The Eyes Have It
Jeff Reichert on Minority Report

Let this, therefore, first of all be before our eyes: to seek any other knowledge of predestination than what the Word of God discloses is not less insane than if one should purpose to walk in a pathless waste, or to see in darkness. And let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter, wherein there is a certain learned ignorance. Rather, let us willingly refrain from inquiring into a kind of knowledge, the ardent desire for which is both foolish and dangerous, nay, even deadly. —John Calvin

Minority Report, based on a short story by the ever-flowing wellspring that is the work of Philip K. Dick, is set in a glistening American near-future, the likes of which we here in blinkered, degraded, politically unstable 2012 can only dream. In Washington D.C., a special law enforcement unit has been formed that stops crimes before they actually happen. Sophisticated computers and electronics collect the sensations of the minds of three pre-cognitive humans (three albino-esque folks who somehow see into the future, share a hive mind and live a completely stationary life in suspended animation baths) and produce from them a pair of wooden balls—a nice bit of analog anachronism—one engraved with the name of a victim, one the name of the perpetrator. They also provide the amount of time left until the crime occurs and create a series of jumbled images of the act that play like a little movie (and not unlike the intro to a Law & Order episode). Pre-Crime’s best detective, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), is then tasked with scrutinizing these short films to uncover clues as to the location of the crime so that it can be stopped before it occurs.

At the film’s outset, this system, according to an advertising campaign seen projected on the walls of buildings, tunnels and storefronts, has eliminated premeditated crime within the district almost entirely, and the division is making plans to take Pre-Crime national. With lawbreaking a thing of the past, the only reasons for Pre-Crime’s continued existence are twofold: first, the panoptic quality of their work convinces potential evil-doers to stay on the straight and narrow; second, and more importantly, for crimes of passion, where no premeditation occurs, the pre-cogs’ last-minute visions can still help save lives. Minority Report begins with the arrival of a red ball and thus Anderton to the futuristic and bright Pre-Crime division headquarters. Even by this point, the ethical quandaries of arresting citizens for crimes they have not yet committed should already be swirling in all but the least engaged viewers’ minds.

Anderton, like the actor who portrays him, is a man who slices through space with righteous purposefulness. He clearly relishes his role in crime prevention—it’s the last arena of his life in which he maintains some control following the disappearance of his young son, and subsequent dissolution of his marriage a few years before Pre-Crime’s inauguration. With only minutes to spare before a cuckolded husband murders his wife and her lover with a pair of scissors, he’s the picture of calm: before beginning to scan through the images produced to find the crime’s location, he pops on some classical music, dons electric gloves, and raises his arms to open the accumulated files as though an orchestra conductor on the verge of launching into a symphony. He scrubs through the images quickly, moving forwards and backwards, isolating portions, tossing others away entirely, zooming in to find more information. Forget musicality: the choreography of his motions is dancelike in its smoothness and precise grace. In this sequence, Spielberg and his creative team manage to be somewhat pre-cognitive themselves—Anderton’s motions closely mimic those now-familiar swipes and swoops used to operate the iPads and iPhones and Wiis that, in 2002, were still years away from overwhelming our lives; the flicker of close LED lights on his concentrating face suggests yet another aspect of today’s screen-dominated existence.

Anderton gets his man, with only seconds to spare. This extended opening, which cross-cuts the detective’s whirlwind sleuthing with the participants in the murder about to happen, is one of Spielberg’s most intricately designed and executed chases, even if the hero’s part takes place almost entirely within one room. His search for the most perfect (read: meaning-laden) image employs technology that the designers of Final Cut Pro are surely salivating to incorporate in upcoming iterations of their digital editing interface, and the sequence remains one of cinema’s least heavy-handed attempts to integrate an exegesis of filmmaking itself. Unlike Hugo’s dewy-eyed highlight-reel glance back at the picture shows of yore, Minority Report sets its sights squarely on the present, and with a heaping dose of ambivalence. Anderton’s a cop in the film, but his practice will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen a movie get cut on a computer, and, like today’s digitally attuned editors, he can do pretty much anything he likes with the images presented him. The only real difference is that his manipulations and discoveries have drastic consequences for the figures in them (though perhaps this is not so different from filmmaking after all), and, at least at first, we want him to succeed. If we are to accept images as ontologically true in a Bazinian sense, what happens to that truth when they’ve been tampered with? Is seeing always believing?

The underlying questions of being and knowing in the digital age would dominate Spielberg’s turn of the century three-film suite of which Minority Report is the mid-point. A.I. features an endlessly reproducible, malleable humanity, Minority Report an endlessly reproducible, easily manipulated history/future, Catch Me If You Can, though not a futuristic tale, a fluid, endlessly reproducible identity. These films signaled a new phase of the director’s career, one in which he began a wholesale interrogation of the tropes and ideas that defined his powerful early career image-making, and, in cases like War Horse, the images and influences that helped inform his own practice. Prior to Schindler’s List (his turn towards seriousness preceded his art’s full-flowering by a few films), Spielberg made any image he wanted to, because he could. After, we find a formerly cocksure artist questioning both himself and the image factory he helped build.

Concurrent with their added layers of historical and self-critique, the films stretched out as well, often padding expository sequences beyond what’s generally allowed for studio films. Though Spielberg hasn’t ever been known for his brevity (save Duel, all of his films run well over ninety minutes), post-Schindler his running times have swelled. Saving Private Ryan ran 160 minutes, Amistad 155, A.I. and Minority Report 145. The average post-Schindler Spielberg picture has an extra 13 minutes on the pre-Schindler films, which may not sound like much, but at least in Minority Report it allows time to elevate the film from a generic sci-fi actioner into something more complex.

