Here’s another take on Minority Report from our friend Raffi Nakashian. What happens when you combine philosophy, science fiction, and Tom Cruise? This review.
If you take a peek at their respective filmographies pre-2001, it’s hard to find a movie either directed by Steven Spielberg or starring Tom Cruise that’s not only bad, but one that isn’t flat-out iconic. Between the two of them, they’ve produced some of the most recognizable contributions to cinema of the last thirty years. (Except maybe for Legend, which is odd, because that movie is awesome.)
How could the product of their first collaboration be anything but amazing? They’re each giants of their respective arts. Steven Spielberg, one of the most talented and commercially successful directors of all time! And Tom Cruise, one of the, well, most commercially successful actors of all time! Finally working together! On a science fiction movie! By PHILIP K. DICK!
The stars do align, sometimes. Minor ribbing and unusual life choices aside, Tom Cruise does make a great leading man, and the overwhelming anticipation of a Philip Dick story being adapted by Spielberg should have resulted in painful, gut-wrenching disappointment for me. It’s just a result of being too excited for something. It happened with Prometheus earlier this month, and it’s going to happen again the next time I really look forward to something being great. 2002 was, of course, the year we were all exposed to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Something about seeing Yoda pull out a tiny little lightsaber and do somersaults around an 80-year-old Christopher Lee, the horribly awkward dialogue spewing from Samuel L. Jackson’s mouth, and the “romance” between Natalie Portman and this guy that was somehow supposed to be Darth Vader was so mind-bendingly traumatic to a Star Wars fan that I could actually feel myself leaving behind the naïveté of youth, which was all that somehow shielded my 14-year-old self from recognizing how truly awful The Phantom Menace was at the time. The original Star Wars trilogy showed me how awesome movies could be, and the prequel trilogy showed me how wrong I was to expect anything to be good ever again. It was my first step into a larger world, as Obi-Wan once said. Except that that world was the world of cynicism – and as all of you who cohabitate in this terrible place know, it is not a place one can relax, stop overthinking things, and simply enjoy a movie.
My point is that I am no stranger to cinematic disappointment, and recent episodes had me bracing myself for one more. Instead, Minority Report ended up being one of my favorite movies of 2002. I’m pretty sure that by all accounts, this movie is still objectively awesome. Am I mistaken? I don’t think so… let’s find out.
I remember first being awed by the look of the film, and it still looks great ten years later. It was a bright, blue-tinted vision of the future that was simultaneously believable and fantastical. When I say bright, I mean that every light source is practically bleeding into the rest of scene. It’s a neat effect, and one that definitely lends a “sci-fi” feel to the film, but Spielberg might have gone too far in a few places.
While we’re on the visual style of the movie, I have to say that I was impressed with the way they depicted the Washington, D.C. of the future. Many visions of the future are almost too eager to leave our own world behind in favor of something shinier and dramatically different in design, a future in which we’ve bulldozed every modern structure in sight and replaced them with a sprawling skyline of alien structures made of glass and metal. Instead, there was a nice balance between the comforting, familiar architecture of places like Georgetown, and the satisfyingly future-y structures we imagine might pop up here and there fifty years from now. All of the locales mainly served as a set piece for a lot of running and jumping, but I appreciated the thought that went into making the world feel like we might actually be taking a glimpse at our future forty years from now.
Minority Report starts with a fantastic sequence in which Tom Cruise has to stop a murder from taking place. What stood out to me about this scene is not just how tense Spielberg managed to make the action, but the drama of the scene was quite moving as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better “catching her cheating” scene on film. The Lifetime Network could learn a thing or two – it’s pretty wrenching. While we’re treated to a bit of human drama, we learn everything we need to know about the reality of the world we’ve stepped into in about eight minutes – it’s the future, psychics can predict murders, and John is the guy to stop them. It’s great, efficient storytelling.
The film’s protagonist is an emotionally broken drug addict who is struggling to come to grips with the monumental tragedy that shattered his life. Not your usual set-up for what was marketed to look like a futuristic action thriller, but as my obsession with shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones has made me realize, I really like my characters to be haunted by devastating life trauma. Not because I’m a sadist that enjoys watching these characters suffer, but because it makes them unique and flawed, and allows you to really understand their motivation. There’s a moment in the film where John is placed in a situation where he has to make a choice, and I could really see him going either way. That is entirely due to his emotional state as a result of his past experiences, and it makes for very compelling drama.
That’s why I remember this movie so vividly after so many years, when it should have been a big, dumb action movie where Tom Cruise runs away from the bad guys. It would have been easy for the screenwriters to have cut out the whole drug addiction bit to make him a more conventional protagonist, but they left that in, and it’s part of the reason I remember the character’s name ten years after watching the film.
Like a lot of great science fiction, Minority Report presents an improbable “what-if?” scenario that makes us question our own values on a deeper level. Spielberg shows us a future in which psychics predict murders before they happen, and a law-enforcement system that stops it before it occurs. The whole system has a wrench thrown into it when it’s revealed that the perpetrators may choose not to act on their intensions. As a philosophy buff, this movie tickled my brain in the best way. Is it worth arresting individuals that are potentially innocent in exchange for security? Does the benefit outweigh the cost? Is the true crime the act or the intent? These questions are not abstract – our own prisons are filled with thousands of innocent people right now. It’s considered an unavoidable cost of a judicial system that, while flawed, is better than the alternative. A lot of the questions posed in this movie are ones that philosophers of law have pondered for years.
