Minority Report (2002)


A science fiction film like Minority Report or A.I. Artificial Intelligence before it requires a certain amount of world building.  The movie has to introduce us not only to the characters but to the society in which they live.  Every movie does this to a certain extent, but in a movie like… Pineapple Express, we recognize the world as one similar to ours.  Minority Report, however, is hardly like the world we live in.  While there may be plenty of overlap between this movie world and our world, the focus of the film is in a fictional pre-crime division of law enforcement, thus we spend almost all of the film in a world outside our own.  The point I’m slowly working my way towards is that science fiction films like these don’t simply take place in a world with some crazy law or premise, but they take place in a world in which that crazy law or premise is about to pivot.  In A.I., for example, the story takes place at a time when robots are well-ingrained in society, but also at a time when the first robot able to love is constructed.  It’s a pivotal moment in the movie’s history.  Similarly, Minority Report takes place at a time when pre-crime has been around for 6 years, but it’s about to go from local to national because of its recent success.  It seems like a lot of science fiction films take place during the beginning of something or the end of something.

Our hero is John Anderton (Tom Cruise) the chief of the pre-crime division.  He witnesses future murders, envisioned by the three pre-cogs who float helplessly in a small pool, and then he must quickly decipher the clues and figure out where to go to stop the murder.  The opening scene demonstrates who he ordinarily operates, building the world in which he lives in.  This way, when the red ball comes down the tube with his name on it, we know it means he’s predicted to commit a murder in the near future, and we understand what’s at stake.

The pre-cogs offer a vision of Anderton shooting a man named Leo Crowe, and he must immediately go on the run as a wanted criminal.  The story is similar to that of The Fugitive (1993), as Anderton must run away from the police while also trying to exonerate himself.  The world-building continues along the way, and I realized that a good script drops in exposition that feels like a drop of dye into a small body of water, with the dye branching out in all directions.  In this script, the expository scenes make it clear what Anderton needs to do next, and it also informs us about more of the backstory of pre-crime.  It may seem simple, and maybe it is, but it’s just a good example of solid storytelling.

I took an introductory screenwriting class in high school, and this film was used as an example of a good script (until the third act which I’ll get to later).  So this film doesn’t just have characters tell Anderton what he needs to do, instead it makes the next steps clear while revealing more of the past.  The film preserves the mystery so that we as the audience are engaged and trying to figure out what’s going on and why Anderton is imagined to be a killer.

As this is going on, Anderton is pursued by Department of Justice agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell).  He at first appears to be the bad guy, and that’s because he challenges Anderson’s assertion that pre-crime is infallible.  It doesn’t help that Witwer is cocky and constantly chewing gum.  He’s made to be unlikeable.

So Witwer chases Anderton, but early in act 2, while on the run, Anderton tracks down Dr. Iris Hineman, who helped start pre-crime, alongside Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), the director of the pre-crime division.  Hineman informs Anderton that the pre-cogs don’t always agree, and when they’re mistaken about a particular vision, they produce a minority report.  This is great news for Anderton who is looking for any way to prove his innocence, but it also challenges his fundamental belief in the pre-crime system.  He learns that some of the people he’s locked away were probably innocent as the pre-cogs aren’t perfect.  Hineman tells Anderton that Burgess knew about this, but that they both considered it a necessary evil as pre-crime overall has receded crime by 90%.

This scene is incredibly important, but upon a first viewing it might just seem like a bit of exposition.  This information helps start Anderton down the path of questioning his entire line of work, and the reason he got into pre-crime is because of the death of his son.  So this questioning makes its way to his own past as he recalls the day his son disappeared.  It basically forces Anderton to address all his demons.

Beyond the questioning, that scene proves that Witwer is right to be suspicious of the pre-cogs, even though Anderton doesn’t yet acknowledge that Witwer is on to something.  It hints at the future reveal that Witwer is not the bad guy, Burgess is.  Burgess’ knowledge of the fallibility of the pre-cogs and his withholding of this information from Anderton shows that there might be more to him and his character goals.

Anderton is still on the run, but now he must steal Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the pre-cogs in order to find that minority report which will prove his innocence.  He is temporally blinded as his eyeballs are literally replaced in order to avoid retina scans, and once he has Agatha, he goes to see this Crowe fella, curious to know why this man is in his vision.

It becomes more and more clear that the pre-cogs vision for the murder Anderton commits is coming true.  In Crowe’s apartment, Anderton finds a lot of pictures of children, including his own.  Crowe seems to be the guy who killed his son, so he decides to kill him.  In the most important moment of the film, Anderton decides not to kill Crowe, proving he has free will but also proving the fallibility of the pre-cogs.  This whole scene is well-executed and might as well be the end of the movie except that Anderton learns that he has been set up (Crowe isn’t who he says he is), and then Crowe grabs Anderton’s gun and shoots himself, making it look like Anderton did it and forcing Anderton back on the run.

This is where the story gets a little lazy.  In another scene we see Witwer tell Burgess that one of the successfully avoided murders Anderton was once investigating wasn’t really an echo (in which the pre-cogs have repeated visions of the same murder), but actually a different murder, designed to look like a different attempted murder and thus hiding in plain sight.  We don’t know who the murderer is until Burgess shoots Witwer, making it clear he’s the true villain.  At this point the audience knows more than Anderton.  We have stopped trying to figure out the mystery because our questions have been answered.  In a subsequent scene, Anderton, while at the home of his ex-wife Lara, suddenly realizes that Anna Lively’s murder (the one believed to be an echo) was actually a new murder.

