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Days of Future Past: Minority Report in the Here and Now

It’s an accident when a movie manages to capture and reflect the current culture of the world when it’s released. Movies take a while to get made, especially the big ones, and culture evolves so fast that it’s a losing game to force the art to match the atmosphere. When we say that a movie “feels relevant” or “speaks to our ongoing [fill-in-the-blank],” what we really mean is that the filmmakers got lucky. And there are few films as serendipitously suited to their eras as Minority Report.

Based on a 1956 novella by Philip K. Dick, The Minority Report was first optioned for film adaptation in the early 1990s, going through multiple iterations before landing with director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise at the end of 1998. Filming took place from March-July 2001, which means that the film was still being edited, scored, assembled—still being knit together into an actual film—just weeks later, on September 11. As a result, the film’s topics—the creeping power of a security state, our growing reliance on digital communication, the leveraging of personal information for profit—were already relevant for an audience that had just survived the birth of the modern internet and the first dot-com bubble. But its depiction of systemic paranoia, the willingness of a government to manipulate its population, and the aggressive harvesting of everyone’s metadata wound up being almost hauntingly appropriate for an era that would come to be defined by social networks, targeted ads, and fabricated wars.

The story is set in a dystopian future that pretends to be a utopian society; in other words, just like present day, but with better clothes. John Anderton (Cruise) is a captain in the Precrime unit, an experimental police force in Washington, D.C., that relies on the psychic visions of three precognitives (people who can see the future) to stop murders before they happen. The unit has all but eradicated murder in the nation’s capital, and the program is subject to an upcoming vote that could see it roll out across the country. Things are humming along about as well as can be when Anderton sees two very disconcerting visions of prevented murders from the precogs. The first is a vision of a woman drowning in a lake, and upon investigation, Anderton learns that the woman has since gone missing and that the man arrested and imprisoned for her would-be murder is still a John Doe whom no one can identify. The second is a vision of a man named Leo Crow being shot to death in a shabby apartment by none other than Anderton himself. At this point, Anderton, predictably, goes on the run to clear his name, even though he knows the odds are against him. (The Precrime cops are used to seeing people fight their fate, and they’ll occasionally lament to each other that “everybody runs,” even though there’s no point.)

The story’s foundation is Anderton’s hunt to solve the mystery of his own impending crime, but what sells the movie is Spielberg’s ability to make the movie’s background unsettlingly plausible, or at least closer to real life than you might expect from the high-concept pitch. In 1999, the director convened a three-day summit to consult with researchers, scientists, and artists to determine what kind of technology would be plausible in the year 2054, when Minority Report was set to take place, so that he could populate the screen with visual touches grounded as much in data as in speculation. Some of these touches still feel too futuristic, like the highways populated by safe auto-driving cars, but others—personalized ads in public spaces that track you by retina scan, the novelty of virtual/augmented reality, the use of private personal data to assemble whole pictures of people they’d never imagined—hit right on the mark today. And even when the futuristic physical objects used for displaying communication feel dated, their actual content and use doesn’t: a physical newspaper that’s immediately updated with breaking headlines is functionally identical to push notifications from your favorite app, and the plastic discs used to transfer data in the Precrime division are neighbors of USB drives. Outside of the glistening Precrime offices, the world feels appropriately beat-up, too: some parts of the city are nice, some are dirty, the mall is a mall. It’s a believable future because it’s a recognizable one.

The filmmaking is also reliably strong here, too. Spielberg has long been a master at classical Hollywood style, relying on clean, simple cuts to carry the action, along with a tendency to use long takes not to show off but to quickly convey the shifting emotional dynamics of a scene. (For a great exploration, this Tony Zhou video is essential.) My favorite example here might be when Spielberg uses his roving camera and penchant for sly humor to create a bittersweet moment of regret and remembrance. Anderton is at home rewatching old videos of his ex-wife, Lara (Kathryn Morris), which are filtered through multiple projectors to give the illusion of 3-D. He’s already spent most of the evening watching clips of their son, Sean, who was abducted years earlier and never found. Now, standing before a digital representation of the last living person he loves, he re-enacts old banter and flirting. Eventually, the video Lara says to “put the camera down or you’re not getting anything tonight,” at which point several things happen very quickly: the video playback stops, leaving the words “End of File” hovering ominously in front of Anderton; the camera, which has been slowly circling while panning to the right, slides Anderton’s face into frame; and Anderton, caught up in the moment, freezes with a smile on his face that bleeds into a grimace, as if he’s been suddenly slapped. It’s a mix of humor (the abrupt shutting down of the video), pathos (Anderton’s trip to a happier past is abruptly terminated), and keen visual storytelling (the movement stops as the moment lands, leaving us with Anderton, haunted). This is the kind of fiendishly good and economical filmmaking that Spielberg does all the time, and he’s so good at it that it’s often easy to overlook.

Throughout the film, Anderton finds himself confronted with a deepening conspiracy that also presents an existential crisis: is Precrime just, or is it fundamentally wrong to hunt and pursue someone for a crime they still haven’t committed? He spends most of his time hunting the “minority report,” which is the data feed that’s generated when one of the precogs sees something that doesn’t square with the other two. There are other spiritual minority reports in the narrative, from Anderton’s attempt to write a new future to the wistfully imagined alternate life of his departed son. Looking back almost two decades later, the film serves in some ways as its own minority report. Here, it seems to say, are things that could happen; here are some that already have; here are some that never did.

Similarly, while it’s the hunt for Anderton that powers the film’s narrative, the little details on the edges are the ones that really sing. Anderton has to figure out how to navigate a city that’s tracking his every movement through retinal scan, which is really no different than having your movements triangulated by cell towers and satellites all day without your really thinking about it. And oh, those horrible targeted ads. Minority Report envisions a future full of talking, animated pop-ups that stalk us through commercial spaces, which is barely a step beyond the metric tonnage of cookies that follow you throughout a day’s browsing online. Even though the film’s resolution is tied to its premise of psychic visions, the rest of the movie’s world remains firmly rooted in ours. Strip out the Precrime, and this vision of the future would be perfectly suited to any kind of speculative fiction (even some that’s not all that speculative). Who could have imagined when the film debuted that it would wind up being so accidentally prescient? And now, a word from our sponsors.

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Written By

Daniel Carlson is a lapsed film critic living in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared at Oscilloscope's Musings, The Hollywood Reporter, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. He and his wife host a podcast called "How Have You Not Seen This?!"

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