Minority Report (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

On those rare occasions when a great motion picture reaches multiplexes, the film critic must add another aspect to his or her job description: that of cheerleader. It is incumbent upon those of us who routinely dissect movies to applaud the arrival of something like Minority Report. Writing a review isn't enough - we have to get out there and actively stump for the movie. The underlying reason is sound: if Minority Report makes a lot of money, the studios will be encouraged to fashion more films of this sort. And that is a good thing - not just for science fiction lovers but for fans of intelligent, thought-provoking pictures of all genres.

For those that must classify Minority Report, the primary category is science fiction. After all, it's based on a short story by celebrated writer Philip K. Dick, whose words have been the inspiration for such movies as Blade Runner and Total Recall. But, like another genre-crossing motion picture, 1998's Dark City, Minority Report can also be viewed as an action thriller or a futuristic film noir. It owes a debt to Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And Minority Report plays like a different film to different audiences. Those in the mood for the action and adrenaline rush of a typical summer blockbuster will find something to their taste here. Yet there are richer rewards for viewers who are willing to engage their brains. Anyone who wants to think through the mysteries and paradoxes presented herein will discover a multi-course cinematic buffet that can keep the gray matter occupied for days to come.

The year is 2054. In many ways, the United States is the same five decades into the future as it is today, but, in other, important ways, it has changed. Washington D.C., once the murder capital of the union, is now the safest place to live - thanks in large part to the Department of Pre-Crime, an elite taskforce of law officers who, by using the predictive capabilities of three captive "precogs", know that a murder is going to happen before it takes place. Armed with that knowledge, they can arrest someone before he actually kills, saving the victim(s) and preventing the crime. The head of the Department is Director Burgess (Max von Sydow), a dispassionate man who has shepherded the group through eight years of growing pains and is now on the verge of losing control of it as the program goes national. His right hand man, Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise), is in an equally precarious position, although Anderton's reasons for working in Pre-Crime are different from Burgess'. Anderton is on the job because his son was murdered, and he wants to prevent other people from having to endure a pain similar to his own.

The first part of the movie introduces us to the Pre-Crime squad and shows how they operate by illustrating their attempts to solve Case #1108 - a crime of passion in which a man discovers his wife's infidelity and kills both her and her lover. Once that is successfully wrapped up, Minority Report moves on to Case #1109 - the pre-meditated murder of a man by none other than Anderton. Within moments of recognizing that he has run afoul of the system he works for, Anderton is in full flight, certain that he is being set up by Detective Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a federal agent who is after his job. Anderton's belief in his own innocence is so strong that he even risks breaking into the Pre-Crime building and kidnapping Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most gifted of the three Precogs. He suspects that, with her help, he can clear himself. But things are not that simple, and, as the appointed hour of the killing draws nearer, Anderton becomes increasingly unprepared for the twists and turns in the road of his fate.

Predestination or free will? It's a question that has obsessed philosophers and religious scholars throughout the years. Now, it is the underlying subject material of a major motion picture made not for deep thinkers but for a mass audience. To understand where Minority Report is headed, one has to ponder whether the future is set and cannot be altered or whether free will makes that future a possibility rather than a certainty. In this case, there's an added complication - is the Precogs' vision accurate, or has it in some way been tampered with? Perhaps Anderton isn't actually going to kill, but has been set up by a clever and knowledgeable criminal who wants him out of the way.

Such paradoxes and musings lie at the heart of Minority Report. Here's the biggest one of all: Is it possible that the act of accusing someone of a murder could begin a chain of events that leads to the slaying. In Anderton's situation, he runs because he is accused. The only reason he ends up in circumstances where he might be forced to kill is because he is a hunted man. Take away the accusation, and there would be no question of him committing a criminal act. The prediction drives the act - a self-fulfilling prophesy. You can see the vicious circle, and it's delicious (if a little maddening) to ponder. Not since Memento has a movie twisted things this much.