I haven’t had this much fun thinking about the philosophical themes in a movie since The Matrix – and, like The Matrix, you get to think about these questions long after you’ve enjoyed the rush of the on-screen drama.
Another question of ethics is whether it is just to hold these three psychics captive in a tub of goo against their will in order to access their visions and stop murders. A John Stuart Mill-type utilitarian might argue that the sacrifice these three make would save thousands of lives in the long run and yield the greatest amount of good for society overall. Anyone with a conscience would probably have a problem with state-sanctioned slavery. The movie addresses this in a way by revealing that there is some propaganda on the part of the government to shield the public from the truth, but how many people are really in on this? How can you get a group of people to put together a whole law enforcement system structured around holding three innocent people down against their will? How can they trust any of their pre-crime department’s new hires not to blab about it to the public? Hm. That does strike me as a bit unbelievable.
If you can get past the whole mental slavery aspect of the film, I did realize that a lot of the questions of morality aren’t a result of whether or not the murders should be stopped – who would argue they shouldn’t? – but a result of the odd system of punishment they’ve incorporated into their society. Prisoners have a device put on their heads that puts them into some kind of endless dream state for the rest of their lives as soon as they are taken into custody. No one ever addresses the system of punishment, only the fallibility of the predictions. That was the great twist in the movie, the “minority report” that gives the perpetrator the option not to commit the crime. Well, you can still show up to the scene of the potential murder – maybe just don’t put the guy in an endless coma without a trial? We’re even told early on that most of the murders aren’t pre-meditated anymore, they’re mostly crimes of passion. Just give the guy a second to breathe then!
I guess that’s the most glaring flaw about the film. It didn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Pre-crime could have continued with the minority reports being public knowledge. How about a “two strikes, you’re out” system? They’d know if the perpetrator planned to go back and murder someone again – they can see pre-meditated murders days in advance. If their judicial system was even just a little more reasonable, John wouldn’t have had to run away, either – he could have just sat put until the clock ran down and proven that he didn’t plan to kill anyone.
And can we talk about the paradox now? Why the hell did the psychics have a vision of John murdering Leo Crow if the chain of events only started because he saw the vision of himself killing Leo Crow? How did Lamar know all of that would happen just by putting a guy in a random hotel room with a bunch of pictures on a bed?
Oh my God – I just realized that this movie makes no sense.
God damn you, Episode 2. God damn you.
The free-hand console controls got more talk than the quality of the movie itself. The cool thing is that we’re not too far from this kind of technology becoming a reality.
Not gonna lie, I kind of wish the cheating lady got stabbed… I felt bad for the guy, okay?
The scene where John takes a hit of the drug and watches old holograms of his family is… pretty powerful stuff. It says so much about the character, and about the human condition at the same time. You don’t see him as a contemptible character in that moment. He wants to go back to a time where he had the love of his wife and child, and drugs and technology are a temporary fix for a heart-rending pain that won’t go away.
I did kind of enjoy their little metaphysical debate about predetermination. John sends a ball rolling off the edge of the desk for Colin Farrell to catch, illustrating his point. Even though he caught the ball and prevented it from falling to the ground, it doesn’t change the fact that it was going to fall. But that is a matter of scientific principle, while what they are doing is dealing with free will. This is fun stuff for a philosophy enthusiast to find in the middle of a summer popcorn flick.
Is the eye thing related to some kind of theme about seeing? Predicting the future and whatnot?
Damn, I didn’t realize how much product placement there was in this movie. Lexus, Gap, Aquafina, Ben & Jerry’s (seriously?), Pepsi, Burger King – it’s relentless.
Finally! A vision of the future that realizes everyone’s dream of having personal jetpacks!
Agatha is a precognitive weatherlady. Forget a future without murder, imagine a world of perfect weather predictions.
The front desk attendant at the hotel is Ethan from Lost!
How many action movies have a conveyor belt/assembly line sequence? I genuinely want to know.
Force guns! I completely forgot about the Force guns. My theory is that it was invented by the Star Wars kid in 2036 to seek revenge on all those that mocked him on YouTube.
Remember when the crazy plant lady kisses John on the lips? Yeah, I don’t get that either.
“She only has… eyes for you.” “A real… eye opener.” This Russian doctor is just full of puns. I wonder if he’s always this… eye-ronic.
They still watch Cops in 2054? That’s got to be the longest running TV show in history, assuming they finally put SNL out of its misery sometime in the next few years.
“I’m going to kill this man.” Oooh, I got chills. This is what I was talking about earlier – I felt John’s pain here, and I actually kind of wish he ended up killing Leo Crow. At least shoot him in the kneecaps. You can still shoot people in the kneecap in the future, right?
Did Agatha think getting told all about the life their dead child could have lived in agonizing detail was a nice thing to do? Like, that she was doing them a favor or something? I thought you predicted murders, not torture parents with dead kids.
If Lamar hired someone to kill Ann Lively knowing he’d get caught, why didn’t he just hire a second guy to do the actual killing just in case someone ended up seeing the vision? He obviously has no problem finding people to throw their lives away. These plot holes are killing me.
Still, it’s a pretty good movie.