With the encouragement of the very kind Rachel over at Scientist Gone Wordy, I’m writing a post on one of the best sci-fi films to be released within the last ten years, in my opinion. Minority Report, the 2002 commercial hit directed by Steven Spielberg, is based upon a short story from the famed science fiction writer-novelist Philip K. Dick. For the last few decades, the late and influential author has given film studios plenty to work with in optioned novels and short stories, though with varying degrees of critical, box office, and sci-fi fan success.
And that more than likely was due to the manner filmmakers re-interpreted his work.
Though I’m sure I’ve taken in a short story by PKD somewhere along my life span, I’ve hardly read any of his well-regarded pieces. My exposure to this fine author has been byway of the films Hollywood has adapted from his source material — with varying degrees of alteration. Rachel, whose blog and writing I really admire, has agreed to join me in this endeavor. We will be posting in parallel for the first-time with the author’s Minority Report short story and the differences between it and the film she so loves (see link below):
I think I may have my work cut out for me in keeping up with her (what have I gotten myself into?). Oh, well. My father had a saying he repeated often enough, and it may be appropriate here.
“God hates a coward.”
So here goes. Along with Ridley Scott’s great and pivotal Blade Runner film1 (based upon Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), I daresay Minority Report‘s adaptation to film gets the Olympic Silver as the next best of the PDK lot for what it delivers on-screen.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]
A brief synopsis of the film: in the future year of 2054 (hey, I’ll be turning 100 then), the seemingly successful experiment in eliminating the crime of murder in Washington, D.C. using a specialized police department, known as ‘Precime’, has worked so well that it is poised to go nation-wide. Utilizing three psychics, known as precogs, to provide the foreknowledge of an upcoming homicide. Either premeditated, or of the crime of passion variety known as a ‘Red Ball‘, Precime law enforcement has used that unique awareness to arrest and execute sentences upon the guilty individuals.
The collection of crime scene evidence and a trial have been entirely bypassed under this new justice system. Let alone anything in reality actually occurring. The regimen’s success has also produced a pair of staunch (true) believers in Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise, at his restrained best) and his old friend and mentor, Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow). What gets the ball rolling, so do speak, is the introduction of the smart and ambitious Danny Witwer (played so very effectively by Colin Farrell), the Dept. of Justice agent tasked with evaluating the concept of Precrime before it goes national.
My review: I think what I love most about this film is how it cleverly posits its science fiction with contradictory religious over- and undertones. The fundamental precept of Precrime is the foreknowledge that is passed on by the three precogs. In other words, they render and interpret Fate. That which is deemed to happen. The number of psychics is a primary religious aspect in the story — the prescient set consists of two males and one female. At first glance, one could look to Greek mythology’s three goddesses, The Fates, as a symbolic note, here.
Hell, even the three witches in the play Macbeth were prophetic. But, you could also say they represent the Christian Trinity concept of sorts (“God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit”) — all of which makes up the ONE true God, conceivably. Which is in this case, the belief in preemption. Even where the three precogs live, in an almost holy state of semi-consciousness, is referred to as The Temple in the film. Examine this bit of dialogue between Anderton (and his cohorts) and Witwer when they enter that dwelling place:
John Anderton: “It’s better if you don’t think of them as human.”
Danny Witwer: “No, they’re much more than that. Science has stolen most of our miracles. In a way, they give us hope. Hope of the existence of the divine. I’ve found it interesting that some people have begun to deify the precogs.”John Anderton: “Precogs are pattern-recognition filters, that’s all.”
Danny Witwer: “Yet you call this room the temple.”
John Anderton: “Just a nickname.”
Danny Witwer: “The oracle is where the power is, anyway. The power is always been with the priests, even if they had to invent the oracle.”
John Anderton: “You guys are nodding like you know what he’s talking about.”
Jad: “Well, come on, Chief. The way we work changing destiny. I mean, we’re more like clergy than cops.”
John Anderton: “Jad, go to work. All of you.”
In other words, what you have in this sci-fi yarn is the argument of fate vs. free-will, the chronicle played out in its own clergy. The cops, here. And, it’s only when that one true believer in the system begins to doubt what he sees (singularly since he’s being set up for a murder he hasn’t committed… as yet) that he begins to question his faith in that system. As well, the film’s director, Steven Spielberg in top form, and screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen gleefully seem to twist and have fun with both faithful and agnostics alike every chance they get in the film.
