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The Time Machine


Monday 24 June 2002

"Something Old, Something New,
Something Borrowed, Something Blue:
A Review of Minority Report"

by Gary Westfahl

Minority Report

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen
Based on the short story by Philip K. Dick
Starring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Max von Sydow

A brief review of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report would have to be positive. The film is lively and involving; despite thematic resonances with its predecessor A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg is far more in control, far more sure of himself, in bringing this story to the screen; and while the film intermittently postures as serious commentary on political and scientific issues, it can be appreciated simply as a science-fictional equivalent to Raiders of the Lost Ark, another expertly crafted adventure for the young at heart.

Yet Minority Report asks viewers to ponder the profound implications of its narrative, and experienced science fiction readers who do so may be disappointed, particularly if they recall its source material, Philip K. Dick's 1956 story "The Minority Report". Central elements of the film come directly from Dick: in the future, three "precogs" who foresee the future have been institutionally harnessed to predict crimes; a Department of Precrime then arrests criminals before they commit their crimes. A Precrime official, John Anderton, meets a suspicious new colleague named Witwer (Ed in the story, Danny in the film). The precogs identify Anderton as the future murderer of a man he doesn't know, forcing him to flee from authorities to figure out how the system has gone awry.

This little-known story is hardly a classic, and Dick himself omitted it from a collection of his best short fiction, The Preserving Machine. It is a typically slapdash effort, combining an imaginative and disturbing idea, an inadequately developed future society, and a familiar cast of smart men and a not-so-smart woman. In some respects, Spielberg significantly improves upon the story: his Anderton (Tom Cruise) and Witwer (Colin Farrell) are rounder, more realized characters; the film adds some effective eccentrics to its cast; and his Washington, D.C. in the year 2054 has a visual flair and innovative features more impressive than anything Dick describes.

However, even when Dick wasn't at his best, he displayed one admirable virtue: he never took the easy way out. If handed this scenario, seasoned science fiction writers would immediately know how the story should proceed: the hero, once an impassioned believer in the system, starts to question its merits when he finds himself in trouble. His experiences demonstrate that the system is fundamentally flawed, and an abashed society abandons this reprehensible practice and returns to old policies. This pattern, replicated in scores of science fiction stories of Dick's era, is precisely the pattern that Dick avoided, and precisely the pattern than Spielberg cannot resist.

In both Dick's story and Spielberg's film, Anderton learns that the precogs are not always unanimous in their visions; sometimes, an accusation is issued on the basis of two identical predictions while a differing "Minority Report" is ignored. Anderton then revisits the precogs to ferret out the expected Minority Report that would exonerate him. In the story, there actually was a Minority Report, ingeniously accounted for. The precogs are slightly out of synch in their times of predictions; the first correctly predicts Anderton will murder the man; Anderton learns of the prediction and changes his mind, and based on that data the second precog follows a different future timepath and correctly predicts he will not kill the man; Anderton then changes his mind again, leading the third precog to follow yet another future timepath and correctly predict the murder that finally occurs. All three reports were Minority Reports, with the first and third misinterpreted as an agreement since they predicted similar, but not identical, murders. Does this mean, according to Dick, that the whole system is bad? Not at all; as Anderton blithely explains, such discrepancies emerge only when someone learns about a prediction, so they can only affect a Police Commissioner like Anderton. Leaving the Precrime system intact and functional, Anderton warns his successor to be careful and retires.

Dick was open-minded enough to cautiously embrace the notion that imprisoning criminals before they perpetrate crimes might be appropriate and beneficial, though he understood what Anderton terms "the basic legalistic drawback to Precrime methodology," that they are "taking in individuals who have broken no law." Spielberg cannot accept this; for him, Precrime violates both the attractive concept of free will and the ideals of American justice, so Dick's story must be reshaped to invalidate and eradicate Precrime.

This creates problems in the film's narrative, though Spielberg deals with them more artfully than in A.I. For one thing, Anderton's pivotal quest to "find the Minority Report" is only a McGuffin in the film, a device keeping Anderton in motion, since there was no Minority Report in his case; all precogs agreed he would be a murderer. Eschewing Dick's devious logic, Spielberg makes the flaw in Precrime remarkably simple. One precog repeatedly tells Anderton that "You have a choice," and he ultimately makes that choice: standing precisely as the precogs had seen him, poised to shoot his victim, Anderton instead starts to recite his Miranda rights — "You have the right to remain silent," etc. — announcing the triumph of the rule of law over insidious technology. This seemingly would serve as the film's proper climax, as Anderton's decision to not commit the murder proves that Precrime predictions are not infallibly accurate.

