In the not so distant future, privacy will be a thing of the past, even the most intimate privacy: our dreams and fears, our desires and dislikes. Our imagination. Ultimately, the freedom of thoughts may become an obsolescent model. This is no science fiction, it’s fast evolving science fact¹. ‘Big Data’ will be the key to our minds, whereas the actual benefits for Jane and John Doe remain in the dark. As do the real beneficiaries.
Spielberg’s Minority Report, released just 10 months after 9/11, has unerringly predicted this kind of future with a neo-noir picture that’s a masterpiece in multi-layered storytelling, with a subtle but complex subtext and extreme emotional depth. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the film is set in the Washington, D.C. area in the year 2054. A specialized police force apprehends — potential — murderers based on the foreknowledge of three psychics, the so-called precogs.
This high-tech unit, Precrime, is not without controversy though — despite having prevented murders for six years, and throughout the story the justification for this kind of law enforcement is in doubt.
“Spielberg seemingly believes that, even if the precogs’ “previsions” do not rob us of our metaphysical freedom to act otherwise than we do, Precrime is dubious because of the potential threat it poses to our political rights and freedoms. Because the values associated with our political rights and freedoms outweigh those garnered via Precrime, it ought to be jettisoned.”²
However, the opening scenes of the film lead us in a different direction. We’re taken on a psychic trip when the three precogs have an agonizing vision of a betrayed husband slaughtering his unfaithful wife and her lover. 20 minutes later and apparently in the last second, Precrime’s chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) overpowers the man and has him “haloed”, a painless but irrevocable form of subduing the would-be murderer. In all likelihood he will not come back from this “prison” — a kind of death sentence without execution — and trial.
We can’t help it but commend the rescuers and sympathize with Anderton who, as we later learn, has lost his son to a crime, too. What they do seems right. The man, about to plunge a pair of scissors into his wife, had virtually been caught in the act. He would’ve been a murderer.
Although he believes in the system, Anderton soon realizes something’s wrong. Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the precogs, shows him a harrowing vision from the past asking him “Can you see?” Anderton, startled to his bones, is shown a murder that happened a long time ago. He wants to investigate the crime but it turns out the records have disappeared. Suspecting a “glitch” at first, he discusses the incident with his boss, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), with no prevail.
The next vision of the precogs turns the hunter Anderton into the hunted. The three predict he will murder a man he’s never met and to avoid being “haloed”, Anderton flees. To him, the prevision was faked. In an attempt to prove the precogs wrong he turns to the woman who invented Precrime, Iris Hineman (Lois Smith).
This scene not only reveals the back story of the Precrime division and its tragic beginnings, we also see Anderton’s world fall to pieces. At the same, the scene pulls the future world of Precrime right back into the present.
If the unintended consequences of a series of genetic mistakes and science gone haywire can be called invention, then yes, I invented precrime.
You don’t seem all that proud.
I’m not. I was trying to heal them, not turn them into something else.
The innocents we now use to stop the guilty.
You’re talking about the precogs…
You think the three in the tank come out of a test tube? They’re merely the ones who survived. I was doing genetic research at the Woodhaven Clinic treating children of drug addicts… All of these kids were born with severe brain damage, most died before the age of 12. Those few, those precious few who survived… They had a gift, I call it a gift, for them it was more like a cosmic joke… When these little children closed their eyes at night, they dreamt only of murder, over and over, one after the other, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that the real nightmare was that these so-called dreams were about to come true, these murders were actually happening.
You say some of the children died.
So many of them… despite what we did for them. Or maybe because of what we did to them. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect system now, isn’t it?”
Beyond the obvious theme of “free will versus determinism”, Minority Report is also about an attitude of “the end justifies the means”, where even human rights are at the disposal of a perceived “greater good”. Not least the precogs themselves, always submerged in a floating tank, apparently never had a say in their fate. As Anderton himself says at some point, we “shouldn’t think of them as human beings”.
Ultimately though Anderton has no choice and must realize his belief in the system is built on sand, and the woman who ‘invented’ the system can’t exonerate him either.
No one can. The precogs are never wrong… But, occasionally, they do disagree.
Most of the time, all three precognitives will see an event in the same way. But once in a while, one of them will see things differently than the other two.
Jesus Christ – why didn’t I know about this?
Because these minority reports are destroyed the instant they occur.
Obviously, for Precrime to function, there can’t be any suggestion of fallibility. After all, who wants a justice system that instills doubt? It may be reasonable, but it’s still doubt.
Are you saying that I’ve haloed innocent people?
I’m saying that every so often those accused of a precrime might, just might, have an alternate future…
Don’t trust anyone. Just find the minority report.”
Anderton’s ensuing quest is not only a whodunit story, it also forces the man to look deep inside himself. Spielberg intertwines one of his major themes, broken families, with an exploration of psychic abilities. Anderton, on the run with the precog Agatha, relies on her short-term predictions to avoid capture, but through her he also discovers truths about himself.
In the end, the whole system unravels and the final twist reveals the futility of a technology that’s based on misconceptions, and the seemingly unsolvable predicament that anything can be both used and abused. As the film unfolds a deeply human disaster amidst a compelling and seamless hightech world, the consequences of a spiritually and morally immature — collective — mind appear particularly severe. A truly “brave new world” may just be an illusion even if technology allows something like practical telepathy.
“The concept of reading intentions is of very great interest in criminal justice and forensic psychiatry. Thoughts alone are insufficient here. If Edmund sits quietly at his desk dreaming about how an axe through the skull would improve a tiresome colleague, he is doing no more actual harm than a worker who spends company time on Facebook. However rapt his fantasies may be, they do not hurt anyone as long as he keeps them to himself and doesn’t either mention or perform the fatal craniotomy. There may come a time when George Orwell’s thought crime is seriously proposed as legislation, but for now a man’s imagination is still his own backyard.”³
Yet, we can already see the future where it’s not. With the right algorithms, the Internet (or its successors) will make us more and more predictable and, alongside the technology we’re using on a daily basis, eventually allow for insights into thoughts and intentions. The complexity of the human mind won’t be an issue for much longer either, as quantum computing is already on the horizon. Even if there were “minority reports”, the technology to hijack someone else’s mind could be used for just about anything. (Natural) psychic abilities, whether or not they exist, are still a matter of fringe science and ridicule for a reason.
In the final scenes of Minority Report, we see the three precogs living in the middle of nowhere, in a simple farm house with books, and free of technology. Many have disliked this “happy ending” as it seems to break the style of the film, but I think it’s actually a trenchant statement. Try as we might, we can keep psychics far from civilization but in the end, technology might just do their job. Technology though might not be capable of producing “minority reports”…
As government investigator Witwer (Colin Farrell) says earlier in the film, “the power has always been with the priests, even if they had to invent the oracle.”
Twentieth Century Fox
Original release: June 17th, 2002
Running time: 139 minutes approx.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Philip K. Dick (Short story), Scott Frank
Cast: Tom Cruise, Max von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton
(1) Mind reading is possible! (Salon.com)
(1) Precog-Like Software Tested (Mashable)
(1) Why Minority Report was spot on (The Guardian)
(1) Minority Report becomes reality (Daily Mail)
(1) The Future Is Not a Destination (Slate/Futurist Magazine)
(2) Dean A. Kowalski in Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Book, p. 227, The University Press of Kentucky, 2011
(3) The Brain Supremacy: Notes from the Frontiers of Neuroscience, Oxford University Press, 2012