This week, we enter into a world of pre-crime and footnotes with musicologist Max DeCurtins, who re-views Minority Report for us as part of his current research project on the use of classical music in science fiction films. We think, by the way, that Pre-Crime and Footnotes would be a really cool band name for Max, should he choose to put together a sci-fi inspired chamber ensemble.

What a year, 2002. The little kiddies got Star Wars: Episode II, the Harry Potter crazies got their second dose of pint-sized Daniel Radcliffe (little did they know that a scant seven years later they would get to see him — and at five feet five inches, only a little less pint-sized — traipse onstage in his birthday suit in Equus), Hugh Grant fans everywhere got About a Boy (check out Stevi Costa’s baller re-view), and finally, there was Minority Report.

Minority Report created a notable amount of buzz for its provocative subject, and this I know because, at some point during the 2002-03 academic year (I was a senior in high school), I participated in a group project for my AP Literature class which took the film as its focus. I imagine that Minority Report, with its portrayal of a world in which murders are prevented before they happen, but which makes for a decidedly dystopian society, must have detonated like a political sonic boom given what had happened in September of the previous year, and the actions that had followed in its wake. I can only guess now at the nature of that class project, but I can say with confidence that this here re-view you’re about to read is, without qualification, better than whatever it was I produced nearly a decade ago. Or so I hope. If not, my parents might just want their four years of UCSB tuition back.

A Good Steak, Simply Seasoned

As much as it would maybe like to pose as a philosophically provoking movie, the product, in the end, is an action flick. The action in Minority Report doesn’t disappoint, and I marvel ten years later at just how lean the movie is. Like a good steak, it merely needs some kosher salt, fresh pepper, and a quick sear on both sides. I don’t know why, but when I get analytical, I often tend to gravitate toward food metaphors. [1]

Opening with Agatha’s pre-vision of Howard Marks’ double homicide, Minority Report wastes no time in establishing its neo-noir visual aesthetic. De-saturated colors, strong backlighting, and the positioning of the camera behind the transparent computer screens, giving the viewer a potential third-party perspective on the action, all combine to make a visually compelling whole.

I find the Marks case an especially efficient opener because it serves as expository material even as it drops the viewer in medias res. It must surely count as a sign of oncoming old age — or having been through grad school — that now, as I watch Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) stroll into work — with its bustling staff and gleaming new equipment — my first instinct is to be jealous of the generous funding PreCrime clearly receives. From this early point, we are off to the races: Danny Witwer visits the Temple, Agatha grabs Anderton and shows him the murder of Ann Lively, he visits Gideon down in Containment, tells Lamar Burgess about the missing data, then comes into work the next day, only to find murder in his future.

Anderton’s character really drives the whole movie, a single-track motivation that has worked for Spielberg in the past (think Haley Joel Osment’s Pinocchio character in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, released the year before Minority Report), and here I think it reinforces the broader exploration of human fallibility that is the ultimate subject of the movie. His own fallibility drives Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow, linguistic badass and Iago-esque manipulator) to frame his longtime friend. Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith, always a sassy addition) feels such guilt for her failure to end the suffering of the precogs that she sequesters herself in a greenhouse full of GMO plants. [2]

Danny Witwer’s character, however, still seems surprisingly underdeveloped — or perhaps that’s the reading I take of Colin Farrell’s decidedly average performance. [3] His character has a highly evolved sense of morality, of right and wrong. [4] Despite his obvious control of the PreCrime team (while technically under the directorship of Lamar Burgess, the team probably doesn’t see him in the office very often), when he realizes that Anderton has been framed he fails to first recall the team from their manhunt before going to see Burgess (whom, it is implied, Witwer already suspects of having murdered Ann Lively). That always seemed like a strange decision to me.

For all its dystopian film noir-ness, Minority Report offered a sardonic look at our present of ten years ago. In the aftermath of September 2001, Americans were treated to quite a show of “patriotic” activity. Propaganda is, of course, forcibly in evidence in Minority Report, and my favorite bit comes in the scene where Anderton, outside the PreCrime building, prepares to shoot himself up with the face-fucker-upper-thingy (that, of course, being the technical term). In the background we hear the tour guide, who assures all the little schoolchildren that the precogs each get their own television and weight room (“It really is wonderful to be a precog!”).