As A.I. woefully demonstrated, though, Spielberg isn't always good at ending his films, and the awkward and overlong concluding sequence following this scene is the weakest part of the film. Described in general terms, Anderton's intended victim ends up dying anyway, though under circumstances different than those predicted; after Witwer discovers the culprit behind the effort to manipulate Anderton into murder, he is murdered himself; Anderton is captured and imprisoned for both murders; clumsily and unpersuasively, Anderton's ex-wife independently identifies the culprit and helps Anderton escape from prison; he confronts the man, now identified by precogs as Anderton's future murderer; but the criminal also makes a "choice" to not kill him, replicating Anderton's gesture and proving a second time that Precrime is flawed.

Spielberg's film is thus simpler than Dick's story, in a negative sense, as it dismisses the idea of Precrime in a predictable manner, and it is more complicated than Dick's story, in a negative sense, as it extends the narrative beyond its logical conclusion at the scene of the predicted crime. Yet I have called it a successful film, and it will surely be embraced by today's filmgoers and analyzed by respectful scholars for years to come. However enjoyable it might be to wallow in what Spielberg does wrong, one must also acknowledge what Spielberg does right.

To explain his appeal to the masses, Spielberg is a master of exciting setpieces, and few would argue that the most engrossing sequence in Minority Report is the extended chase sequence when Anderton is pursued through downtown Washington after being labeled a murderer. It recalls similar sequences in George Lucas's Attack of the Clones, particularly in that both films place protagonists in futuristic factories imperiled by thundering machinery. While both filmmakers harbor grander ambitions, it is good to hear they are planning to collaborate on another Indiana Jones film, a project that will enable them to focus their talents on crafting one thrilling scene after another without worrying too much about What It All Means.

To explain his appeal to scholars, Spielberg has a knack for filling films with things they can notice — patterns of imagery, references to other films, portentous lines of dialogue with multiple meanings. These are not necessarily penetrating, or relevant to any overall interpretation of the film, but scholars can demonstrate how clever they are by discussing these features in the articles they must produce to earn tenure and promotion. It is a game, though, that anyone can play.

Here are some pieces scholars will assemble in their solutions to the puzzle of Minority Report. In future summaries of his career, A.I. and Minority Report may figure as the beginning of Spielberg's "Blue Period." Even more than in A.I., blue is overwhelmingly the dominant color of this film: scene after scene features persons dressed in blue walking through blue buildings. When Hineman, the woman who launched Precrime, tells Anderton that a drug will make him see "an extraordinary display of blue objects," that could be taken as a description of the entire film. As a fitting accompaniment, Minority Report is saturated with references to and images of water: the precogs are immersed in shallow water; a sprinkler splashes on the lawn of the first murderer Anderton apprehends; Anderton's son is lost while at a swimming pool; old movies that Anderton watches show his son at the beach and his wife during a rainstorm; one predicted murder is a drowning in a lake; Anderton avoids capture by immersing himself in an icy bathtub; Anderton and a precog escape hidden by an umbrella; a song heard in one scene is "Moon River"; an advertising display promotes Aquafina bottled water .... It goes on and on. While one can endeavor to relate this pattern to thematic concerns in Minority Report — fluid water representing the true nature of our futures, which are mutable rather than fixed, with a suggestion of the tradition of prophecies observed as reflections in still water — I fear there are simpler explanations. Blue is a sad color; rainy days are sad days. Anderton is sad because he has lost his son and he is being pursued as a criminal; so you tell his story with lots of blue objects, rain, and cold water. There are less obvious ways to convey sadness in films, but Spielberg rarely resists the obvious.

To visualize the issue of determinism versus free will, Spielberg conveys one side of the argument with images of puppetry, people on strings: officers arresting future criminals drop from the sky on wires, and when Anderton is blinded, he must rely on strings tied to his arms to find his way to the kitchen and bathroom. There is also a provocative remark from Anderton's mentor Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), "You don't choose the things you believe in. They choose you." To suggest freedom of choice, he borrows imagery from games of chance involving randomly moving spheres, the balls that pop up with winning lottery numbers and marbles in roulette wheels. The names of predicted murderers and victims are engraved on balls that roll down spiral tubes. To display the reasoning behind Precrime, Anderton sends a ball rolling around a circular platform which a skeptical colleague catches — because he knew it was going to fall, even though it never actually fell. Future traffic is controlled by automatically moving cars down ramps that resemble funnels for rolling marbles. When Anderton drops the eyeballs that he needs to get through a security check, they go rolling down a spiraling corridor.

The eyeballs relate to another cluster of references to vision and seeing. The first would-be murderer's son pokes scissors through the eye of a cardboard Lincoln, and his father reaches for his glasses before attacking, commenting, "You know how blind I am without them." Since retinal images are the main method of identification, criminals remove and replace their eyes to avoid detection, which Anderton does at one point; a blind criminal who never replaced his eyes misquotes the proverb, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Anticipating his temporary blindness, Hineman tells Anderton, "To see the light, you have to risk the dark," and his shady surgeon says that his imprisonment was "a real education, an eye-opener." The precog hauntingly keeps asking Anderton, "Can you see?" All of this evokes the film's key issue — whether the precogs are seeing the one true future, or only a possible future.

