Friday, August 19, 2011

Film Friday: Minority Report (2002)

I want to like Minority Report, but I can't. It’s based on a Philip K. Dick short story, and I usually enjoy movies based on his stories (see, e.g. Blade Runner and Imposter), plus it’s got a strong cast, excellent pacing, an interesting plot and some deep themes. But there’s just something wrong with the film and Spielberg knows it.

** heavy spoiler alert**
The Plot
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Minority Report is the story of John Anderton (Tom Cruise), a Washington, D.C. police officer who works in the world’s first “PreCrime” division. PreCrime is a new concept whereby a group of “pre-cogs” (psychics) predict murders in advance. Anderton’s division is charged with arresting the murderers before they can act. But things go horribly wrong for Anderton when the pre-cogs announce that he will murder someone he doesn't even know. Soon he is chased by a Justice Department overseer (Colin Farrell) and discovers he was framed by his boss (Max von Sydow).

On the surface, Minority Report sounds like a smart film. It purports to deal with issues of free will versus destiny and it raises interesting questions about when a crime becomes a crime. Unfortunately, Minority Report is not a smart film and it fudges all of its themes. I think Spielberg knows this too, because he tries to distract the audience at key moments.
Free Will v. Destiny
Minority Report pounds away on the issue of free will versus destiny. Indeed, this is mentioned in almost every scene. Normally, this would be fertile ground for interesting science fiction storytelling, but something feels wrong with this theme throughout the film. And that something is that Spielberg uses an unworkable concept of destiny and then tries to cover up his failure rather than fix the problem.

For the film’s setup to work, the audience must believe the pre-cogs are infallible because we need to believe they can predict people’s destinies. If we don’t buy that premise, then there is no destiny to challenge Anderton’s free will. Thus, this idea is reinforced to us by almost every character throughout the film repeatedly telling us that the pre-cogs are never wrong. Even when we are finally told they can be wrong, we’re still told they are never wrong. . . they just sometimes “disagree” (hence, one gives a “minority report”).

But this is a false premise. For one thing, it's just never believable that there is any real destiny here. It is easy to believe in destiny when it’s something beyond your control, e.g. you will meet an old friend. But it’s impossible to believe in destiny if destiny requires a conscious act, e.g. murder. Think about it. If the cops show up at your door and tell you that you’re destined to murder your wife, does anyone really think you would feel compelled to go through with it? Indeed, the very concept of PreCrime wipes out the destiny element because they are stopping the murders. Hence, there is no destiny here, there is only a possible future which can be changed -- not to mention the pre-cogs apparently can disagree about the future. Therefore, the idea that Anderton is fighting destiny seems rather fraudulent from the beginning.

Moreover, the only reason Anderton appears to have a destiny is because every character repeatedly tell us that Anderton’s destiny is inescapable and because Spielberg manipulates the plot to cause it. Indeed, what Anderton does makes no sense. He should go to his boss and tell him, “this is a mistake. I’m not killing anyone and I’m going to go sit quietly in a cell until this prediction expires.” Instead, he foolishly decides to track down the guy he is supposed to kill. . . because that will somehow clear things up? Of course, Spielberg tries to make this seem plausible by having the other cops chase him. But it's hard to image a law that could convict him if he simply sat down and never killed anyone.

These problems undercut the very theme upon which Spielberg bases the whole film. He pounds away relentlessly at the idea that Anderton is struggling against destiny, but there is no destiny, there is only pretend destiny created by Spielberg’s manipulation and the constant barraged of characters telling us there is a destiny. What Spielberg should have done instead is drop the destiny farce and explore the theme of how many innocent people we are prepared to lock away to prevent all murders. That is the obvious theme within his setup. But Spielberg dodges that one, probably because it’s a difficult question of morality.
How Can A Possible Future Be A Crime?
The second problem stems from the believability of the whole concept as a law enforcement tool. If the police knew you would kill your wife at some particular hour, do you really think society would lock you up as a murderer? It’s not likely. Arresting someone for something they haven’t done yet flies in the face of two thousand years of Western jurisprudence and runs counter to human nature. More likely, the role of the PreCrime division would be to stop you and maybe send you for a mental health hearing. Interestingly, Spielberg tries to hide this issue by making sure that each killer we see is caught just as they are about to strike so the audience never gets a chance to ask if this is how the system would really work.

