Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002)

Director Steven Spielberg had been good friends with superstar Tom Cruise ever since they met on the set of 1983’s RISKY BUSINESS.  Throughout the next two decades, they were constantly on the lookout for a project to collaborate on, but could never quite settle on an idea that they both loved.  Enter MINORITY REPORT—an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story that originally began development life as a TOTAL RECALL sequel.  It was a meaty script about a world where murder has been all-but eliminated thanks to a specialized crime division’s ability to predict a murder, resolve the suspect’s identity, and apprehend him or her before the act ever occurs.  Spielberg and Cruise immediately saw the opportunity to meld their blockbuster sensibilities with a heady, interesting story while indulging in futuristic world-building.  As it turned out, MINORITY REPORT was one of the biggest hits of 2002, and stands even now as one of the most compelling, essential films in Spielberg’s entire filmography.

The year is 2054, and Washington DC is on the cusp of voting for a national rollout of an experimental technology called Pre-Crime, which utilizes “Pre-Cogs”—mutated human beings psychologically sensitive to killing who can see into the future—to stop murders before they happen.  Heading up this elite set of future cops is Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the best operative the division has ever seen.  His ability to suss out and identify the hazy, tangential aspects of the PreCogs’ visions is unparalleled.  However, his motivation comes from a dark, secretive place: a desire for catharsis after his young son was abducted from a swimming pool several years ago.  He has thrown himself into his work, forsaking his wife and his health.

As the vote to take Pre-Crime national looms, intense scrutiny of the program arrives in the form of Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a government auditor with extreme reservations about the ethics involved in arresting would-be murderers without them actually committing any crime.  When none other than John Anderton himself shows up as a future murder culprit, the well-respected chief must flee from his former colleagues.  Thinking that Danny has set him up, John abducts one of the Pre-Cogs, Agatha (Samantha Morton) so he can figure out who framed him and clear his name, all the while going against the very system that he spent so much of his work and beliefs fighting for.

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As the publicly virtuous, privately-conflicted pre-crime chief John Anderton, Tom Cruise does what he does best: leading a blockbuster film by running his heart out.  The role is much grungier than the sort Cruise typically goes for, and requires him to go very dark in several instances.  Cruise does a great job with the material, taking what could be a relatively bland protagonist and making him compelling.  Farrell fares just as well as the skeptical bureaucrat Danny Witwer.  He’s a worthy adversary to Anderton, almost a dark mirror image in every way.  This was an early, breakout performance for Farrell, evidenced by the fact that he manages to constantly steal the scenery away from Cruise (no easy feat) with his cocky, gum-smacking delivery.  Samantha Morton gives a haunting performance as Agatha, the most gifted Pre-Cog of the three in existence.  When submerged in the milky substance that facilitates the reading of her brain signals, Agatha is something like an emotion-less oracle figure, but once freed from her shackles and let out into the real world for the first time, she’s vulnerable, frail and weak.  She reacts like a child, terrified and overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the outside world.

Notable members of the supporting cast include Max Von Sydow, Neal McDonaugh, and Peter Stormare.  Sydow plays Director Lamar Burgess, the paternal head of Pre-Crime, and mentor to John Anderton.  Sydow’s Lamar Burgess is a compelling character, with one of the more unexpected twists in recent memory.  McDonaugh plays Fletcher, Anderton’s second in command, proving his great range with a conflicted performance that must wrestle between duty to justice and duty to friendship.  Stormare, who previously performed for Spielberg in 1997’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, plays Dr. Solomon Eddie.  Eddie is a grungy, black-market eye surgeon, and Stormare revels in the utter ickiness of the character.  He’s directly responsible for one of the most sickeningly realistic sequences in the film, and an example of where Spielberg’s decision to pursue an “ugly” aesthetic finds validation.

