Movie Review: Minority Report

Tom Cruise and director Steven Spielberg have joined forces for the first time in the hardcore sci-fi thriller Minority Report. The film is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose work previously inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall.

Minority Report is set in Washington, D.C., in the year 2054. Even in the future, the capital of the United States still had the highest murder rate in the nation. But all of that changed six years ago when the Department of Pre-Crime was founded. Since then there hasn’t been a single murder. The keys to the system are the Pre-Cogs, three young humans with the ability to see the future. Their visions are so violently painful that they’re drugged almost to the point of unconsciousness and kept in a nutrient tank that keeps them alive. When they sense that a murder is about to happen, their visions are displayed on monitors that can be manipulated by Pre-Crime detectives to discover the scene of the uncommitted crime and the face of the would-be murderer. Agents are dispatched to arrest the accused before the crime is even committed. The would-be perpetrators are cataloged, warehoused and completely removed from society.

Cruise plays John Anderton, the brightest of the Pre-Crime detectives. Watching him perform his job is fascinating. When the Pre-Cogs are jolted to life by a new vision, Anderton calmly says, “This will be case number 1108.” Random bits of visual data from the upcoming murder flash wildly onto flat glass screens while Anderton’s gloved hands arrange them in a kinetic techno-ballet of movement and imagery. If a detail seems frivolous, he shoves it aside to see something more relevant. After Anderton has pointed the most significant details into place, he and his team are ready to make the arrest. Spielberg and the actors play these scenes perfectly: Minority Report injects more dramatic intensity into stopping a murder that hasn’t even happened yet than most action films can muster from a chase scene packed with explosions and gunfire.

The system has been so effective in Washington, D.C. that the Department of Pre-Crime is ready to expand across the United States. But the Department of Justice isn’t so sure that the system is perfect, so the Attorney General dispatches an ambitious agent named Danny Witwer (Colin Farell) to find any flaw that might shut Pre-Crime down.

The resulting discussions between Anderton and Witwer provide some of the film’s best fireworks. And by giving the Witwer character a theological background, the writers also provide the film with a subtle outlet for ethical objections against a system that punishes people for crimes that haven’t been committed. We’re seeing something similar in the news right now; cloning is finally a reality, but is it right? Other aspects of the Pre-Crime debate have relevance these days. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. government is going deeper than ever before in its investigations of suspected terror accomplices, often making up the rules as it goes.

In Minority Report, the implications are fascinating. Obviously, the streets are much safer because every murder is prevented. The unspoken by-product, of course, is that people are terrified to even think about murder, much less commit one. “There’s a flaw,” Witmer warns Anderton as he contemplates the right of Pre-Crime to jail a person who technically hasn’t committed the crime. “It’s human. It always is, John.”

John Anderton knows all about human flaws. He still blames himself for the disappearance of his young son, an event that destroyed his marriage and drove him to a drug habit that he still hasn’t shaken. And all that’s left of his world comes crashing down when, during a routine assembly of an upcoming homicide, the face of the killer turns out to be his own.

The plot description alone is inherently energetic. What happens when a cop who can see the future sees himself murder a person he’s never even met? Can the future be changed? Yoda will tell you that “always in motion is the future,” but Steven Spielberg isn’t George Lucas and Minority Report isn’t Star Wars. We ultimately know where Minority Report has to go. The excitement comes from how Spielberg gets us there.

Anderton is a fugitive from justice the second he sees himself on that screen, but he knows he’s been set up. But has he? The implications are brilliantly played. When one of his Pre-Crime teammates wonders why Anderton doesn’t just turn himself in, Witwer coldly replies, “Because he thinks he’s innocent.” Anderton has to solve a future murder in which he’s the killer, and what he finds will challenge everything he knows about himself and the system he so strongly believes in. All of the film’s mysteries are revealed slowly but effectively, including the meaning of the title.

The look of the film is one of the biggest keys to its success. Production designer Alex McDowell (The Crow, Fight Club) has created a very believable and surprisingly sanitary future for Minority Report. The urban sprawl of Washington D.C., for example, evokes the beautiful architecture of Coruscant rather than the harsh, filthy cityscapes of Blade Runner. The aircraft used by the Department of Pre-Crime are reminiscent of Boba Fett’s Slave I. Hovering above their target, the craft open their rear doors to deploy Pre-Crime agents on jet packs who exit the ship from a revolving Ferris Wheel-type rigging. The film features some incredible car designs, and ingeniously demonstrates how futuristic advertising works without being obtrusive to the storytelling. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who previously photographed A.I., Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List for Spielberg, seamlessly incorporates McDowell’s amazing designs into Spielberg’s narrative framework. In Attack of the Clones, the special effects were too obviously computer generated and often detracted from the storytelling. In Minority Report, everything looks natural and realistic.

Minority Report juggles many genres with effortless effectiveness, all while posing big questions. It’s a sci-fi movie, it’s an action thriller and it’s a gritty, film noir murder mystery. Spielberg has always been an innovative action director. Discussing the most clever tricks he uses in Minority Report would give away too many surprises, but rest assured that Spielberg uses the concept to create pursuits and escapes that audiences simply haven’t seen before. There’s also a great deal of purity to the science fiction of Minority Report. The film is not afraid to subject its hero to grotesquely disturbing unpleasantness, and Spielberg can’t resist adding bits of his morbid sense of humour to some truly gross-out moments. (Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when they ripped that guy’s heart out of his chest? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Minority Report.)

Just like Spielberg, the cast delivers. Cruise, equally capable of physical and emotional intensity, is perfect for something like this. He’s believable in the action scenes but even more impressive in the film’s most emotional moments. The script is often shockingly unforgiving in its treatment of John Anderton and asks a lot of Cruise, who allows Spielberg to guide him through one of his most interesting and accessible performances in years. Colin Farell, who’s playing the villainous Bullseye in the upcoming Daredevil movie, matches Cruise’s intensity with an arrogance that’s easy to despise. Kathryn Morris admirably brings Anderton’s ex-wife, Lara, to life with a sensitive portrayal, and Max Von Sydow is as excellent as ever as Anderton’s mentor. Samantha Morton, as the Pre-Cog called Agatha, creates a courageously vulnerable performance here. Tim Blake Nelson (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Peter Stormare (Fargo) are memorable in supporting roles.

Mysterious, suspenseful and magnificently thought-provoking, Minority Report marks a welcome return to top form for both Cruise and Spielberg.