After Anderton successfully stops the murder-to-be, he’s met upon his return to the office by Department of Justice investigator Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a Catholic Irish lad (later, he kisses a rosary before tossing a punch) who’s more than a little skeptical of Pre-Crime’s work, and has been tasked with ferreting out flaws in the system before it is implemented across the country. The rangy Anderton/Witwer face-off that follows is a densely packed metaphysical discussion that ranges across predestination, fate, false idols and metaphysics with plenty of Biblical overtones. In the one corner, the religiously agnostic Anderton, who’s thrown the weight of his battered faith behind the Pre-Crime system’s infallibility, in the other, a faithful Catholic who wonders at a system that allows humans to, in essence, play God. They agree to disagree, yet one can’t help but marvel at Anderton’s smug sureness, especially when Spielberg lingers on him later in his cruddy apartment taking drugs, and watching lifelike three-dimensional home videos of his wife and child; his fixity on a lost past makes his Pre-Crime fanaticism seem all the more blinkered.

Pride goeth before the fall. During a visit to the pre-cogs’ den, Agatha (Samantha Morton) the sole female pre-cog (the others are named Arthur and Dashiell, all after noted mystery writers) suddenly wakes and grabs Anderton in a fit of clear anguish over her and her compatriots’ continued entrapment (which, when one thinks about the task they perform, and dire images they filter, seems a kind of pseudo-enslavement), and whispers to him: “Can you see?” What she tells him, and the images she sends into the system suggest a mystery, and lead the detective on a search through the Pre-Crime archives where he locates troubling discrepancies in the records. When Anderton is himself tagged by the pre-cogs as the perpetrator of a crime of passion, his panic is palpable. He doesn’t know the man he’s just seen himself murder, has never been to the location of the crime. His bedrock faith in the pre-cog system runs smack into his own belief that he could not possibly be the killer. Spielberg’s provided some of the most uncomplicatedly “good” protagonists of the blockbuster age and the dissonance between the innocence we’d like to assume of Anderton, and the imagistic proof we just witnessed provides the film’s propulsive tension. Minority Report, then, becomes a movie about witnessed potential futures, the ability to change, free will in conflict with predestination.

Sight becomes ever more important as Anderton’s crime is uncovered and he flees from the authorities, his former comrades. Society at this point has advanced such that billboard advertisements automatically read the retinas of passerby, tailoring their address to the scanned subject appropriately (the eyes as window to the consumerist soul) rendering any public space a cacophony of voices and appeals, and providing Anderton with little chance of anonymous escape. He’s forced to undergo an illicit, highly sketchy eye transplant, and decides that a daring kidnapping of Agatha is his best chance at heading off the murder he is to commit in a mere few hours‘ time. More terrifically sculpted chases ensue—Spielberg here hits the best balance between brains and brawn of his career. And if we’re not surprised that Anderton’s innocence is eventually proven it isn’t before he finds himself in the room he never believed he could enter, about to commit the crime he didn’t believe was possible.

The overall tightness of Minority Report’s scenario is remarkable, as each further story progression reinforces central questions of man’s place in and potential lack of control over his limited universe; save A.I., Minority Report may well be remembered as Spielberg’s most intellectually probing work. It also may be the film in which he least indulges his worst instincts: saccharine sweetness, the corny gag tossed into a tense sequence (he can’t resist a pair of rolling eyeballs at an odd moment), losing character amidst the melee of carefully choreographed mayhem, the blunt metaphor or obvious bit of symbolism. A.I. feints at many of these weaknesses, only to rip them apart and leave them bleeding on the floor (that film’s fake storybook ending is one of the most misread finales of the last decade); the meaner Minority Report dispenses with them almost entirely in its rush to another queasy, yet less dire happy ending.

It’s also a marvel that a decade on, the digital effects created by Spielberg’s team way back in 2002 don’t suffer from the datedness that’s marred most contemporary experiments in digital image manipulation. Watch any Harry Potter film to see the best, most expensive technology available at that given moment; in every case, especially those terrible first Chris Columbus films, the seams are obvious. Watch Minority Report to see how timeless carefully rendered effects cleverly integrated into an absorbing storyline can be. It could have been made yesterday, ten years ago, ten years from now. Its computer-created sequences have the chiseled feel of an ancient bas-relief; and remain just as convincing nearly a decade later.

Some gripe that the film’s conclusion rests on a too-easy deus ex machina, as Anderton’s estranged wife, Lara (Kathryn Morris), jumps to her husband’s rescue, sussing out Pre-Crime Director and Anderton mentor Lamar Burgess’s (Max von Sydow) involvement in staging the images that led to John’s imprisonment. By design, the final showdown between hero and villain isn’t a far cry from those written by the real-life Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell: Anderton and Burgess standing each other down on a balcony overlooking the city, conveniently at the moment of Burgess’s greatest triumph. (Dick knew crime fiction, and even though his story’s set in the future, it operates quite nicely on the level of classic noir.) What’s more dubious is the odd foreshortening of the film’s ending. A quick shot of John and a clearly pregnant Lara suggest the reinstatement (and replication) of the nuclear family unit that Spielberg has always tried to protect, insulate, and reunite throughout his career. Meanwhile, the pre-cogs have been freed from the torment of all of those horrible images and sent to live in an isolated cabin on an island, their program effectively scuttled. Can you ever go home again? Perhaps not. Leave it up to fate.