Right off the bat, MINORITY REPORT establishes itself as one of the most visually dynamic films that Spielberg has ever made.  Working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Spielberg employs the bleach-bypass exposure process to create the film’s highly-stylized look.  The effect, in Spielberg’s words, is that the film looks like it was shot on chrome.  The black are super crushed, blown-out highlights flare with wanton abandon, grain is exaggerated, and a steely cobalt hue soaks the image.  The rest of the color spectrum is highly desaturated, save for bold pops of dark red for effect.  The monochromatic look, combined with Kaminski’s signature low-key lighting style, gives the film a futuristic noir-vibe.

Spielberg’s camerawork is down and dirty, in the tradition of 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  A mix of handheld movements, canted angles, and 90 degree shutter speeds are employed to communicate Anderton’s chaotic disorientation.  However, Spielberg isn’t afraid to also use his traditional swooping crane shots to show off the enormous scale of the world he’s created.  This grim and gritty aesthetic is complemented by editor Michael Kahn’s participation, most notably in the opening sequence depicting a fractured vision of a husband murdering his unfaithful wife.  The scene is rendered in an unconventional style that wouldn’t be out of place in the work of experimental vanguard Stan Brakhage.  Despite his relative inexperience in this arena, Spielberg’s embrace of avant-garde techniques is highly indicative of his late-career desire to push the boundaries of his own artistic expression.

MINORITY REPORT’s most potent imagery lies in the incredible production design of Alex McDowell, who previously art directed David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB in 1999.  To conjure up an all-encompassing vision of 2054-era America, Spielberg and McDowell assembled a think tank comprised of the world’s most prominent industrial personalities and futurist thinkers.  Their key approach was different than conventional visions of the future, in that it conservatively extrapolated how technology would evolve fifty years from now, and how it would alter our daily lives.  The result is a world that feels at once both familiar and exotic—a future that we would aspire to live in, despite a pervasive police state.

Product placement is a key part of the story.  While Spielberg has never been shy about including it in his work before, in MINORITY REPORT he places it front and center to illustrate a realistic conceit: advertisers will always take advantage of technology in order to find new ways to shill product.  Just look at your News Feed on Facebook.  The very same eye scanners that allow for widespread police surveillance are also used to project customized ads for Lexus, Coca-Cola and even Gap (a clever little moment in a film pleasantly besieged by them), tailored directly to the individual and their prior history with the brand.

MINORITY REPORT has been more influential than perhaps any other film in its treatment of technology.  Over ten years later, the prescience of Spielberg’s assembled think tank has already become apparent.  Several of the film’s key gadgets, civic infrastructure, and innovations have become realized within our present lives in some capacity—or at the very least, are deep into the research and development phases.  One of the most striking innovations is the gesture-based computer that Anderton uses to virtually examine a crime scene.  Gesture-based computing is now a part of our life, with technology like Xbox Kinect allowing us to interact with software without the aid of traditional user interfaces like a keyboard or mouse.  There’s even a working prototype of the very same interface that Anderton uses, designed by a small tech company that hopes to employ it as the next generation of film editing.  If it ever takes off, I’ll be the first in line to try it out.  I’ve wanted that shit for years.

2002 was a busy year for musical maestro John Williams, which saw him board MINORITY REPORT relatively late in the game due to his commitments on George Lucas’ STAR WARS EPISODE 2: ATTACK OF THE CLONES.  For inspiration, Williams looked to the scores of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborator, the great Bernard Hermann.  Williams’ electronic, dissonant score is appropriately futuristic while still retaining bombastic, brassy orchestrations to drive the story.  Spielberg also continues the musical homage to his late friend and mentor, Stanley Kubrick, that began in 2001’s A.I: ARTIFICAL INTELLIGENCE by incorporating a suite of classical cues to accompany Cruise’s ballet-like maneuvering of virtual crime scenes.  But despite all this futurist imagery on display, Spielberg doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the past plays just as important a part in our daily lives.  Visually, this is signified by the famous, unaltered landmarks of Washington DC, existing in a timeless bubble while surrounded by mega-skyscrapers and gravity-defying transportation infrastructure.  Musically, this conceit is subtly reinforced by the inclusion of recognizable, old-timey tunes, such as a muzak rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” heard in a shopping mall.

