The more I think about Steven Spielberg, the more I feel he is, at heart, a sci-fi director. As hinted at by his statement that he “dream(s) for a living”, his ability to conjure up futuristic worlds from scratch and move freely within them, rendering reality somewhere in the middle ground between distracting sensationalism and grounded present-tense filth, is high among the ranks of cinema’s great world-builders, and his grasp of how supernatural, extraterrestrial, and hyper-technological fictionalizations provide some kind of symbolic mirror to modernity is worth analyzing. With Minority Report, a bona fide Tom Cruise vehicle that’s as much about glorifying the man’s almost paradoxically insistent action sprint and ultra-cool self-assurance as it is about anything else, Spielberg creates a vividly urban futuristic environment where today’s practices of airtight security, individualized consumerism and extreme democracy have run amok, morphing into a kind of oppressive totalitarianism this very system blindly set out to avoid.
The governmental infrastructure in the film is faceless, although the questionable merits of its corporate justice system – a preventative police force that hinges on the fantastic mental abilities of three captive “precogs” who predict murders – are shouted at passersby throughout the city on a regular basis.
Spielberg is adept at quickly immersing the viewer in the particulars of this scientifically and technologically dependent society, pulling out all the stops in a muscular opening sequence depicting John Anderton (Cruise), the head sheriff in this futuristic context, navigating a dense network of visual cues provided to him by the precogs and subsequently stopping a domestic murder at the last second. The scene functions as a killer race against time, but it also communicates through its mise-en-scene and production design the way the general public has become desensitized to this weird, confrontational form of justice, a process that leads a herd of heavily suited officers trampling across a suburban playground, the children and parents around them stopping to look not in destabilized shock but in comfort and fascination.
Similar responses are elicited by the equally jarring billboard advertisements around the city, which actively name-call people by scanning their retinas and try to specifically target products to them. While superficially very glossy and radiant, it’s also an environment where personal unrest and economic hardship abound, points Spielberg highlights later in a moving aerial shot through an urban ghetto (a sequence that looks like an early demo for Enter the Void). The look and feel of this world are deftly conveyed within minutes of the film’s opening, lending the firm social and political background that supports all of Minority Report’s cerebral drama and clever plot turns.
When Anderton suddenly discovers himself as the guilty party in a future murder (a ludicrous notion on the surface that could only fly in this hermetic scenario), it sets the narrative in suspenseful motion, pitting Anderton against the entire company for whom he was hitherto the leader. Now the justice force is rallied up by Anderton’s nemesis, the precrime skeptic and more conventional cop Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), whose involvement in the pursuit is largely derived from his desire to prove to Anderton the ethical dilemma of the whole precrime framework, the idea that a person can be arrested for a crime that they haven’t yet physically committed. (The police force’s wholehearted dedication to the capture of Anderton at the neglect of all other crimes that could feasibly be taking place is one of the forgivable silly sleights of hand that Spielberg always assumes suspension of disbelief will fully account for.)
Anderton and Witwer’s philosophical debates about fate, science and, not to mention, the ethics of imprisoning three shaved savants who are still unmistakably human for judicial purposes are key inquiries only outwardly expressed in one early scene that nonetheless gives the film a speculative weight not normally encountered in a work of such breakneck speed and crowd-pleasing effect. Spielberg – with the exception of A.I. – is not one to confidently dive into these heady subtexts, but their existence here serves to give multiple layers of resonance to the film’s arguably fatalistic sprawl, which positions Anderton in a situation where he can, according to the most gifted precog, Agatha (Samantha Morton), change the future given his knowledge of it.
The film vacillates throughout between bleak, moody blacks and blues and Spielberg’s characteristically angelic overexposure. Especially as the narrative approaches its climax (Anderton’s murder), and thus at the peak of the protagonist’s fate-altering authority, it becomes progressively more tantalizing to assign the latter with cosmic or holy significance. As Agatha guides Anderton through a packed shopping mall while he’s hotly pursued by the police, tipping him off to every muscle movement that will keep him out of the team’s field of vision, the setting is bathed in a glow of spiritual light, as if Anderton is walking through heaven in his sudden opportunity to “play God.” Spielberg seems to be momentarily entertaining this possibility of divine intervention if only to quickly dismiss it, nodding moments after to Anderton’s – and perhaps humanity’s – consuming desire to know and understand his (its) future. In the kind of telling composition Spielberg so casually and expertly integrates into his action staging, Agatha tries to hold Anderton back in a tight two-shot, a Persona -like image that underscores Anderton’s shallow idea of progress and Agatha’s more knowing one. Of course, in spite of his insistence on refusing to murder his victim, Anderton does, finding that the precrime forces are, conveniently enough for the narrative, delayed in their timing of the crime.
This explosive payoff leads organically to a larger mystery centering around the unlikely interconnectedness of two minor narrative threads: the stray and seemingly random snippet of visual information Agatha urges Anderton to see early on in the film as well as the disappearance, several years before, of Anderton’s young son. At the other end of this late-stage mystery is the kind of “gotcha” twist expected of a film with so many red-herrings and hunches proved wrong, but it’s admittedly a very surprising and thrilling one that subtly reveals itself, and the whole film, to be about the essentially irreparable flaw in such a limited democracy that values absolutes in its calculated and scientific engagement with justice rather than accounting for all the gray areas between non-criminal behavior and murders.
Some Spielberg enthusiasts have noted the unlikelihood that Spielberg would be so harshly critiquing a system that he supposedly believes is theoretically workable (although that’s a depressing thought that I frankly can’t get behind), but to me it seems quite clear; for a film that handles its tonal shifts from dark, serious drama to witty sight gags (quite literally) with such careful precision, it seems impossible for it to not be aware of or confident in its own political and philosophical implications. As expected, Spielberg ties it up in a wholly unsatisfying and unconvincing bow that is plain ridiculous in the context of the film’s chilly grasp, but Minority Report’s cautionary worldviews on technology, security and justice certainly overpower this alienating entertainer shtick, making it a film that balances on a fine line between sheer spectacle and serious statements and, I believe, comes out on the right side.