Retrospective: A Minority Verdict Against Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report

“Science fiction for me is a vacation, a vacation away from all the rules of narrative logic, a vacation away from physics and physical science. It just lets you leave all the rules behind and just kind of fly.”

Steven Spielberg, 2005 Reuters interview 


Minority Report US DVD cover
DVD cover showing Ebert & Roeper hailing the film a ‘masterpiece’

Upon release in 2002 the film Minority Report, nominally based on a story by Philip K. Dick, received almost universally ecstatic reviews, being repeatedly hailed as a superlative return to top form for director Steven Spielberg, and a landmark piece of intelligent, adult science fiction. I was among the few dissenting voices, and what follows, my minority retort if you like, is a revised version of an article originally published in Matrix #157 (September/October 2002).

The acclaim for what was then Spielberg’s latest SF picture worried me because it exposed a paucity of critical thought, a complete lack of analytical ability, a startling disregard for the craft of good storytelling and filmmaking. For now, as then, if Minority Report is regarded as good, serious, intelligent SF, it lowers the possibility of the genuine article reaching the screen. Today Minority Report is regarded as 91% ‘fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes, and has a 7.7 rating (out of 10) on the Internet Movie Database. Between 2002 and now little intelligent SF has graced the multiplex.

Now let me say three things. Such is Spielberg’s skill as a filmmaker that Minority Report is, especially in the latter half of its long running time, a gripping, entertaining film which cumulatively generates considerable tension – though it does so largely through John Williams’ superlative score which is in an entirely different league to everything else – and delivers a handful of genuine surprises. Yet by any serious standard Minority Report a very bad film, being a thriller dependent upon a complex plotting which makes no sense, which is riddled with serious flaws in both its internal logic and sfnal world building – at every level from the macro to the micro – and which suffers from wildly inappropriate shifts in tone coupled with some of the worst cinematography ever to disgrace a major motion picture. To explain just why I think the film is so bad will involve discussing the plot in detail, so be warned, if you haven’t yet caught up with this now 12 year old film, there are major SPOILERS AHEAD.

In 2055 there are three psychics (“precogs”) who can predict murders within a few miles of their vicinity. Somewhere deep inside the HQ of the Pre-Crime department of the Washington D.C. police force these three precogs spend their lives floating in a swimming pool, barely or not at all conscious of the present day world. Eventually we will learn that the pool has a plug hole sufficiently large to allow humans to exit through it, something which seems a dangerously bizarre design feature, and which exists only to allow for what should be an impossible escape: Spielberg doesn’t even try to make what follows plausible – Detective John Anderton, Tom Cruise, escaping from the HQ carrying a barely conscious woman, the director disingenuously cutting to them already outside in a car making their getaway without ever showing how they got there.

Every so often the precogs predict a murder. Though at least one of the precogs, Agatha, well played by Samantha Morton, can speak perfectly good English, the predictions are delivered by a Heath Robinson device which carves the names of killer and victim on two wooden balls. Considering the testosterone fuelled nature of the scenario, and the fact that the police could just ask Agatha, one might say this was a metaphor for the entire film. Still, even if it is in defiance of all logic, it is most convenient for the construction of edge-of-the-seat set pieces that the precogs always provide the names of the killer and victim, and always to the last second the time at which the murder will take place, but are only able to provide the most vague clues to the location. Still, this is not a film to concern itself with logic.

We are told that the precogs can only detect murder and sometimes other extremely violent crimes such as rape, because these offenses cause the greatest disturbance of the “metaphysical fabric”. Yet later there is a scene in which Agatha proves to be aware of every little thing which is about to happen, moments before it does. We are told that the precogs can only foretell what will happen, not what might happen. Yet later Agatha describes in considerable detail the life one character would have lived to the age of 23, had he not been abducted and presumably killed as a young boy.

These are however minor inconsistencies. One fundamental part of the story involves the imminent expansion of Pre-Crime from an experimental programme confined to Washington D.C. to a system covering the entire USA. We are told the precogs’ ability is limited in time and space, to a few days into the future and a few miles around their physical location. We know there are only three precogs. Without hundreds, if not thousands of other precogs the imminent expansion of the Pre-Crime system across the USA is impossible. Yet this expansion is a key driving force of the plot. A plot which is therefore entirely nonsensical.

One day the precogs predict senior Pre-Crime detective John Anderton will commit a murder in 36 hours. Anderton, like Logan before him, runs from his colleagues. In a well-choreographed yet ludicrously out of place action set-piece Anderton evades perhaps as many as a dozen of his work mates – despite their being heavily armoured and equipped with Fahrenheit 451 (1966) police jet packs. The comedy which intrudes in this scene is especially jarring, the low point being a jet pack flame grilling a row of hamburgers. It is an Indiana Jones moment, not appropriate in a film which 95% of the time takes itself very seriously indeed.