On visuals alone, MINORITY REPORT doesn’t look like your typical Spielberg spiel (see what I did there? No?  I’ll show myself out).  Sure, there’s lens flares, low-angle compositions, the requisite awe/wonder shots, etc.—but the overarching style is so drastically different from anything that came before it.  Thematically, it’s highly reflective of the experimental fascinations of Spielberg’s late-era career, as well as his continuing desire to explore mature, socially important subject matter.  But the more things change, the more they stay the same.  His fascination with flight manifests itself in the futuristic choppers of Pre-Crime and the individual jetpacks that its operatives wear.  The broken home/estranged father/son dynamic is also a key part of MINORITY REPORT’s emotional arc, with Anderton unable to move past his grief over the abduction and presumed murder of his son several years ago.  He was a great father when his son was alive, but he is consumed by debilitating guilt over the fact that his son disappeared under his direct supervision.

The specter of Abraham Lincoln continues to haunt Spielberg’s filmography, and it should surprise exactly nobody familiar with his work that he would direct a biopic of the man in 2012’s LINCOLN.  A little reference to the sixteenth President is thrown in towards the beginning of the film, when a young boy cuts eyeholes in a mask of Lincoln’s face.

Spielberg’s tendency to cast other directors in his films, such as Francois Truffaut in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and Richard Attenborough in JURASSIC PARK (1993), gets a brief workout in MINORITY REPORT as well—albeit in the form of small cameos.  They both occur in the subway sequence.  VANILLA SKY (2001) director Cameron Crowe repays the cameo that Spielberg made in that Cruise-starring film by appearing as a suspicious commuter that notices Cruise on the train after his digital newspaper flashes Cruise’s wanted mug across the front page.  Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of another Cruise-starring picture MAGNOLIA (1999) apparently appears in the scene too, but he’s nearly impossible to spot.

After the disappointing reception of A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the runaway success of MINORITY REPORT was a reaffirmation of Spielberg’s dominance of the medium.  It was one of the biggest hits of the year, both critically and financially, and is generally considered to be one of the top films of its decade.  Thanks to its considered approach to the future, MINORITY REPORT also stands a great chance of not aging as badly as similarly futuristic films.  The danger of giving a film a concrete time and date in the future is to immediately date it once the chosen date passes in reality.  This happened with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)—we don’t even have Pan Am anymore, let alone interplanetary space travel—and it will happen to other films, like Ridley Scott’s 2019-set BLADE RUNNER (1982).  Conversely, the somewhat-reserved projections of Spielberg’s think tank stand a chance of actually existing come 2054.  The tech on display is based on concepts we’ve already mastered or are currently on the brink of mastering.  The innovations of scientists, thinkers, and industrialists bring us a little closer each day to the world of MINORITY REPORT.  We can interact with our computers via hand gestures, we have self-driving cars, advertising is tailored to the micro/individual level, etc.  Because the tech seems realistic and achievable, people are inspired to go out and achieve it.  Spielberg’s dystopian vision inspires us to find the utopia within.  This is MINORITY REPORT’s true legacy.

To put it mildly, MINORITY REPORT is another win in Spielberg’s column.  His mastery of big-budget spectacle is almost effortless.  Nobody does it better than him.  His desire to experiment and distinguish himself in darker, more-artistic ways only enriches his popcorn work.  And unlike many of his peers, the sea change that digital technology has brought to filmmaking has not deterred him from staying relevant and exciting.  While his adoption of CGI technology has become more involved with each picture, he hasn’t lost sight of what makes his films truly special: their heart and their soul.

 MINORITY REPORT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.

Credits:

Produced by: Jan De Bont, Bonnie Curtis, Gerald R. Molen, Walter F. Parkes

Written by: Scott Frank, Jon Cohen

Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski

Production Designer: Alex McDowell

Editor: Michael Kahn

Music: John Williams