What’s more, it seems inconceivable that our legal system would trust the pre-cogs. For one thing, the minority reports all but disqualify the pre-cogs as legitimate predictors of fact as compared to possibility. But even beyond that, I still can’t conceive of a method for testing their accuracy that would stand up to court scrutiny? Did they sit around for decades predicting every murder while the government compared their predictions to trial results? It just seems implausible that courts would send people away based on the visions of three druggies lying in a fish tank. Also, consider both von Sydow’s death and the death of Anderton’s “victim.” Both are clearly suicides with Anderton never pulling the trigger in either instance. Yet, Anderton is identified as the killer? Can’t the pre-cogs distinguish between murder and suicide or self-defense? How many rape victims and shopkeepers were arrested for murder? And why would anyone trust a system that can’t separate these important details?

Spielberg sees these problems as well. Thus, he gives us Colin Farrell, who plays some sort of Justice Department overseer or auditor. His role is to assure the audience the government, i.e. the Justice Department, watches this program carefully and finds it legitimate. He also plays the skeptic who is quickly won over, which is a gimmick to alleviate the audience’s doubts.
The Plot Holes
The plot really is nonsense. First, it falls into the standard “boss did it” cliché, which we discussed the other day. Secondly, I can’t for the life of me figure out why Anderton’s boss (von Sydow) decided to set Anderton up? Sure, he mouths something about protecting the program from Anderton discovering that he killed someone in the past to protect the program, but Anderton only found that out after von Sydow set him up. So the only reason I can see for von Sydow setting Anderton up is to cause the plot.

Further, the explanation of how von Sydow did the original murder makes no sense. We’re told he got away with it because the cops would have ignored his attempt as it would have appeared to be an echo of the prior murder attempt. But wasn’t there a ball (“report”) with his name on it? Didn’t that make anyone suspicious that this was more than just an echo?

There’s a huge problem with von Sydow killing Colin Farrell too. Spielberg through von Sydow tells us that von Sydow can get away with the killing because Anderton stole the head pre-cog and, thus, the cops have no idea a murder is being committed. But how is von Sydow going to explain the body in his office? How can he hope to blame Anderton for this? Has the future somehow lost the ability to run ballistics tests and gun powder residue tests? Only D.C. is on the pre-cog program, surely the FBI can figure this one out.

There are other problems too. For example, von Sydow wants to roll out the PreCrime concept nationally, but how can he do that when they only have three pre-cogs and only one of them is actually gifted enough to make the whole program work? Why are all the killers in the cryoprison Caucasians? Even more interestingly, this is supposed to be Washington, D.C., what happened to all the blacks? And why does D.C. look like some sort of Blade-Runner version of Hong Kong?
As I said above, I want to like this film. I like the actors and I generally enjoy films made from Philip Dick’s work. The plot sounds like it should be interesting and the themes should be deep and give you something to think about. But the film simply doesn’t work. Spielberg is talented enough to hide his mistakes and keep the viewer from seeing them right away, but they gnaw at you. And the film completely breaks down when you think about it. That’s why I can’t like this film: Spielberg fudged the whole thing. . . and he knows it.


LawHawkRFD said...

Are you sure Obama didn't co-write the script? He has already convicted conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers of the pre-crime of terrorism.

I watched the movie twice. The second time was to see if I was imagining all the inconsistencies and self-contradictions the first time. Apparently not, and you confirmed my suspicions. I did like the special effects and the cool cars, though.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I liked the cars too. I've seen this film many times... like I said, I want to like it. But it just always ends up disappointing me. It never feels consistent.

