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Truly Great Movies: Minority Report (2002)

April 21, 2011

John Anderton: There hasn’t been a murder in 6 years. There’s nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.
Danny Witwer: [simultaneously] – perfect. I agree. But if there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the one director in Hollywood’s whose name is greeted with instantaneous respect, even though his actual films run the gamut from stunning to forgettable.  Arguably, there are more thematic (Polanski), artistic (Cuaron) or technically skilled (Ridley Scott) filmmakers out there working in Spielberg’s general market.  What Spielberg does have a knack for is knowing what the average audience member wants to see.  With the possible exception of Schindler’s List (and most everyone  lists this film as the exception to SOMETHING when discussing his career), almost all of Spielberg’s films have been All-American crowd pleasers on some level.

There are quite a few of Spielberg’s films that could make a possible Truly Great Movie entry (most notably Empire of the Sun or Raiders of the Lost Ark), but the movie in his canon that I keep insisting to friends and family is under appreciated is Minority Report.  True, I have an unusual fondness for movies based on Philip K. Dick sci-fi tales (Blade Runner, anyone?), but Minority Report is a tense, well-acted, emotionally intriguing movie that didn’t get enough artistic applause on its first release.

manipulating the future

At the heart of Report’s success is its original story.  Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story by the same name, it tells of a future where crime fighting has been revolutionized by the PreCrime unit, a police force dedicated to preventing crime before it happens.  This occurs thanks to the assistance of the mysterious “pre-cogs” (short for precognition), who “see” these crimes within the criminal’s head before they have actually occurred.  In the opening sequence, a future inmate is nabbed seconds before a murder of passion is committed.

Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise), our hero, is dedicated to his job.  Perhaps too much so.  Like Dick’s other hero, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, Anderton’s personal life is a wreck.  Maybe that’s what makes him so effective and even ruthless at what he does.  His son has died, and as a result his marriage has also failed.  He lives for watching home movies of happier times, lost in his addiction to illegal drugs that make the negative disappear.

Like most folks with a tendency towards addiction, he is almost manic in his approach to the business aspect of his life.  This especially applies to his obsession and devotion to the benefits of PreCrime investigation.  Of course, there is the underlying BIG question: is it morally acceptable to arrest and incarcerate criminals who haven’t ACTUALLY committed a crime?  Is the assumption or vision of the precogs enough to doom legions of criminals for all eternity based on what MIGHT come to pass?    Here’s where the plot kicks into gear.  One of the precogs has a vision of John himself committing a heinous crime and he is suddenly on the run from his own compatriots.

kidnapping pre-cog Agatha

The puzzle pieces finally begin to fall together.  Out of the three precogs, only two out of the three must “agree” on a vision in order for it to be actionable.  The third’s digression, the “minority report”, is discarded.  This leads to John’s kidnapping of the precog Agatha, who may hold the proof of John’s innocence.

Overall, the production value on Minority Report is second to none.  It is a realistic and jarring vision of the future, right down to the computer and automotive technology.  There is also a seedy underworld that must exist just outside the realm of all that is neat and clean, and this leads to one of the film’s most memorable sequences involving spider-like attack drones and a disturbing case of retina surgery.

The script by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen is fast-paced yet intelligent and thought-provoking.  It effectively adapts the original story as a frantic thriller without losing its emphasis on the thematic elements and moral questions involving free will and government control.

Tom Cruise, in the lead role, is admirably tough while being appropriately flawed, and Colin Farrell, in his breakout supporting role, is a detective I wouldn’t want on my tail.  Samantha Morton’s haunting and all-too-human portrayal of the precog Agatha is the lynchpin of the story, and her performance is the one that resonates long after the movie is over.

man with a mission

All in all, Minority Report is one of the best sci-fi thrillers of the decade.    Speilberg gives us a fractured vision of an imperfect, but admirable system.  Often the best sci-fi tales involve a contrast of opposites.  As the character of Dr. Iris Heneman states, “Sometimes, in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.”

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