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Overdue Reviews: 'Minority Report'

Overdue Reviews takes a critical look at tech-centric films that are well-loved, well-loathed or eye-rollingly obscure.

For better or worse, they love Dick in Hollywood: 'Blade Runner,' 'Total Recall,' 'Impostor,' 'A Scanner Darkly,' 'Paycheck' and 'Next' all have roots in the notorious paranoiac Philip K. Dick's fiction. Last week, in fact, saw the release of the latest adaptation, 'The Adjustment Bureau,' based on his short story 'The Adjustment Team.' But while 'Blade Runner' might be the supreme PDK translation (nerd alert!), Steven Spielberg's 2002 film adaptation of 'The Minority Report,' a short story originally published in 1956, has more thoroughly stuck in our collective consciousness. It's a film that depicts a world just on the horizon from our own.

To the source material!

Spielberg Modifies His Dick

"All day long the idiots babbled, imprisoned in their high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps. Their physical needs were taken care of automatically. They had no spiritual needs."
The basic premise remains the same in both Dick's cheerless story and Spielberg's high-octane adaptation. In the not-too-distant future, a man named John Anderton works for an independent police organization called Precrime, which employs three precognitives (or "precogs") who have the ability to predict crimes before they occur. Precrime then arrests and convicts potential criminals based on their future malfeasance. The conflict? One day, the precogs predict that Anderton himself will commit murder in the very near future. Ruh-roh.
The key difference between the two stories is what happens after. Both rely on the same premise: two precogs can produce similar-enough visions to constitute a majority, but sometimes a "minority report" is created with a dissenting version of future events. Spielberg's film treats the minority report as the hidden evidence that undoes the infallibility of Precrime theory. In Dick's story -- it's kind of complicated -- it turns out that each of the reports are influenced by one another, so there's no majority report at all. (Rather, there are three minority reports. Confusing.) The original tale is an exploration of possibilities along different timelines. (How would having foreknowledge of the future influence your choices now?) The movie limply raises themes about human agency and action, but it's really a passive-aggressive love letter to technology.

In Spielberg's version, we have the buff midget Tom Cruise -- who apparently pitched the story and script to Spielberg [1] -- playing the moody but devoted Precrime cop John Anderton, with a cocky and gum-chomping Colin Farrell as his ostensible foil, Danny Witwer. In the original story, John Allison Anderton is "bald and fat and old," jealous of his much younger replacement [2], and the founder of Precrime.

PDK's Anderton holds the precogs in no special regard; they're "three gibbering, fumbling creatures, with... enlarged heads and wasted bodies" who are "deformed and retarded." Unlike Spielberg's troika of nigh-divine oracles[3], Dick's precogs are only data receptors whose mumblings are translated and given meaning through computer analysis. Being only (pre-)cogs in a literal bureaucratic machine, "they have no spiritual needs." In Spielberg's version, the angelic precogs' ragged visions are arranged and "scrubbed" by a human (an unsubtle reference to the filmmaking process) before being interpreted. Spielberg's Precrime attempts to use technology to control the wonders of nature for human gain, while Dick's precogs aren't natural at all -- they're just antennae made of meat.

I don't need to compare and contrast every facet of the source material to the film -- each work stands on its own. But understanding Dick's estimation of technology's role in the story is key to unlocking Spielberg's view of technology in his own film.

Superficially, the film attempts to explore some pretty hackneyed (but, you know, important) dialectics: the struggle between science vs. God, personal choice vs. duty, moral absolutism vs. the greater good, etc. At times, the technology is just window dressing for the chases -- like the ludicrous Lexus factory scene -- which are interspersed with 'Indiana Jones'-style physical slapstick [4]. But the film also provides a glimpse of a society at ease with, if not enamored by, technology. The bitchin' cars and mouth-watering interfaces are enough to distract everyone from the personalized ad assaults and the robot spiders that break into your apartment in order to scan your eyes while you're boinking.

'Minority Report' as technological danger-porn has remained a potent metaphor, even nine years after its release, because the film's tech is now recognizable: the kind of delectable gadgets that you'd kill for, and the creepshow gadgets that already know who you plan to kill.

