does Anderton’s nemesis Witwer). All the variables which constitute one’s personal and social identity determine how, and even what, one sees.

The importance of this admonition becomes evident as Anderton, who initially places total faith in the system, ultimately learns its limitations by becoming its victim. The Pre-Cogs project him killing a man, Leo Crow (Mike Binder): he points his gun, fires it at close range, and blasts a man out of the window, all the while being watched by a third man from the outside of the high-rise building. But, when the murder actually occurs in real-time, a set of previously unrecognised circumstances totally change Anderton’s (and the viewer’s) perception of what occurs: the man looking from outside the building is actually a painted figure on a billboard, another ad not a witness; the crime scene proves a false set-up purposely designed to enrage Anderton; the man shot is not a kidnapper but a criminal who agrees to be killed; Anderton chooses not to shoot the man he thinks killed his son; it remains uncertain who ultimately pulls the trigger. Therefore, the series of images/events reconstructed from the Pre-Cogs’ original vision, and now deemed sufficient to arrest Anderton and send him into the Hall of Containment for the remainder of his life, ultimately conceals serious discrepancies between the reassembled interpretation and the actual events. Spielberg forces us to speculate about how many other “criminals” suffered through similar false readings: incarceration by misinterpretation. Add to this the fact that we, as viewers, watch these two “movies” with sometimes more and sometimes less information than the characters on the screen, and all sorts of questions about the complexities of spectatorship, the shifting truth of images, and the inherent subjectivity of visual information immediately arise.

Thus, Minority Report fundamentally questions our sight: How does one see? What does one see? How do we understand what we see – or think we see? The film’s very first image is blurred and unrecognisable, only slowing evolving into a distorted kiss between characters we cannot identify. As with water, the film incorporates a vast array of spoken references to and pictorial emphasis on eyes. In the opening sequence, for example, the “pre-criminal” Howard Marks (Arye Gross) returns home for his glasses (“You know how blind I am without them”), only to find his wife (Ashley Crow) in bed with another man. Earlier his son plunges a pair of scissors through the eyes of a cardboard picture of Abraham Lincoln, the same instrument Howard later attempts to drive into his unfaithful wife’s eyes. The drug dealer who sells Anderton his narcotics has no eyes so he cannot be identified. “Can you see?” Agatha asks Anderton several times throughout the film, a physical as well as metaphysical question. “The eyes of the nation are upon us,” Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) tells Anderton in warning him about the upcoming vote on the Pre-Crime Unit. When the cops search for Anderton and Agatha, they “have got their eyes on them.” One set of exotic flowers in Hineman’s greenhouse are called “Doll’s Eye,” and, most importantly of all, the “mother of Pre-Crime” informs Anderton that, “in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.” The entire population in the year 2054 experiences repeated retinal scans, this sophisticated verification procedure functioning as both surveillance apparatus and consumer inducement: a citizen’s identity is checked numerous times throughout the day, while manufacturers personally target him/her (through the eyes) to buy an array of products. In the future, the eyes are less the window to the soul than the path to the check book – or to jail. Such intrusions merely refine already existing devices now routinely used at airports and received via email. Spielberg, however, takes them to oppressive levels: when government agents search for Anderton, they release swarms of tiny, robotic “spiders” which leap onto the faces of innocent citizens and force them to endure retinal scans. The resulting scene is a visual tour-de-force. Spielberg sets up his camera initially looking steeply downward into all the compartments of the tenement building and then, dipping and darting, it dashes along with the spiders from room to room as they visually interrogate its helpless inhabitants: frightened children, a couple making love, another man and woman fighting, an old man sitting on the toilet. None can find sanctuary from the government’s intrusive, and ultimately oppressive, tactics.

Minority Report

On a more literal level, Spielberg incorporates macabre humour within various scenes involving eyeballs. In an extended, creepy sequence, Anderton hires an unsavory, criminal surgeon (Peter Stormare) to remove his own eyeballs and replace them with a new set, one that will allow him to pass undetected through the ubiquitous retinal scans. Tied down, drugged, and eyes clamped open in a scene which overtly references A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) – another film about society’s attempt to stop criminal violence – a terrified Anderton belatedly realises that his vision rests in the grimy hands of a once prominent plastic surgeon he sent to prison for setting his patients on fire so he could ‘cure’ their burns. Blindfolded following the operation, able to feed and relieve himself only by pulling on ropes which lead to rancid food and a filthy toilet, the detective faces the prospect of literal blindness to accompany his metaphorical state. In a weirdly comic moment, Anderton desperately chases after his removed eyeballs as they careen down a hallway, only to watch one fall through a grate. Though he survives, Anderton never looks at the world in the same way: the veil of certainty which surrounded his faith in the Pre-Cogs has been ripped away, replaced by a tattered and uncertain cloth which reveals the world as a more ambiguous and less trustworthy place. In a literal sense, to pun on the film’s title, Anderton now views the world from the perspective of a member of an ethnic “minority” – Mr. Yakamoto, the Asian whose eyes have been substituted for his own.