Even the minor characters are skillfully cast. Tim Blake Nelson as Gideon delightfully resurrects aspects of the lopsided persona he inhabited in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dr. Solomon Eddie (Peter Stormare, relatively fresh from his role as the abusive drunk Serge Muscat in Chocolat) inhabits a character archetype that I would call the “casual brute,” one whose sick humor readily succeeds at being creepy. I really very much wanted Rufus T. Riley (Jason Antoon) to turn out Jewish. He’s got the Jew-fro, and he’s a total nebbish. When Anderton tells him to slow down Agatha’s prevision output, he asks: “How do I slow it down? I should hit her on the head?”

On Letting Your Meat Rest

I mentioned earlier my admiration for the film’s leanness. Returning to my steak metaphor, my main criticism of Minority Report is that, having started with a good cut of meat, and having been properly seared on both sides, it needed to rest just a little while longer to let all the juices redistribute. It’s as if everyone got so hungry during the development and production of Minority Report that they couldn’t wait, as the Brits say, to “tuck in.” Take a roast out of the oven and try to carve it immediately: your roast will gush all its juicy goodness all over the kitchen counter. Sometimes this manifests itself as lines that could have come out in post-production, such as Danny Witwer’s respect-eviscerating “Daddy’s in a lot of trouble, Sean.”

On other occasions, however, Spielberg takes the drama a little too seriously, and it trips and does a face-plant. Call it cynicism if you will, but when Agatha, framed by dramatic music, insists that “you can choose; you can choose…” in the hope that Anderton won’t murder Leo Crow, a little mental voice — disturbingly reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks — goes: “Use the Force, Luke…” or “Reeeeach…!” (Sam’s cry to Frodo at the climax of Return of the King). It’s that level of corny.

I have to take a moment to point out that Anderton and Witwer’s chase through the auto plant strikingly resembles the scene in Star Wars: Episode II (also released in 2002, also scored by John Williams, already trashed by me on this venerable blog) wherein Anakin and Padmé get thrown into the midst of a droid factory. Even Anderton getting his hand trapped inside a car component has its parallel in Anakin’s hand getting trapped by a droid component, cleaving his lightsaber in two in the process.

It recently dawned on me that Minority Report contains a glaring inconsistency that receives no mention or explanation. Early in the film Danny Witwer asks why the precogs can’t see rapes or assaults, why they see only murder; Fletcher offers the answer that the nature of murder gives it unique metaphysical weight. Anderton ends up kidnapping Agatha, a scenario so worrisome to Wally that he confesses to Witwer that it takes all three precogs for their predictive abilities to work. Almost immediately after the kidnapping, however, Agatha’s abilities suddenly broaden to make her your garden-variety clairvoyant. Agatha is at no point in the film described as having any clairvoyant ability beyond the narrow ability to see future murders. In the greenhouse, Hineman seemed to corroborate this; she remarked sarcastically that the childrens’ “gift” was their ability to predict murders. Yet in Rufus’ parlor Agatha warns Anderton that his erstwhile colleagues have come calling; she navigates, to the sweetly depressing strains of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, through the shopping mall with Anderton, pointing out every step he needs to take to avoid capture (and tells a woman who looks very much like an uncredited cameo by Lucy Liu that her husband knows she’s having an affair). When the brief chase ends, we realize that all this leads to the run-up to the Leo Crow murder, but I’m not ready to chalk it up to a “pre-prevision.”

It’s far too easy to ascribe, or want to ascribe, more importance to the questions of free will vs. determinism raised by Minority Report than the film actually does itself. After all, most of us grad students are a wool blanket and a tattered backpack (containing a tattered copy of Turabian) away from sitting out on the street with a sign reading: “will problematize for food.” But the film’s critics have a decent point in that it doesn’t quite deal with the philosophical issues it poses, a lacuna that might have been filled by an Aaron Sorkin-esque discussion of exactly how PreCrime doesn’t violate the Constitution, an ex ante facto counterpart to the prohibition against ex post facto liability. I’d be down for that. I loves me some Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.