As for Obama inventing pre-Crime, that does seem to be the case! I guess thought-crime wasn't enough for him!

Mike Kriskey said...

I remember liking this movie, and plot holes this big usually gnaw at me. Either I was in a good mood when I saw it, or Spielberg did a good job camofla.. camoufl.. hiding them.

Do me a favor, Andrew. If we're ever sitting together at a magic show, please don't lean over and whisper to me exactly how the magician is using misdirection. Sometimes I like to be fooled.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I think Spielberg does an excellent job of hiding these defects because he keeps the plot moving constantly and he never gives you any time to think about things.

Plus, he keep reinforcing the points he wants to make by having character after character say it -- so it is difficult when watching the film to stop and think about what is really going on.

It's actually a pretty impressive form of sleight of hand. And I guess I should congratulate Spielberg on that.

Don't worry about the magician... magic is real... even I know that! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I haven't seen the film in years but you've given me much to ponder. I guess it was a case of glossing over the problems since I was enjoying the film. Obviously, the problems were too big for you to ignore them. (I talk about this in my last Trek article.)

There's a very interesting article about the themes of the film that I'm not equipped to delve into right now. For example, a critic cites the scene in which Anderton proves the system works by rolling the wooden ball to Witwer, who catches it because it was going to fall. "But it didn't. You caught it." However, a ball, unlike a human, has no free will and is simply functioning according to the laws of physics. Ergo, this scene rings false.

Re: future Washington D.C., I actually love the look of this film. During development, Spielberg convened a three-day summit of experts and futurists to develop a realistic look for 2054 D.C. Technology, advertising, transportation, etc. But you raise an interesting point, which is that all filmmakers inevitably get the future wrong because they can only extrapolate. Even Kubrick made mistakes on 2001. (Pan Am, anybody?)

The thing I dislike about this film is Spielberg's little jokes which, looking at it now, come across as self-indulgent. The flames of the jetpack cooking a hamburger, the disgusting scene of a blind Anderton eating the gross things in the fridge, the German scientist's snot-filled nose, etc. I do love the car factory escape which was actually based on an idea Hitchcock had for North by Northwest.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, What's interesting is that I WANT to like this film. So I've seen it many times to see what it is that bugs me about the film. That's when all of this started to become clear.

While watching it the first time, there were some things that struck me as wrong, but overlook-able. But then I started to realize that Spielberg has completely messed up the central theme. That's when it all started to crystallize for me.

Your example with the ball is a good one. It's a false analogy the ignores a critical detail -- conscious action. And to me, the film is full of scenes like this which support the theme if you just take them at face value, but when you start to think about them, you realize that they are either bad analogies or missing something critical or there is something else slightly misleading in each.

To me, if I were writing this story, these would be big red flags that something is wrong and requires an adjustment in the story. But Spielberg didn't go that way, he instead covered them up.

And in truth, he did a masterful job of covering them up. In fact, if you wanted a great example of how to lead people to believe something about a story (i.e. how to lead them by the nose), this film is it.


AndrewPrice said...

(continued) On futurists, I can forgive something like the Pan-Am "mistake." He just took a reasonable guess that Pan-Am would continue as a company, and that doesn't bother me.

Where I have problems is when it literally seems impossible to get to the future they are planning.

The only way DC could possibly look like this would be if (1) the whole city got nuked, (2) millions more people moved there, and (3) they decided to build in ways that humans have never shown a propensity to build. There isn't even a sense of continuity, as if they had just built the city up.

On the themes, there are others, but I think they are after-thoughts at best. Indeed, Spielberg seems to cut off a lot of the other themes almost the moment he raises them to keep the story focused on the main point about free will v. destiny.

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, I see in the news today that Ridley Scott will be directing a second Blade Runner. Should be interesting!

