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Born to Run: Revisiting ‘Minority Report’

Photographed by Sean M. Casey, David James © Twentieth Century Fox, DreamWorks

Directors releasing two films in one year will always astound me.

The filmmaking process is so taxing, exhausting and all-consuming that to get one of them released is a feat in itself, let alone a second. Looking into the tradition, it’s surprising how so many classics came out the same year. Some share a genre, like Mel Brooks’ sharp comedies of 1974, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Some merely share a tone, like the slow-building eeriness of Brian De Palma’s 1976 films, Obsession and Carrie. Others differ wildly in scope, like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 – compare the sweeping epic of The Godfather: Part II with the intimate paranoia drama The Conversation. 

But it’s Steven Spielberg who has seemingly mastered the double-release. He’s released two films in five separate years, and his 1993, releasing Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, is unmatched – one dominated the box office whilst the other swept the Oscars. But his 1993 threatens to overshadow his next best double-whammy achievement – his 2002. He released two fast-paced chase thrillers – both of which are star-studded, expertly crafted and solidly scripted. His Christmas release of Catch Me If You Can pitted DiCaprio against Hanks, but his summer blockbuster had much higher stakes – Tom Cruise versus the futuristic technology his character upholds. Minority Report is a bracingly entertaining thrill-ride, and often overlooked as one of Spielberg’s best.

In the year 2054, murder has been all but eradicated from Washington DC, thanks to the work of PreCrime.

Three beings with psychic, predictive powers, known as Pre-Cognitives (or precogs) can see all killings before they happen, and it’s down to the officers of the PreCrime department, led by John Anderton (Tom Cruise), to interpret their visions and stop murders before they can take place. But when the precogs say that he will commit a murder in 36 hours, Anderton is forced to flee, and fights to prove his innocence against the supposedly impermeable system that he works for. Is he destined to commit the crime, or he exert free will?

This film is seminal if you’re a follower of Tom Cruise running.

The ultimate cinematic sprinter, Cruise has become famous for how often he breaks into full-pelt running in his work. Not only is he on the run for the majority of this film, but it’s a motif within the script. Anderton spends his downtime scoring narcotics and rewatching old hologram recordings of his son Sean who went missing some years prior when Anderton looked away briefly at a swimming pool. Clouded with self-destructive guilt, Anderton gets emotional watching the projected images of his son, repeating the lines he said to Sean at the time in an attempt to recreate their connection.

When Anderton corrects his son’s running gait, Sean tells him, “Gotta keep running!” For someone who spends his working hours analysing the future, Anderton spends most of his personal time chasing after the past.

When the PreCrime department realise he’s due to commit a murder, Anderton is propelled into action and forced to traverse the futuristic cityscape to search for an escape.

He’s told by his boss, Lamarr Burgess (Max von Sydow), “You can’t run, John.”

“Everybody runs,” Anderton replies, before diving out onto a dangerous highway. The universal survival instinct, the innate fight-or-flight behaviour that Anderton highlights here ties into the idea central to the film that human behaviour is predictable.

PreCrime uses prediction as hard evidence against individuals who mean to kill one another, despite the fact that they haven’t actually done it. Through working PreCrime, Anderton can identify and acknowledge the circumstances and pressures that would push someone into drastic action, but instead of seeing how someone would take a life, he now has to figure out how he would save his own. Under life-threatening circumstances, when forced to, everybody does run. But nobody runs as well as Tom Cruise.

And my, what a world he runs through.

The world of Minority Report is stark, harsh, and ugly. The slick futuristic environment is stripped of colour, washed clean of personality and devoid of human connection. The motorway is made of flat surfaces that rise and loop over each other where cars resembling pods autonomously glide to and fro without the need of drivers. Eye scanners target ads to every individual customer, blaring marketing over each other in a cacophony of capitalism. The special effect sequences look dated, Spielberg’s trademark flowing camera work doesn’t make Cruise jumping from CGI car to CGI car feel any more real. But other technology is more tangible and physical, and Spielberg uses it well dramatically.

The PreCrime officers descend on wires from their hovercraft, loudly asserting themselves into scenes with all the subtlety of Team America: World Police. In one sequence, they corner Anderton in an alley wearing ridiculous jetpacks that look like something from a 50s serial, but their obvious clunkiness is used to Anderton’s advantage. He utilises the enclosed space, as well as the officers’ lack of mobility and agility, in a fight scene that is not defined by its slickness, but by its awkwardness.

Anderton’s assailants struggle for balance, collide into their environment, and accidentally land blows on one another. Their obvious lack of control over their own apparati, and the clumsy way they try to apprehend their own boss, is representative of their unsurety of how to act without Anderton’s strong leadership. They may have upgraded their tech, but without conviction they can’t hope to capture him.

Conviction is not something one of the major antagonists of the film lacks. Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is a government agent investigating the flaws in the PreCrime system, and instigates the pursuit of Anderton. He’s demanding, demeaning, and dedicated – and immediately is at odds with Anderton. Farrell’s performance is appropriately smug and mean-spirited when the story needs him to be the primary antagonist, the ruthless hunter chasing our falsely-accused fugitive.

But as the story reveals the growing conspiracy at its centre, the way Witwer’s character is framed shifts. It becomes clear he’s not solely dedicated to catching Anderton, but instead is motivated by the pursuit of justice, and only goes where the evidence leads. When he discovers the crime scene where Anderton reportedly commits his murder, his experience tells him something the others haven’t noticed – the crime scene looks fabricated. Witwer, like Anderton, was exploited by those at the heart of the conspiracy. His fierce scrutiny and focus was useful when he was persecuting Anderton, but as soon as he discovers that the PreCrime system could be abused to hide a crime, he is no longer advantageous, and is killed.

In Witwer, we see a well-developed, fully realised antagonist, one whose allegiances shift throughout the narrative, but whose motivations always stay true. We initially disagree with his scepticism of PreCrime when we think it’s a flawless system, but as soon as we notice imperfections Witwer’s viewpoint starts sounding a lot more reliable.

And to be fair to Witwer, he’s got a point.

PreCrime is effective but not exactly morally justified. People are being punished for crimes they haven’t technically committed. We see in the opening sequence a man attempting to murder his wife and her lover, but it’s only an attempt, and if Anderton had stopped him from committing it a minute prior, it wouldn’t have been an attempt at all. The system is overly punitive, effectively lobotomising the would-be murderers and placing them in an eternal prison.

The fact that PreCrime has made it nearly impossible to get away with murder doesn’t mean they have a better understanding over the reasons why people committed those crimes. They have a deterent and not a solution to murder. When your law enforcement insists on the harshest punishment for something they haven’t even done, but instead on how the possibility that you might commit the crime, your society can be described as fascist. When Anderton makes the choice to arrest the victim of the murder he’s supposed to commit, it’s with the horrible realisation that his choice was one that every person he’s locked up also had. They were all as able to choose not to kill as he was.

Minority Report is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, the renowned author behind Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall. It’s not hard to see his influence in the film’s story. His work is plagued with the ideas that the operating systems of futuristic societies may be effective and slick, but it is still a system whose interests are not in helping the masses, but instead in maintaining order.

Minority Report wraps its thrilling adventure story in a complex world, and you’ll be thinking over the ethics of it long after the credits roll.

 

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