A current 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes. A box office result that exceeded its original budget three times over. One of the finest performances of Tom’s Cruise’s career. More than fifteen years after its theatrical release, you’d think all of these factors would at least place Minority Report on some pedestal among Spielberg’s greatest films in the area of contemporary critical opinion. Yet the brilliance of the director’s twenty third directorial entry has disappeared all too quickly beneath the nostalgia for his other sci-fi entries, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in particular. While it might be somewhat superfluous to try and compare films that Spielberg directed decades apart, Minority Report – the Philip K. Dick-inspired story of a man who goes on the run after being falsely accused of murder by a futuristic, utopian Pre-Crime system – nonetheless stands as his greatest work of sci-fi in the twenty first century, and is among his finest films to date.
Spielberg has become defined by his ability to create tension. Whether it’s the quiet unease of the shaving scene in The Color Purple, the incoming threat of the dinosaurs as the children hide in Jurassic Park, or the famous jarring violins as the shark approaches in Jaws, discomfort plays an essential role in many of his scenes. In Minority Report, however, Spielberg sustains tension throughout the entirety of the film. From the outset, we are met with a pair of scissors and a quick, changing succession of images as a murder takes place with the aforementioned implement. We are allowed no time to consider the nature of this hostile act before we are introduced to a knowing Blade Runner image as we witness a shocked opening eye, and the shot swiftly pans out to the woman that has witnessed the crime in her mind.
In Minority Report, however, Spielberg sustains tension throughout the entirety of the film.
Before we are given time to take stock of these images, we are immediately introduced to John Anderton (Tom Cruise) who quickly walks towards a screen, gets permission from unknown government officials, then proceeds to use the images from the woman, later identified as a precog – one of the humans used to predict murders for the Pre-Crime system – and moves the pictures expertly around with his hands to decipher the murder’s location. As if the viewer isn’t disconcerted enough, we then flick between the predicted images and the real scene itself in the minutes before the murder will take place. The tension rises as Anderton struggles to locate the precise area of the murder, and a sense of relief is barely felt when he manages to reach the location and stop the crime within the last second, arresting a man who has not yet committed any act. Spielberg sets up a sense of rising dread that will only continue as Anderton is later forced to flee from assailants for his predicted crime.
Minority Report wears its Blade Runner influence on its sleeve. As in Ridley Scott’s work, eyes remain a constant motif, used in Spielberg’s film to identify people when walking past eye recognition cameras, and also to disguise a person’s identity by swapping their own eyes with another’s, and contribute to the atmosphere of voyeurism and unease that pervades the film. The latter example of eye swapping encapsulates one of the film’s most gruesome and intense scenes, and the editing work is impressive in managing to maintain a 12-age rating for the film’s UK release (albeit receiving a 15 by the Irish Film Classification Office). Attempting to break into Pre-Crime and retrieve the minority report from Agatha, Anderton visits a less than savoury black market establishment to get new eyes and thus avoid detection. Peter Stormare is on characteristically creepy form as Doctor Solomon, who opens the scene by sneezing, and then injecting Anderton with an unknown substance. We then learn that Solomon was a criminal whom Anderton had previously put away, and watch with terror as the operation takes place. Indeed, the horrifying image of Anderton’s eyes clamped open is reminiscent of Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange, but also feels like a nod to the original Total Recall – like Blade Runner, another adaptation of Philip K. Dick – with Quaid’s (Arnold Swarzenenegger) darkly comic bulging eyeballs. In any case, a significant amount of optical pain is necessary to continue the character’s journey. But it can’t get any more tense, right? Wrong. Anderton then has to keep a bandage over his eyes for twenty-four hours, otherwise he’ll go blind. The ensuing moment with food in the fridge is like a tragicomic version of Theseus and the Minotaur, and the following scene with the spiders? I’ll leave that horror for you to enjoy.
Spielberg’s film is brilliantly groundbreaking in its prediction of pervasive media and consumerism. Consider the Pre-Crime advert as Andteron jogs past, assuring the viewer in an unnervingly optimistic yet didactic voice that “what keeps us safe, will also keep us free”. When Anderton is trying to escape from police forces, however, the bright moving advertisements become more frequent and loud. After walking past a Lexus ad that fortuitously tells him he is, like Robert Frost, “following the road less travelled”, we are then provided with a moment of bathos as another ad appears and happily suggests: “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right now!”. But only moments later, we notice that his face has already appeared in “Wanted” fashion in newspapers, and is victimised in a matter of minutes. The population is kept in stasis through trivial advertisements, while also being in constant fear and control by witch-hunt stories like Anderton’s. We even hear this sinister, manipulative state media voice when Anderton walks past a group of children on a school trip, where a teacher informs them that each of the precogs has its own bedroom and washroom, when in reality they are kept imprisoned in cruel, sedated and passive subordination by the Pre-Crime institution. Spielberg predicts a digital future that is rife with materialistic and mind-numbing cynicism.
Spielberg’s film is brilliantly groundbreaking in its prediction of pervasive media and consumerism.
Perhaps one of Minority Report’s greatest achievements is its refusal to tie up loose ends, a concept that is often rare in Spielberg’s works. The film’s running tragedy, the nature of Sean’s disappearance, is never discovered, and the end result is all the better for it. One could argue that Spielberg gives us a nice, packaged ending as we witness the dissolution of Pre-Crime and see Anderton with a pregnant Lara, yet we are still left with necessary pathos that Sean is never found. Jaws isn’t killed, and Private Ryan isn’t saved. The film, helped by Janusz Kaminski’s bleak, understated cinematography of dark-blues and greys, never resolves this key problem, and leaves the viewer with a powerful sense of anguish that seems wholly necessary to reinforce the film’s dark, human realities amidst its seemingly distant sci-fi context.
Everybody runs, as Anderton repeatedly says and the film’s tagline reads. And fifteen years after its original release, Minority Report is showing similar stamina, and becoming more relevant with every passing year. Don’t miss out on one of Spielberg’s most accomplished contributions to the sci-fi canon.