This repeated use of eye imagery throughout Minority Report leads to the film’s third, and most philosophical, level: the age-old argument about whether human being possess free will or whether their actions are predestined by some higher power. Such debates are as ancient as Oedipus Rex (the drug dealer with empty eye sockets seems an modern counterpart of Tiresius, Sophocles’ blind prophet) and as modern as the controversies swirling around the Human Genome Project. They are found in virtually every religious conceptualisation, play a significant part in great and small literary works, and rest at the heart of endless philosophical speculations. Spielberg gives voice to this debate via an extended dialogue between two of his central characters, Anderton and Justice Department Agent Danny Witwer, the man sent to investigate the Unit and, if it goes national, to replace Anderton. Initially, Anderton defends the fundamental philosophy of stopping crime before it happens, while Witwer asserts that “It’s not the future if you stop it.”

Does knowing what the future holds automatically change it? As the plot progresses, both men shift their positions on this question. Witwer sees the Pre-Cogs’ images of Anderton murdering a man and goes after him solely on that basis, never realising that his interpretation arises from what he wants to see rather than what actually transpires. His lack of clear vision causes his death. Anderton learns that the Pre-Cogs don’t always agree, that a so-called “minority report” can exist which provides an alternative version of future events. Pinning his hopes on such a 2–1 decision, he captures Agatha to prove his innocence, only to discover the verdict was unanimous in his case. In answering this conundrum about free will vs. predestination, Spielberg has it both ways, via sleight of camera movements. “You can choose,” Agatha tells Anderton as he faces Crow. Yet the future acts projected by the Pre-Cogs literally transpire: though Anderton doesn’t assassinate anyone, a man still dies. (On a whole other level, nothing “real” ever happens because everything the audience views is an elaborate illusion, literally pieces of celluloid passing in front of a light source that our imaginations endow with power and meaning.) Ironically, therefore, Anderton’s decision to overcome his rage and refrain from killing the man he thinks kidnapped his son – the most profoundly ethical decision in the film – results in his moral rebirth but not in any alteration of the predicted concrete actions.

Minority Report is the least overtly religious of Spielberg’s science-fiction films. Though the Pre-Cogs inhabit a room called the ‘temple’ and Witwer compares their work to priests rather than law enforcement personnel, Anderton forcefully rejects this notion as an inappropriate description of their responsibilities. Ironically, he fails to recognise that his absolute faith in the Pre-Cogs visions of the future amounts to a zealous defense of a particular belief system. As will be demonstrated repeatedly throughout the movie, Anderton must go blind before he can see; he must lose his way in the darkness before he can find a light which will lead him to personal redemption and political reality. The film posits that uncritically trusting in any system whatsoever inevitably leads to disastrous consequences. When Anderton becomes a criminal in the eyes of the state, he finally understands that the nature of truth always remains subjective, vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. Skepticism, rather than doctrinaire conviction, provides the only appropriate safeguard against human frailty and desire. One can choose to accept (or reject) a particular formulation of belief, be it in a higher power or the construction of the state itself, but coercion in the name of those doctrines creates oppression – not freedom. In Minority Report, therefore, salvation rests in the reconstitution of the family, not the power of the state or, for that matter, any sort of superior being or consciousness. Since the forfeiture of individual freedoms inevitably leads to miscarriages of justice and ultimately social repression, the surrendering of our liberties in a quest for security is seen as far too high a price to pay. Ultimately, then, Minority Report warns us that, even during times of wide-spread public anxiety, the motto of the Pre-Crime unit – “That Which Keeps Us Safe Also Keeps Us Free” – must be reversed: that which keeps us free also keeps us safe.

Works cited

Edelstein, David. “Philip K. Dick: Mind-Bending, Film-Inspiring Journeys,” New York Times, June 16, 2002, p. 1/7.

Lyman, Rick. “Spielberg Challenges the Big Fluff of Summer”, New York Times, June 16, 2002, Arts and Leisure, p.17.

Place, J.A. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir” in Bill Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 325-338.

About The Author

Lester D. Friedman teaches film at Northwestern University. The author of numerous books and articles, his areas of interest are post-WW II American cinema, British film in the Thatcher era, and the American Jewish Cinema. His forthcoming book, Citizen Spielberg (University of Illinois Press), categorizes the director's films into various genre groups but sees them as far more unconventional than have previous scholars.