But then this is the sort of film in which the occupants of a block of apartments continue with their meals quite unconcerned while a massive police confrontation takes place in the alley outside, and later in which the occupants of a different apartment building go about their nightly business with barely the bat of an eyelid during what one would assume was at the very least a disturbing incursion of spider-like police robots swarming from room to room scanning everyone’s eyeballs.

Eyes are a symbol throughout. At one point Anderton has his removed and replaced; later he has the originals in a plastic bag. In a ridiculous black comedy moment he drops them and one falls down a drain beyond any possible retrieval. Later it is back in the bag. This is a very silly film indeed.

But before that the fight referenced above continues into an automated car factory. An oddly small factory improbably located in a warehouse among apartments. One thing is clear – Spielberg must have had a chat with his mate George Lucas, and they both decided to put factory set-pieces in their respective summer blockbusters of 2002. Set-pieces in which the hero goes through a conveyor belt and nearly becomes part of a piece of machinery. Lucas pulled the whole thing off with infinitely more imagination, excitement, visual scale and style in Attack of the Clones. Spielberg’s attempt looks like a TV movie imitation by comparison, even if he does manage a clever film buff in-joke.

Alfred Hitchcock long wanted to begin a film with a scene of a car being constructed, following the progress of the machine along the production line in a single shot. When the car was finished someone was to open one of the doors, and a corpse would slump out. Hitchcock never figured out how to incorporate this into a story. Spielberg comes close, having a car built around Anderton, who then drives it away. But we must wonder, why don’t Anderton’s former colleagues continue the chase? The only answer is because it is the end of the set-piece, and time to move on to the next bit of exposition.

Despite all the hi-tec surveillance technology that would surely exist in this future authoritarian Washington Anderton has no problem driving to the home of Mrs Mad Exposition. The film calls her Dr Iris Hineman and she is played by Lois Smith, whose performance seems to be inspired by Uma Thurman’s take on Poison Ivy from Batman and Robin (1997). Mrs Mad Exposition is a loopy genetic scientist who spends her time making comedy customised killer plants. Anderton goes to see her so that she can deliver vast amounts of exposition for the audience’s benefit. For instance, we are supposed to believe that Anderton does not know the origins of the three precogs on which his entire work depends. Mrs Mad Exposition also explains what the title of the film means, yet later it appears Anderton is the only one who did not know what the supposedly secret minority reports are. Not only do his juniors on the force know, but even an outsider, the excellent Colin Farell playing FBI agent Danny Witwer, knows.

Witwer, we are supposed to assume, is the villain. The guy who has put Anderton in the frame for a murder he will not commit, either to discredit the Pre-Crime initiative, or to pave the way for the FBI to take it over. But anyone who has seen a few thrillers will know that not only can’t it be that simple, but that the presence of an elder statesman actor, here Max Von Sydow, as a seemingly benign paternal figure can mean only one thing.

This might not be so bad were the events which follow not both derivative and impossible. Von Sydow (playing Lamar Burgess – just one of the film’s references to A Clockwork Orange (1971) offers a scheme for framing Anderton which works only in retrospect. All he does is hire a man to be in a hotel room at a certain time, with photographs of Anderton’s missing son scattered on the bed, there to confess to killing the child. This is supposed to be enough for Anderton to go to the room and kill the man, resulting in the precogs predicting the killing 36 hours before it happens. Yet other than the precogs prediction, there is no reason whatsoever for Anderton to go to that room and meet the man… It is the central plot axis of the film, and it makes no sense.

There are many, many more flaws, large and small. But just a few more will suffice. In a very muddled scene paralleling the ‘New You’ scene from Logan’s Run (1976), Anderton has his eyeballs swapped in an implausibly filthy apartment by a back street surgeon, Dr Solomon (Peter Storemare). Once Anderton is partly under the anaesthetic Solomon tells Anderton that he once sent him to prison, where he had a most unpleasant time, not the least of which involved being sodomised in the showers. This we assume is a precursor to Solomon attempting to exact nasty revenge on Anderton, keeping us in suspense as to how Anderton will escape. But then nothing happens except that Solomon performs the operation and leaves Anderton with food, drink, an alarm clock and very strict and repeated instructions not to remove the bandages before the clock indicates 12 hours are up. Or he will go blind. Then after some inappropriate gross-out comedy a robot shines a very, very bright light in one of Anderton’s new eyes after six hours, with no ill effects at all.

Pre-Crime only deals with serious, very violent crime, but Washington has got rid of all its other detectives because it no longer needs them. Newspapers can update themselves in real time, but people still have a fresh one delivered every morning. Other than futuristic vehicles and fancy police technology the future looks very much like now. Stores and clothing are, bar interactive advertising, pretty much identical to the way there were in 2002. The names and logos are the same. But so are the products and store design and layout.

