Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Bilge Ebiri on Steven Spielberg’s paranoid, prescient sci-fi opus Minority Report.
It’s tempting to judge science fiction films by how well they imagine what the future might physically look like. In preparing to make his 2002 thriller Minority Report, set in the year 2054, Steven Spielberg reportedly took great care to make sure the world he depicted would be a plausible one. He conferred with scientists, futurists, and designers to envision what our lives might look like in 2054. “I wanted all the toys to come true someday,” he told Roger Ebert.
And indeed, there are a lot of details that seem unusually prescient. The touch-screen technology that our heroes use to quickly swipe, expand and otherwise manipulate digital images is now so commonplace that most kids today just automatically assume every screen is touch-enabled. The constant blasting of customized ads at individuals has become a regular feature of our media landscape — as is the creeping feeling it engenders that the machines doing all that advertising are constantly watching us. (Spoiler alert: They are.)
However, this is not a movie about toys. Based on a short story by the visionary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (a first-ballot, first-round inductee into the International Paranoiacs Hall of Fame), Minority Report tells the story of John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the chief of a Washington, D.C.-based “PreCrime” police unit, which allows for the apprehension and speedy indictment, arrest and incarceration of people for murders they have not yet committed. It’s a far-out technology that utilizes the visions of “Precogs,” a trio of clairvoyants who are plugged into computers that then generate details about future murders, complete with the names of the perpetrator and victim, as well as the exact time and date when the crime will occur.
One day, our hero receives a vision from Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the Precogs, of a homicide not from the past: the mysterious drowning death of a woman many years ago. The next day, Anderton himself is accused of a PreCrime — specifically, the killing of a man he has never met. He finds himself pursued by his old colleagues and, in trying to prove his innocence, discovers that the system is not as magically infallible as was originally presented. Apparently, the oracles’ visions don’t always agree on the murders they’re seeing; in those cases, the dissenting view, called a “minority report,” is discarded. The only way to see if this was the case for Anderton’s “crime” is by uploading Agatha’s memories. One Precog abduction later, the duo are on the run.
That’s just the basic set-up — and we were already neck-deep in a complicated tangle of political dystopia, futuristic technology and film noir hysterics. But therein lies the peculiar genius of Spielberg. He has always been a master of narrative shorthand, able to navigate complex storylines without losing clarity or emotional weight. He can convey just about anything visually, but he also knows when to underline a plot point or character detail, to make sure we stay focused on what’s important. And Minority Report zips right along as a thrilling sci-fi spectacle; there’s a reason it was a huge box-office hit.
However, the film also marked a surprising turn for Spielberg. In his earlier work, the director had largely been apolitical — at least on the surface. Any overt political message in his previous pictures could have been boiled down to some basic and widely accepted notion, like “Nazis are bad,” or “Slavery is wrong.” (Hey, remember when these were basic and widely accepted notions?) Here, the director seemed to jump headlong into an emerging debate about the surveillance state growing all around us. Minority Report was shot in the summer of 2001.. But by the time the film came out in the summer of 2002, the country had drastically changed, and Spielberg seemed to be sounding an unusually prescient warning about what lay ahead. With terrorism now a very real threat, the risk of not stopping something before it happened was considered too great. As a result, a whole host of new legislation was passed, giving law enforcement a broad array of new powers of surveillance and detention.
And much of the country seemed to accept a growing, militarized, and aggressive police state as the necessary price for our safety. The next attack, we were told, could come at any time, from anywhere. In March of 2002, we were presented with a system of color-coded terror threat levels that seemed to change on a regular basis. In November, we would be introduced to the Department of Homeland Security, whose name would surely have prompted Philip K. Dick, had he been alive, to start speaking in tongues. All along the way, we received alarming headlines about countries that wanted to use all sorts of horrific weapons against us. The Bush administration had begun informing us of all the incontrovertible evidence they had that Iraq was positively pullulating with weapons of mass destruction; the invasion itself would ensue in March of 2003. In short, the entire American government was telling us that they needed permission to do all sorts of new things in order to keep us safe. Scared out of our wits, we gave it to them.
In the years since the film’s release, the idea of using predictive technology to prevent crime has taken off even further. With the rise of smartphones and social media in the mid-2000s, tech companies began gathering immense amounts of data from their customers’ online browsing, viewing and spending habits. Financially, this now means these companies can get more money out of us. Politically, it means that we can be targeted with ads and news and, yes, fake news that cater to our ideological beliefs, fortifying the walls of the cognitive bubbles in which we already live. Legally, it means that our government knows more about us than it ever has before. We’ve been reassured by businessmen and authority figures that this carefully protected data will never be put to nefarious ends. Repeatedly, this has proven not to be the case.
Which brings us to something else about Minority Report, another element that today seems unnervingly prescient. Anderton is a man with institutional loyalty, the proverbial good soldier. (In this sense, he makes for an ideal role for Cruise, who spent much of the 1980s and ’90s playing fresh-faced All-American go-getters — athletes, racers, military men.) The film’s early scenes depict the PreCrime process, which seems designed to be infallible, authoritative and above all, fair. A panel of judges teleconferences to sign off on the Precogs’ soothsaying findings. Strict boundaries are maintained between the holy trinity, who are kept sedated in a hermetically sealed pool, and anyone else who works near them. There is a sense of level-headed professionalism among everyone who works at PreCrime. The names of perpetrators and victims are printed on wooden balls that are generated by machines — almost like the results of a lottery. The results are never wrong. The system works.
The truth, however, is quite different. The panel of judges are useless. The visions, it turns out, can be easily twisted. Anderton, who has for years mourned the disappearance (and presumed death) of his young son years ago, discovers that he was manipulated into joining the department; his boss, director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) knew that a desire to prevent future murders like that of his child would make him an unusually loyal soldier. Institutions, it seems are always at the mercy of the duplicitous, ambitious, and corrupt men who are often in charge of them. We deceive ourselves when we imagine that the aura of power and responsibility will turn such people into better men; if anything, it’s the exact opposite. Absolute power demands absolute mendacity.
So yes, it seems safe to say that Minority Report feels a lot more politically charged today than it did back in 2002. And if there’s one movie that Minority Report most resembles among Spielberg’s subsequent efforts, it might be 2006’s Munich, his drama about the group of operatives tasked with avenging the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. That film’s hero, played by Eric Bana, also starts off as a loyal soldier of the state, willing to do anything to take revenge on the Palestinian terrorists who executed eleven of his country’s Olympians. Over the course of the story, he discovers that his government has been lying to him, sending him after perpetrators who might not have been involved in the attacks — using his emotions to target other perceived enemies of the state. By the end, the disillusioned hero finds himself exiled in New York, worried that he may now be targeted himself; the final scene occurs against the backdrop of the World Trade Center, as if hinting that the escalating international tensions of the 1970s and 1980s would eventually lead to the terror attacks of 2001.
Minority Report has a somewhat happier ending — remember, this is a sci-fi adventure, too — but Anderton’s journey is a similar one of disillusionment, one that reveals the fallibility and corruption of the institutions he’s been so devoted to. It’s telling that this film’s final confrontation, between Anderton and Burgess, happens against the backdrop of the Washington Monument. Is it a suggestion that our whole country is compromised? Or perhaps it’s a glimpse of what’s at stake. Either way, that future has yet to be written.
Previously: God Told Me To