There are references to politics — the Washington setting, the Washington Monument twice looming in the background, quotations from the Declaration of Independence used to promote Precrime in a special referendum — with hints of a special concern for civil rights. It seems absurd to argue that the film is set in 2054 to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated schools; yet the film also begins with a boy cutting out a picture of Lincoln and memorizing the Gettysburg Address, and it ends with Burgess accepting the gift of a revolver with golden bullets and explaining that it was the same gift given to generals after the Civil War. Certainly, based on plot summaries, Precrime might seem a metaphor for racial profiling, and one could view the liberation of the precogs as the end of a form of slavery. But if these were genuinely Spielberg's concerns, why did he create a film with only one African-American character, one of Anderton's subordinates, and otherwise populate his film almost exclusively with white males — an odd decision for a film set in what is and will long remain a predominantly African-American city? Overall, the political references don't quite add up to anything, as if Spielberg was striving to suggest his film had another dimension it actually lacked. One could say the same about the sporadic references to religion — the bloody mark resembling stigmata appearing on Hineman's palm, the prison overseer named Gideon who tells Anderton, "you're part of my flock now," and statements that the precogs are "deified" because they convey the "hope of the existence of the divine," that Precrime officials are "more like clergy than cops."

These paragraphs hardly list everything that note-taking scholars might mention in their essays. The names of the precogs — Arthur, Dashiell, and Agatha — refer to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie, three writers of detective stories devoted to identifying murderers. When Anderton is attacked by one of Hineman's "hybrid" plants, it leaves two bloody wounds on his neck, closely resembling the bite marks of a vampire and recalling Cruise's performance in Interview with the Vampire. The gestures that Anderton employs to manipulate images from the precogs resemble Keanu Reeves's gestures in Johnny Mnemonic; the name of criminal Rufus T. Riley recalls Groucho Marx's Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup; the credits announce that two films glimpsed in background images are The Mark of Zorro and House of Bamboo. Why? Critics with more than twenty-four hours to ponder matters will someday develop the answers.

Despite its artistry and texture, despite flaws that are less conspicuous and bothersome than those in Spielberg's other science fiction films, Minority Report remains disquieting because it ultimately seems, more often than not, relentlessly hostile toward its own futuristic visions. An emotional highlight in the film comes when Agatha, who has spent all her days observing tomorrow's murders, admits, "I'm tired of the future." Perhaps "tired" isn't the most suitable word for Spielberg himself, but he at least seems to be resisting the future, expressing a clear preference for the past. True, when Spielberg needs the future for some purpose — to get a character from point A to point B in an unusual way or threaten his hero in some spectacular fashion — he works with his special effects people to craft something suitably impressive; but when his story does not require anything futuristic, he reverts to the anachronistically traditional in his props and settings.

The film's aura of the past overwhelming the future emerges in its background music, featuring long passages of classical music as well as chestnuts from twentieth-century popular music like Billie Holiday's "Solitude" and "Moon River." There may be a singing cartoon on Anderton's cereal box, but his eating utensils and kitchen otherwise resemble what we see today; some of Hineman's plants move with unnatural speed, but her domicile is otherwise a quaint, old-fashioned greenhouse. When police officers search through an apartment building, all the rooms look entirely normal; Anderton's ex-wife lives in a modishly rustic cottage with a tricycle on the lawn; Burgess works in a stately mansion decorated with antiques. People in 2054 still wear glasses, carry handguns, and use umbrellas. More strikingly, the film's storylines involve rejecting the future and returning to the past: Anderton longs for his dead son and ex-wife, and he ultimately resurrects his past by remarrying his wife and having another child; the precogs long to stop seeing future murders, so they are allowed to retreat to a simple life of sitting in a house and reading books, interacting with the past instead of the future; American society rejects the innovative Precrime system and returns to its old ways.

It is dangerous to read films as autobiographies, but Spielberg seems the sort of person who views the future as an enjoyable place to visit and have fun, a realm of diverting toys and entertainments. When playtime is over, however, and Spielberg grows tired of the future, he seeks comfort in the old and the familiar; he longs for the landscapes of John Ford, the living rooms of Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet. Even adapting a story by a wildly iconoclastic and undomesticated author, Spielberg must contort the material to reflect his conventional, domestic values. In this respect, he resembles a majority of filmgoers, who understandably embrace his visions; yet in the midst of experienced readers of science fiction, who should be prepared for more darkness and strangeness than Spielberg ever provides, an unconditional fondness for his films should represent the Minority Report.

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books about science fiction and fantasy, most recently Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy and Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. He also writes a bimonthly column for the science fiction magazine Interzone.

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