Anonymous said...

Re: Blade Runner - basically, a production company purchased the rights to the property a year or so ago and was going to make some kind of Blade Runner project whether Ridley was involved or not. At this point, it's too early to figure out exactly what it will be.

On the themes of the film, I recall all the interviews (and some of the DVD extras) in which Spielberg and Co. referred to the "Big Brother" aspect of it all, especially in light of the then-recent Patriot Act.

I perused the Wikipedia (I know) article on the development of the film and the screenwriting process seemed to have taken a while. At one point, the villain was to be a corrupt senator, or a general, or even Witwer (and I compliment Spielberg for not making his character the villain - that would've been waaay too easy even for him). One draft that featured Witwer as the villain touched on the interesting idea of killing someone's twin, but if the pre-Cogs could provide names, then this would not have mattered as much.

AndrewPrice said...


Spielberg like many other Hollywood types thinks he includes things in films that aren't really there. If anything, this film says that Big Brother is completely blind and feeble. Look how easy it is to fool the system, for him to avoid getting caught, to commit murder, and for his ex to break him out of jail. If this was meant to be Big Brother is watching, then Spielberg has no idea what he's talking about.

On Blade Runner, this article (LINK) says that Scott has signed on to produce and direct the film.

The Wikipedia is often a good source of pop culture knowledge. Don't rely on it for political things, but it can be a good source for things like films.

On the script, I think the problem is they have a flawed concept to begin with and that led them astray. They are basically trying to turn an interesting but undeveloped sci-fi idea into a standard cop movie. And that's a problem.

I honestly don't think Spielberg has the intellectual depth to handle stories like this. His whole history tells me that he's a very shallow man who can't wrap his head around paradoxes and "what if" scenarios.

Ed said...

I'm in the same boat on this movie. I kind of like it, but it never "felt" right for me. Thanks for the breakdown!

Ed said...

Wow! Ridley Scott is going another "Blade Runner"? That's great!

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Ed.

I'm excited about a new Blade Runner movie too, at least I am because Scott is involved. I wouldn't be thrilled if I heard that Michael Bay was directing.

Doc Whoa said...

Excellent review. I also enjoyed your Big Hollywood article! Keep up the good work.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Doc! Will do!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Spielberg, I've been wanting to get this out for a while.

There's no denying the man's talent, success, and the mark he's made on pop culture for the last quarter-plus century. Hell, he's one of my heroes.

But, and this isn't unlike his buddy George Lucas, the man's gone corporate. By that, I mean whenever I see him in interviews, and whether it's intentional or not, he comes across as "The Man." Hollywood royalty, kingmaker, etc. Every event he appears at is carefully controlled. He also supervises the extras on his DVDs and Blu-Rays, lest he come off as unpleasant.

On the other hand, someone like Peter Jackson - also a successful Oscar winner though I wouldn't call him a household name - comes across as a cool nerd you want to hang out with. Spielberg doesn't, even though I know for a fact he's still a passionate film geek. But he seems unapproachable. There are other filmmakers, maybe slightly less successful ones, who don't have that aura about them. I guess that's one of the burdens of success.

I hope any of this made sense. :-)

Spielberg's Legal Team said...

Mr. DS,

You are hereby ordered to stop having opinions about Mr. Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg, his interviews and his collective works are all copyrighted and many not be opinioned about without written permission of Mr. Spielberg Inc.

Don't mess with us.

The Lawyers

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I know exactly what you mean.

First, it is undeniable that Spielberg has been a major influence on our culture since the 1970s. I would, however, argue that his influence was much more positive before the 1990s.

At one point, he struck me as a talented, creative guy with a lot of ideas who wanted to make a lot of movies. Although, I think he's always been a bit shallow and what he's produced has always been rather formulaic and generic, at least his early stuff was good generic and was often so well done you didn't notice how generic it was.