The Metaphor of the Future, Ad Nauseam

In the tech press, we frequently invoke 'Minority Report'[5] because that tech has, more or less, arrived. That's no wonder, really, because Spielberg commissioned some of the most prescient minds in tech and futurism prior to the start of production -- including Douglas Coupland and Jaron Lanier -- to help conceptualize plausible tech for the year 2054.
Maybe tech journalists are just running out of good references -- this movie is hardly newsy -- but, hell, just look at the last couple of weeks: 'Move Over, Minority Report: Personalized Signage is Here' reads a March 1st headline from Brandchannel; 'Minority Report-like adverts 'may hit the UK next year' reads a BBC headline from February 28th. Canada's National Post published an article on March 6th about researchers who've been developing covert brain-scanning tech. "The concept resembles Steven Spielberg's 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report," it says. "If successful in the real world, the 'biometrics of intent' could, for example, help determine whether the anxious-looking man at the airport is just stressed out or actually dangerous."

Gesture interfaces are here, too. (I could link up a bevy of stories, but I'll just say this: Kinect.) And admittedly, gesturual navigation is damn neat-o -- who wouldn't want to seamlessly surf the Interwebz like some lay maestro, zestfully gliding through status updates to the tune of Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony' or Ke$ha's timeless 'Tik Tok'?

In the very beginning of the film, Anderton employs a fancy computer to manipulate a series of disjointed images into a cohesive narrative -- and that is tech porn at its finest. Imagine Apple's Jonathan Ive dreamily narrating the scene in which Tom Cruise organizes his little snuff film with the aid of see-thru tablets and templated, drag-and-drop ease. A little like 2054's iMovie, no? Magical and revolutionary.

Since the film's release in 2002, we've all become very used to targeted advertising[6], so personalized billboards out of Japan don't come as too much of a shock. But DARPA's already begun work on iris scanners that can quietly identify individuals in a crowded room, and NATO's already using optical scanners to identify Afghan citizens and issue biometric ID cards. Officials in Leon, Mexico have also begun a citywide database of its residents' irises in order to keep track of criminals.

And then there's Google.

Predictive Text and Our Online Oracle

When 'Minority Report' hit theaters in 2002, some critics[7] inferred that there might be some Bush Doctrine criticisms embedded in the idea of "precrime." But Spielberg was probably too busy in production to have prognosticated the administration's preemptive invasion of Afghanistan. The film only incidentally echoed our political reality; it's real prescience was in the prevalence of predictive science itself.

Prediction is now incredibly important tech. Whether it's the auto-fill feature in your cell phone's OS, Netflix's freakishly accurate recommendation algorithms, or Google's auto-complete search function, out-thinking the user is key to many developers.

It's a big leap to connect your iPhone's auto-correct function with Spielberg's futuristic Panopticon of technological augury. Yet, both our own 21st century Web culture and the technocracy of 'Minority Report' employ, if not embrace, predictive technology in order to make life easier, better, safer or faster. Precrime protects the world by proactively ridding it of potential criminals; Google produces search results before you're done typing, ridding you of .02 seconds of typing time. Streamlined, automated ease.

Google (probably) doesn't have the ability to deploy paramilitary squads to smash through your windows every time you think about strangling your boss, but I bet it would still like to know. Google Labs has been experimenting with prediction for a while. And Eric Schmidt, Google's soon-to-be-former CEO, infamously speaks like a Precrime evangelist: "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."
Prediction's only part of the package. Google also represents a quasi-Panopticon that echoes the film. Street View has captured just about all of North America (and has even gone inside some places), but Europe's not really playing ball. (That's probably because pictures of abortion protesters, naked children and dudes exiting strip clubs have popped up in Street View photos. But like Bentham sez, police yourselves!) Who needs iris scanners when you've got Googlemobiles patrolling every corner?

Fight The Future, Live In a Cottage

In a 2002 interview with Wired, Spielberg confessed his own conflicting feelings toward the forward march of the machines: "I'm not being cynical when I say that sometimes technology curbs our own dreams. Is there a day coming when there will be biotechnology that will not only make us live longer but give us a spurt of adrenaline in our heart when our energy is flagging around 3 in the afternoon? Do we want that? I don't want to be the bionic man."