Oddities abound. We are meant to empathise with Anderton though he never once questions whose head his new eyes were once in, or the circumstances by which they left it. But then the man is addicted to a drug called Clarity. The fact that not only doesn’t it affect his performance, but may enhance it, given his superior abilities throughout the film, delivers a presumably unintended pro-drugs message. But then, we are meant to empathise with Anderton despite his regarding the precogs as sub-human processing machines. And we are left wondering how such a system arose. Wasn’t there an outcry over human rights? We are left wondering how, politically, such a world was allowed to develop in an America which in most other respects is more like now than when, more present than future. But then given that those arrested for murders they haven’t committed are immediately placed in an electronically induced coma and contained in the very next room to the precog’s swimming pool, where they are guarded by a mad organ-playing redneck, perhaps there are no grounds for taking this deranged comic book seriously at all.

Let me now just point out that the main plot structure – older, senior man sets-up younger investigator as the fall guy for a murder of a woman which he himself has committed, all played out as a race against time amid Washington power politics – is appropriated from No Way Out (1987), itself a remake of The Big Clock (1948), which may just have influenced Dick’s original story. To this are added elements of Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Logan’s Run (1976), Blade Runner (1982), and in the manner of the death of Danny Witwer, LA Confidential (1997). A device for altering Anderton’s face appears as a reference to the masks used in Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise. The finale plays out like a variation on the climax of The Fugitive (1993), with a lavish reception and gala dinner leading to a rooftop showdown. Most notably of all, Minority Report is littered with visual references to Nic Roeg’s masterpiece, Don’t Look Now (1973), itself based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier.

Both films involve women having psychic visions of death. In both the deaths involve water. In Don’t Look Now a little girl in a red coat drowns. In Minority Report a boy of similar age is abducted from a swimming pool – the first act of Spielberg’s previous film, A.I. (2001) ended with a dead boy at the bottom of a swimming pool. In Minority Report a woman is murdered at the water’s edge wearing a red coat. In both films there is an elderly woman laughing ominously in a hotel. In Don’t Look Now visions of blood and broken glass are mixed. Minority Report opens with a comparable image. The only difference is Don’t Look Now is a great film and Minority Report is simply engaging in post-modern referencing. It’s Tarantino’s game, unworthy of a serious picture where every shot is there because it needs to be, not because it pays homage to a previous film. But the game is played for all its worth – one character is called Crow, referencing Cameron Crowe, director of Cruise’s previous SF film, Vanilla Sky (2001), itself a mediocre remake of a far superior science fiction film (Abre los ojos – 1997), a film which itself ended with a rooftop showdown which appears to have influenced everything from the original British Life on Mars to Inception (2010).

Minority Report is photographed in antiseptically bleached Super35 with an incredibly ugly, grainy, high contrast look which makes The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) look like My Fair Lady (1964). This visual bleakness might serve a rather more serious film, but here seems like no more than a pretension to darkness; the coda wraps everything up cosily, with Anderton no longer even concerned about the still unresolved fate of his son. The post-modern referencing continues to the end, with the final shot borrowing from Solaris (1972), as well as echoing the bucolic studio imposed ending of the originally released version of Blade Runner, to entirely unsatisfactory purpose. Are we supposed to believe three young people, two male, one a beautiful woman, living in total isolation for the rest of their lives is a happy ending, rather than a precursor to pain and tragedy?

As Spielberg continues his obsessive exploration of broken families – there is more than one in Minority Report – the result proves an unpalatable mixture of the superficially intelligent and the utterly idiotic, the faux-serious and the popcorn blockbuster. A film which somehow grips despite its myriad flaws, Minority Report remains one of Spielberg’s weakest works, and in falling so far short of what SF can achieve on screen quite the most incoherent, muddled and ludicrous big budget genre exercise since Waterworld seven years earlier, a film which at least was honest about its ambitions to be no more than mindless entertainment.

As James Cameron’s infinitely more coherent exploration of future paradox, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), argued; ‘there is no future but that we make ourselves’. Since Spielberg attempted, and failed, to wrestle back the title of King Of The World of action movies back from Cameron with Jurassic Park (1993) his more mainstream work has suffered from inconsistency, massive plot holes and inappropriate changes of tone. Minority Report exemplifies these failings to the nth degree, and appearing in cinemas less than a year after A.I. feels like a rushed piece of multiplex fodder with misplaced ambitions.

Predicting Spielberg’s future in 2002 I foresaw more technically accomplished but unconvincing work, to be greeted with more unrestrained critical praise, until the genius who invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws (1975) looks at his own back catalogue and realises he has a choice. To continue to murder his own talent or not. The future is not set…

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