These days though, I think his stuff is frankly platic. It feels focus group tested and like he's not willing to take any risks anymore.

Indeed, it seems like somewhere along the way he stopped being a filmmaker and became a business. I don't know exactly when it happened, but you could tell that his films stopped being fun and became for-profit.

I would also say that the more corporate he's become, the less likable he seems on a personal level, if not downright nasty. At this point, I honestly don't think he would be someone I would want to meet, which is not something I would have said 20 years ago.

One other thing I would add, on the shallow point, I think Spielberg gets that he's not a very deep director. I think films like "Minority Report" were his attempt to break out of the generic mold and prove that he's capable of doing more interesting stuff. But he's never managed to pull of those attempts. So it is POSSIBLE that the reason he's become so corporate is that he realized that he was never going to be anything more than a talented businessman-director, so he embraced that. And it killed his artistic soul.

How's that for pop pyschology?

Anonymous said...

I guess it only occurred to me within the last year or so.

Recently, I was listening to one of Kevin Smith's podcasts (it's like his full-time job now; he has his own online podcast "network") and he was interviewing Edgar Wright, who did Shaun of the Death, Hot Fuzz, and last year's insta-cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Obviously these two guys aren't even in the same universe as Spielberg and Smith never fails to point out how financially unsuccessful his films are... but I found myself thinking, "If given the choice, I'd rather hang out with these guys than Spielberg and Lucas!"

The summer before my freshman year of high school, I read Joseph McBride's biography on Spielberg (which was revised last year) and I guess one of the recurring themes in Spielberg's career has been "Peter Pan Syndrome" and the need to prove his worth as "a serious filmmaker." Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. I won't fault the man for trying to explore new territory but I have to say... I'd hate to be in his situation and think to myself, "Am I destined to make loud effects spectacles my whole life?" Of course, his loud spectacles were some of the best ever made, so that helps. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think I first noticed a real change when he created DreamWorks (mid-1990s). In particular, I noticed that he suddenly seemed to care who he hung out with, he got very openly political and he became very, very arrogant -- with a hard edge. And after that, his movies started to feel very flat and commercial to me.

On the Peter Pan Syndrome, I honestly see that in his works. And while I can't and don't fault him for trying to prove to himself that he could do what everyone said he couldn't. . . I can't applaud his efforts. Minority Report is a great example of why.

He acts like he's decided to take a swing at something greater than what he's done in the past in MR, but he really doesn't. For example, he cast Tom Cruise, Mr. Mega-generic action hero. That's a safety blanket. Then he never sat down and tried to work out his problem with the script. I do honestly believe that he knew about the flaws, but that he chose to paper over those rather than fix them. That's not how an "artist" would work. Indeed, part of being an artist is striving to achieve perfection.... even if no one else cares.

Also, he dodges all the more interesting and complex questions that come up, which is where artists revel.

It's like he is telling the world "here I go with something new," but then he made the same old film with a slightly different veneer.

War of the Worlds, The Terminal, Munich... all the same criticism -- on the surface, he seems to be trying something new, but he really isn't when you look closer. This makes it all feel more like a cynical PR move than a genuine attempt.

In terms of who I would rather be, I agree with you. I would rather fail on my own terms than become the guy who spits out generic stories. Sure, I'd love to have his billions (there is a lot of great stuff I could do with it), but from a personal stand point, I think life is too short to just mimic what is already out there. And I would consider it a personal failure if I couldn't create something that inspired me.

John Jameson said...

I hated this movie when I first saw it: the abuse of the plot device made me angry. This review explains more clearly why than anything else I have read. What a missed opportunity this was to explore an interesting idea!

AndrewPrice said...

John, Thanks. I struggle with this film. I want to like it, but can't. At every turn, I just see the way the plot is jammed together and how the whole thing would fall apart if any of the characters acted rationally.

And ultimately, what bothers me most is that it is a missed opportunity to explore some interesting ideas.

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