This realization seems kind of out of the blue.  In terms of the story progression it makes sense because we just saw Burgess confirm this to Witwer, but Anderton never saw that, so  the timing of his epiphany feels a little too neat.

It doesn’t seem to matter for Anderton, though, because the police finally catch up to him and put him in jail.  Then Lara sits down with Burgess in his office for some reason while he prepares for a banquet in his honor.  She confronts him with Anderton’s suspicions that he was set up, and Burgess confirms her worst fears (or hopes?) when he mistakenly reveals that he knew Lively was drowned before Lara ever said how she died.

Lara then sneaks into the jail and holds the guard at gunpoint, demanding the release of her ex-husband.  This all happens too quickly and too easily.  Anderton proves his innocence, and in the final moments of the film, Burgess holds him at gunpoint, ready to shoot.  We just saw a pre-cog vision in which Burgess shoots Anderton, so, as Anderton plainly puts it, Burgess can shoot Anderton, confirming pre-crime’s effectiveness but condemning himself (even though everyone knows already that he murdered Lively) or he can decide not to shoot Anderton, thus undermining pre-crime.  He shoots himself ultimately, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This moment is a letdown because it’s redundant.  The moment in which Anderton chose not to shoot Crowe made it clear that the pre-cog’s visions may not always be true.  It’s the first time we’ve seen the pre-cogs be wrong, so when Burgess holds Anderton at gunpoint, it doesn’t feel like there’s anything at stake.  Burgess is already screwed, regardless of what he chooses to do, and the pre-cogs have already been proven to be fallible.  I didn’t think Anderton was at risk because he’s Tom Cruise, and the pre-cog’s vision is probably wrong considering what we’ve seen onscreen already.

Anyways, I think the third act just suffers from a lack of discovery as almost all the dramatic questions are answered early in the third act, making the last 20+ minutes feel slow and uneventful.  If anything, those scenes just feel tired whereas the rest of the film was full of energy.

There is a constant theme of sight and blindness.  Your eyes are the means through which the government keeps track of you, and that theme extends to our ability to see the future and remember the past.  The film ultimately decides that we can’t see the future as we thought.  It’s another point against humanity and our flawed ambitions (like A.I.Jurassic Park).  We thought we could do something, but we were wrong.

This is also Spielberg’s second consecutive science fiction film, which makes it seem like he’s exploring new ideas, having possibly tired of period pieces (The Color PurpleEmpire of the SunRaiders of the Lost Ark I suppose, Schindler’s ListAmistadSaving Private Ryan).

While I do like this film, Spielberg’s recent career (circa 2002) feels like he’s trying very hard to be serious.  His early films were all very fun while also remaining dramatic.  There is a lot of energy here, but it’s never a funny film.  Of course it doesn’t have to be, but I enjoyed that balance in films like JawsE.T. and Jurassic Park.  There’s more humor in Schindler’s List (the scene in which Schindler chooses a secretary) and Saving Private Ryan (many of the soldiers’ personal anecdotes as well as the guy who can’t hear very well and the first Private Ryan they come across) than in this film.  That’s the main area I think it suffers.  The lack of humor makes this film feel more passable than exciting, and while it’s okay during the excitement of act 2, once we get to act 3, the film loses that energy, continues with the lack of humor and wastes away in predictable moments.

There wasn’t much humor in A.I. either, now that I think about it.  In some ways, Spielberg’s period pieces are more comic because there’s confidence in depicting the past, knowing so much about a certain time period and how things turned out.  Spielberg can confidently depict a world of the past because he knows how that world worked.  With science fiction, on the other hand, there’s always a question to be figured out about how the world works.  In a way it feels like he approaches these futuristic world with apprehension.  He’s more concerned with showing the way Anderton’s fancy car slides right up to his apartment than showing how he interacts with the world.  Maybe it’s just that with world building there is so much thought put into the simplest things (how doors work, how cars work, how they dress, etc.) that you forget to let the characters breathe.  There is so much information about the look and feel of the world to convey that the characters become more artificial.

In Minority Report, the only character moment I can remember is when Anderton strides into his office and asks a pregnant coworker if she’s had any contractions lately.  It’s meant to demonstrate that Anderton has a good working relationship with his coworkers and that he has some sense of humor.  But moments like that are transparent because it’s clear what those moments are meant to accomplish.  They’re still part of a code in the script, doing what it must to make the audience learn or feel something, much like David’s code in A.I. which is meant to come across as love but might come across as forced behavior based only on a formula.

Spielberg’s next film is Catch Me If You Can, and I remember that being a fun movie, so there’s that to look forward to.

There’s a ton of product placement in this film, and while it’s most likely meant to say something about consumerism in our culture, they still received money from these companies nonetheless.

There are probably some things I left out.  There are a bunch of plot points I neglected to discuss, but they don’t really matter.  My main takeaway from the story is that it could have ended after act 2 (with some light restructuring), and I think it would have made a better film.  This new direction would make Crowe’s appearance a bit forced and make the pre-cog’s vision of Anderton murdering Crowe a paradox as he only ended up in Crowe’s apartment precisely because of the pre-cog’s vision (like an episode of That’s So Raven).

But the discovery ended after Anderton’s decision not to kill Crowe, and that decision is the most important one in the film.  All the stuff with Burgess suddenly becoming the bad guy is too forced, and the script suddenly begins to feel like a collection of scenes uneasily built upon each other.  The scenes didn’t drive forward, ending every moment with an exclamation point, rather it devolved into moments of cliche and narrative hesitation, whatever that means.  Okay, basically the third act felt like something I would write while the first two acts felt like something I wish I could write.



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