In the end, I tend to view the metaphysics as an interesting lens through which to frame an Orwellian whodunit. I don’t feel particularly moved to get into the philosophical details of determinism here, especially given the extensive writing vis-à-vis the movie that already exists (check Wikipedia — and that’s just for starters). It is human fallibility that really lies at the heart of the film, and the suggestions it makes about our failures: to accept them and move on (Anderton), to take responsibility for them (Burgess), or to correct/atone for them (Hineman).

Minority Report does, however, nicely point out that there’s probably no surer sign that someone with an agenda is trying to sell you an idea than an absolute belief in said idea. The idea may itself prove sound, or it may not. The only way to find out is to question. This is a lesson always worth learning (and re-learning), and so makes Minority Report well worth watching, even ten years later.

The Musicologist Strikes Again

Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti
So far tranquillo ogni turbato core,
Et hor di nobil ira, et hor d’amore
Posso infiammar le più gelate menti.

I am Music, who in sweet accents
can calm each troubled heart,
and now with noble anger, now with love,
can kindle the most frigid minds.

–from the Prologue to Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (published 1609)

Now comes the part where, though you have already suffered through my voluminous re-view, I ask you to read just a little more so that the musicologist in me has a chance to speak. It’s particularly difficult to articulate thoughts about music (as Leonard Bernstein famously wrote), and even more difficult in relation to a visual medium like film. Music doesn’t have the easily-understood vocabulary that visual description has, nor the mainstream acceptance of movie jargon, and the decimation of anything resembling widespread public music education hasn’t helped matters. Everyone knows what backlighting is, or what a wide-angle shot looks like. Considerably fewer people will understand terminology such as “leading-tone suspension” or “countersubject,” or catch a reference to the “Second Viennese School.” The musical kaleidoscope of Minority Report boasts, however, an array of elements too rich to ignore. These elements fall into two main groups: the heavy use of diegetic classical music (music perceived by the characters within the movie), and John Williams’ highly atypical score.

The curious abundance of classical music in Minority Report leaves me wondering what exactly this music is doing in a futuristic setting, given the epidemic ease with which classical music has been declared insurmountably elitist and dead or dying for the better part of a century now. Classical music is doomed, right? So why does it turn up in the future, sometimes centuries from now? Minority Report isn’t the only reason to ask this question. Those who know A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Firefly, and The Fifth Element know that classical music has a role to play in all these imagined futures.

The classical excerpts in Minority Report notably draw on the most recognizable melodies of their respective works.[5] Moreover, all are short excerpts that avoid the developmental sections of those works. [6] The second time we hear the Schubert and the Bach — the obbligato string part of which has become more famous than the liturgically-salient chorale tune — we hear the same melodies as before, as if to say that these works are only as long as their famous themes.

It would be nice to ascribe some interesting connection between the classical works and the world of the movie, but it would be pure speculation, for as James Oestreich explains: “in keeping with standard Hollywood practice, he [John Williams] had no hand in selecting most of the ‘source music,’ as such extraneous pieces are called.” [7] Is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony — a work of only two movements, as opposed to the expected four — a nod to the question of the mutability of the future? Is the “three-legged” waltz in 5/4 from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony — a pièce de résistance of the composer’s oeuvre premiered just days before his death — representative of a world off-balance, or merely a touch of the absurd while Anderton gets high in his messy apartment? Who can say? Gideon offers a mundane explanation with regard to the Bach: “The music relaxes the prisoners.” He plays not because the music is beautiful, but because it keeps the system in check. A similarly banal explanation lies behind the Haydn that wafts through Hineman’s greenhouse: John Williams notes that “it seemed to me to be the kind of thing a woman like this would play on the radio.” [7]

Think of how Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, or any other composer of the Western canon gets used now: commercials, “make-your-baby-smarter” compilations, montages in TV shows and movies. Think also of current governmental attitudes toward arts organizations around the world: wasteful spending. Unlike Firefly or Star Trek, Minority Report’s future takes place in 2054, within a half-century of our present. The appearance of classical music in this superficial format proves so jarring, and is worth mentioning, because we’re not that far off from living this future right now.