Spielberg also admitted that he has little interest in digital filmmaking because of the "magic about chemistry and film." Although he embraced digital effects early on, he said he would be "the last person to use digital technology" to shoot his films. "The screen is always alive with chaos and excitement, and that will certainly be gone when we convert to a digital camera and a digital projector."

His apathy toward new technology certainly explains the end of 'Minority Report.' The film eventually devolves into farcical chase scenes, insane plot holes [8] and a spectacular cop-out of an ending. Precrime is proven a sham because its leader orchestrated a murder to cover up the contradiction that the precogs can produce -- the titular minority reports. And then the precogs are put out to pasture at some isolated country house, away from the beautiful dangers of technology, left to read books while wearing cozy sweaters in front of the hearth. The film's answer to technological oppression is Kaczynski-style social solitude, as Spielberg privileges older technologies, like fire and the printing press, over eye-scanning spider-bots. [9]

It's too bad that the film entirely dissolves in both plot and theme, at the cost of neatly wrapping up a narrative, Hollywood-style. Nine years after its release, 'Minority Report' is still gorgeous, with its bleach bypass coloration and fierce performances. (Max von Sydow manages to make himself look natural towering over Tom Cruise, and Samantha Morton is able to communicate a whole character with just a handful of facial expressions. Cruise ain't half-bad, neither.)

"Just remember," Spielberg said in that Wired interview, "the best science fiction stories have the most dire warnings about civilization and the future." But warnings are pretty empty without any solutions. If the film's only answer to technocracy is a retreat to some kind of agrarian nuclear domesticity, then I'd rather take the spider-bots. I'm all thumbs at knitting anyway.


[1] Kennedy, Lisa. "Spielberg in the Twilight Zone." Wired. June 2002.

[2] Spielberg reverses an early scene in the original story, during which Anderton plays devil's advocate while explaining Precrime to Witwer: "[Anderton] said: 'You've probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to pre-crime methodology. We're talking in individuals who have broken no law.' 'But surely they will,' Witwer affirmed with conviction." Farrell's Witwer is suspicious of Precrime from the get-go.

[3] In the film, the precogs float in a backlit pool of some kind of amniotic substance within what is referred to as "The Temple." Convicted future felons are made comatose with immobilizing "haloes," and, at one point, one of Anderton's flunkies notes that his team is "more like clergy than cops." Spielberg's religious references aren't deployed subtlely.

[4] Never have Nazis been so creatively and hilariously dispatched in film than in the escape-from-Germany scenes in 'The Last Crusade.'

[5] A random sample of posts referencing 'Minority Report' from this site alone: Walmart Will Track Your Undies With RFIDs; Tokyo Billboards Scan and Target You With Personalized Ads; Japanese Company Plans 'Minority Report'-Style Facial Recognition; Oblong's G-Speak: The 'Minority Report' OS Brought to Life; Hitchachi's 'Minority Report' Interface; etc., etc.

[6] We've grown accustomed to targeted advertising online, probably because we're not really supposed to notice it at all. Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS, told the New York Times back in 2004 that he still loved 'Minority Report' because of its ceaseless product placements. "'That movie was packed with brands,' he said. 'I sat in the movie theater and thought A, the movie's working, and B, if Spielberg can do it without compromising the artistry, we can, too.'" And thus was born '30 Rock'-style brand integration.

[7] Regarding the term "precrime," Roger Ebert asked, "how could Spielberg have known the government would be using the same term this summer?" Salon's Andrew O'Hehir flat-out calls the setting an "Ashcroftian security state."

[8] The unforgivable plot hole: the fact that Anderton, even after he's been caught and interred in coma-jail, can use his retinas to access the most secure recesses of Precrime. Did someone forget to to delete his eyeballs from the database?

[9] Cooper, Mark Garrett. 2003. "The Contradictions of Minority Report." Film Criticism 28, no. 2: 24-41.

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