Then there are the moral and ethical considerations to explore. Is the safety and security of the populace worth keeping three human beings enslaved? And are people willing to give up a portion of their freedom in order to be safe from murderers? And what about the system itself - is it truly infallible, or are innocent men being sent to jail? (This goes back to the question about whether fate is fluid or static.) In fact, aren't all of these people innocent, because they are being captured and tried when no crime has (yet) been committed? Admittedly, these are not real-world situations, but the underlying ideas resonate in the post-September 11 era, when the security/freedom tradeoff has become a often-discussed topic.

The screenplay was penned by Scott Frank, a man who knows a lot about mysteries and noir thrillers, but very little about science fiction. His previous work includes Get Shorty, Malice, and the phenomenal Dead Again. His script for Minority Report, enhanced by Steven Spielberg and Jon Cohen, is as compelling. The whodunnit? and whydunnit? elements are as intricately explored and satisfyingly resolved as those in any of the cinema's great noir classics. And, to add to the atmosphere, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have filmed this movie as they might a contemporary mystery thriller, with muted hues and desaturated color. (At times, Minority Report looks almost monochromatic. If it was commercially viable, Spielberg might have made this movie in black-and-white.)

Action fans have plenty to engage their attention. Minority Report features its share of shoot-outs, fights, and chase scenes, some of which are quite spectacular. A case in point: a sequence in which Anderton gets out of his car and leaps from vehicle to vehicle, all speeding down a vertical incline, in an effort to escape his pursuers. On another occasion, there's a lengthy chase that involves jet-propelled backpacks. Finally, in an innovative game of hide-and-seek, Anderton and Agatha elude their would-be captors by using her precognitive powers to gain the advantage. At one junction, she suggests that he throw a few coins to a beggar. He does so, and, when the man bends to pick up the money, Anderton's pursuers trip over him. This particular chase is full of clever moments like that.

The special effects serve the ingenuity of the script, not the other way around. These days, many blockbusters offer eye candy without substance. Not so in here, where both are available in equal proportions. Spielberg's vision of the future is every bit as eye-popping as that of Ridley Scott in Blade Runner or Luc Besson in The Fifth Element. The computer generated graphics are blended seamlessly with the live-action shots, often making it difficult to tell where the effects end and the real-life aspects begin. This is as it should be. Inexperienced directors who throw CGI elements onto the screen should take note of Spielberg's mastery of the technique. For example, is there a better use of computer graphics than during the scene in which electronic spiders scurry around a tenement building scanning the retinas of residents as they search for their quarry?

From a technological perspective, Spielberg did everything he could to achieve a simulacrum of what the world might look like in 50 years. To this end, he employed a group of scientists and engineers who approved many of the devices found throughout the film. These include lights and appliances that are voice-activated, personal virtual reality commercials that flash on walls as an individual walks past, and cars that are no longer earthbound.

The choice of Tom Cruise as Anderton is a case of perfect casting. During the past two decades, Cruise has proven that he is adept at playing the action hero and handling smaller, dramatic roles. For this part, he draws a little from both sides. Anderton is an active individual, but he's not a superman, and he is a better developed character than Cruise's Mission: Impossible alter-ego. Of course, having the name "Tom Cruise" on the marquee will not hurt Minority Report's box office performance.

Cruise's primary support comes from a trio of non-American actors. British actress Samantha Morton, returning to the screen after a brief hiatus (during which she had a baby), brings a deeply felt pathos to Agatha. The legendary Max von Sydow, who has taken parts in a wide variety of genres for a great many directors, plays Anderton's boss and friend. And Irishman Colin Farrell, who was the title character in Hart's War, bites into this part with relish. His Danny Witwer is set up as the film's villain, but his motives may not be as murky as some people believe.

In the wake of the disappointment of A.I., Minority Report arrives in theaters representing a much-needed tonic for Spielberg. However, this is not just a "rebound" picture; it's an achievement - arguably the best escapist entertainment the director has produced in two decades. Minority Report rivals some of Spielberg's top adventure/science fiction epics, such as Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What's more, it affirms that, even in the 2000s, movies do not have to be brain-dead to be exciting. When the season is over, Minority Report will more than likely stand out as the best picture to grace multiplex screens during the Summer of 2002.

Minority Report (United States, 2002)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 2:31
U.S. Release Date: 2002-06-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1