In Which John Williams Surprises Us All

So, clearly, I have a thing with John Williams. I can’t say why, exactly, and I don’t spend enough time watching movies specifically for their scoring that I’d have cause to think about it frequently. I’d forgotten over the course of the last decade what a bumper crop of movies John Williams scored in 2002. Minority Report slyly slips past immediate identification because it seems as though Williams has gone out of his way not to sound like himself.

I imagine it must be somewhat frustrating to be John Williams. He’s written a fairly substantial body of concert art music, the entirety of which more or less languishes in obscurity. Yet, he can’t leverage the film platform to get the art music the performance it doesn’t get in the concert hall. In some ways, Minority Report almost feels like an attempt by Williams to infuse some of his art music into his scoring.

This score must surely count as one of Williams’ least Wagnerian. Yes, leitmotivs still have a role to play, but the score no longer feels like a fast-paced pastiche; for once Williams seems to have dared to slow down, and made greater effect with less force. Sometimes, he even flirts with un-pitched underscoring — a musical counterpart to the de-saturated color palette of the film.

In some places, such as the coda that details what happens after Lamar Burgess’ suicide, the music waxes ever so slightly neo-Barber and even brings to mind wisps of Nico Muhly’s 2008 score for The Reader. Samuel Barber has entered mainstream culture on sole account of his Adagio for Strings — you’ll know it from Amélie, when she watches news of her own funeral — though actually this musical passage near the end of the film more closely resembles Barber’s lesser-known Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a work which itself evokes a simpler place, if not a simpler time. And simpler music is precisely what John Williams has accomplished here. He actually manages to write an interesting line (in the violas) lengthy enough to be heard, and he keeps the accompaniment simple, with oscillating notes in the second violins/violas and lush seventh-chord harmonies supported by cello and double bass.

What’s perhaps most striking about this musical passage is how contrapuntal it is; nobody’s playing fluffy filler (which plagued especially Williams’ scores for the early Harry Potter films), and each part is made interesting through its line or timbre (note, for example, the sudden prominent appearance of the horn, a noble instrument otherwise missing from the rest of the score). While obviously not contrapuntal in the way we expect of Josquin, Palestrina, or Bach, this musical passage undeniably exudes a sense of line-driven polyphony, a sound so refreshing to hear in a movie score that I find myself craving even more of it. The scoring of the initial end credits briefly resurrects the great Romantic piano concerto slow movement (think especially of the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto) in a 20th-century tonal idiom, an altogether surprising musical turn. All in all, I find myself decidedly impressed with Williams’ score: highly effective with a minimum of triteness. It is the perfect kosher salt and fresh pepper to season the high-quality steak that Minority Report offers us to savor.

[1. In fact, in a paper I once wrote for a graduate seminar taught by one of the world’s preeminent Bach scholars, I described an early sixteenth-century motet as “more like consommé than demi-glace.” True story.]

[2. We might note that plants, unlike narco-babies, don’t talk back. So does Hineman really feel guilty, or has she just found a more helpless experimental subject?]

[3. Anderton refers to Witwer early on as a “twink cop.” “Twink” is a colloquial term for a young gay man of slight build, a truncation of “Twinkie,” implying someone with a beautiful exterior but no substance.]

[4. When he goes off on his little speech about the precogs “giving us hope of the existence of the Divine,” how many of us academics felt a guilty flash of recognition? That’s right, raise your hand. Yes, I mean you.]

[5. The works in question are: Bach’s chorale Jesu bleibet meine Freude from Cantata BWV 147, the minuet from Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 64 No. 1, the first movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.]

[6.After the pleasantly lopsided waltz melody of the Tchaikovsky, for example, comes a much more angst-ridden section that provides a necessary counterbalance to the initial waltz; the two themes then combine later in the movement, in one of Tchaikovsky’s more skillful moments. This angst-y second theme occurs quite prominently in an early scene in the film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1987) in which Maurice and Clive bond over an evening at the player-piano. Also check out Maurice if you want to see a very young Hugh Grant, in only his second film appearance.]

[7. James R. Oestreich, “Schubertizing the Movies.” New York Times, June 30, 2002.]

[8. Ibid.]