Observe that it is Witwer, the former seminary student, who is the supreme doubter of Precrime in the tale. To me, it is the contrarian tendencies of the Minority Report‘s script that I really enjoy. When agent Witwer is about to physically confront the fugitive Anderton at the Lexis factory — one of the many product placements found in the film, sadly — he kisses what appears to be a Saint Christopher’s medal as he raises his hands to fight. If you understand who that saint is, that bit of supplication offers one hell of a bit of movie foreshadowing, if I do say so.
Still, there are plenty more examples of the clashing symbology within the film. For example, those who are caught right before their sinful event by Precrime are put into a mental stasis or limbo. In a manner, it’s a purgatory for the condemned. Tellingly, the device for this is called a halo. Even the art direction of the film sets hints at the presiding undercurrent. The film is loaded with them. For instance, what the precogs envision from the future is projected upwards toward the fane’s overhead screen.
It’s interesting to note how often in Minority Report characters cast their eyes upwardly… perhaps, as an analogy of those seeking guidance from the heavens (?). Most of it subtle, but it is a means the filmmakers use to get into the viewer’s thoughts at another level. Even the caretaker of those who’ve been imprisoned by their predetermined destiny is named after the biblical judge of the Hebrews, Gideon. By the way, I’ve read somewhere that one of the meanings of the name is, “He who casts down.” The allegory here is that the prisoners are all kept below ground, under the main level.
We even see Gideon playing the (church?) organ to his flock.
No matter where you come down on determinism, science or religion, or if the future offered on the screen appears utopian or dystopian to you, the filmmakers presumingly gave the audience quite a ride, visually, with plenty to think about story-wise with this sci-fi gem. The concept, or argument, of surrendering privacy for safety is well on display in the film, too, which makes it timely still for our current age. Interestingly, the use of the eyes as the marker of identity in the film offered many interpretations, as well.
“Windows to the soul“, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.“, and all that. The projected future sure seems to depend upon on them quite a lot in this tale — that’s even more true for prospective advertisers to come. Still, the eyes have been used a lot by many religions, and its figurative application in the film adds another layer to this mix. One of my favorite lines of the movie, in the scene where the suitably christened Dr. Solomon is about to transplant new eyes into our protagonist, is this:
John Anderton: “I’d like to keep the old ones.”
Dr. Solomon: “Why?”
John Anderton: “Because my mother gave them to me.”
Every time I re-watch this film, I seem to focus on something different in it. Early on, because I’m a parent, the loss of the child in the film weighed on me. Later, the philosophical aspects drew me in — especially the if we could… would or should we prevent what’s about to happen. The effects of which only seem to bring new uncertainties upon later circumspection. Nowadays, it is the film’s subversive undertow of religion, artfully employed, which intrigues me. Is it a perfect film, you ask? Well… the simple answer is no.
The (former) system admin in me is driven a bit crazy by whoever manages Precrime’s IT security infrastructure, that’s for sure.
What? The future world can find an escaping Anderton in his speeding vehicle on the automated highway, or pass the alert data on to all of those networked newspapers, but somehow someone in the office forgot to suspend the Chief’s master-key access? Plus, failed to suspend his all important eyeball account… even after he’s caught and imprisoned?!? Likewise, fairly or unfairly, some criticize the film’s upbeat ending — saying it’s “inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film”. They may have a point, especially if the short story is more despairing.
However, in my opinion, after watching it at least a half-dozen times now since it was first released, I find the tone of the film more upbeat than many gave it credit for. Really. It is a Steven Spielberg film and that brings certain tenets of his into play, as I now look back on it. Regardless, Minority Report remains one of my favorites in the sci-fi genre, even with its blend of action, mystery, and philosophical commentary. The film brought a very good and solid cast together with a crafty and entertaining screenplay that got into the audience’s head at a number of levels. Predictably, top marks in my book.
The disc: The basis of this review was the recently released Blu-ray Disc of Minority Report. The new high-definition picture was well done — especially given the high contrast cinematography used to achieve its noirish iron-blue color and the rich shadows in the film. However, the real standout IMO is the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. It really shines in the BD version.
So much so, I now could easily pick out the subverting “Moon River” Muzak version playing in the background during the shopping mall escape sequence involving Anderton and the lead precog, Agatha. All of the previous extras from the old 2-Disc version were brought over, along with newer HD added content included with this release. It is a great addition for anyone’s library. What can I say? This disc is another reason to own a Blu-ray player, and this great film.
- If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend author John Kenneth Muir’s recent examination of the film Blade Runner. ↩