Twenty years after its theatrical release in June 2002, the futuristic thriller Minority Report remains a fascinatingly immersive and remarkably prescient blockbuster. The first film to pair Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise (the director and the star would reteam for 2005’s War of the Worlds), Minority Report connected with audiences in a big way, pulling in nearly $400 million at the box office, a huge take for a film at that time.
But it wasn’t just the star power of the Spielberg-Cruise pairing that attracted moviegoers. Adapted from the Philip K. Dick story of the same name, the film parlayed its themes of invasive technology and constant surveillance in the year 2054 into a story that resonated in 2002—and one that still reverberates in 2022 as we continue to grapple with tech’s pervasive and too often insidious influence.
Minority Report’s ambitious vision of the future, using sets designed chiefly by Alex McDowell (The Crow, Watchmen) in conjunction with director Steven Spielberg and a think-tank of experts, set a striking tone for the film. The future was constructed as a collage of neo-noir and modernist aesthetics: blue-hued streets at night, hauntingly reflective holographic displays, sleek multi-directional cars, and most eerily, constant eye-scanners—reminiscent of our own cell phones and laptops—tracking every person in Washington D.C.
The script, adapted by Jon Cohen and rewritten by Scott Frank (Logan, Queen’s Gambit, Out Of Sight) into more of a character piece, was developed separately from the design of the film’s world. The result is a striking cinematic portrayal of the ways that the severe intrusion of privacy have become an irredeemable, inescapable facet of American society.
Tom Cruise, (future) crime fighter
Cruise stars as John Anderton, a high-ranking official in Washington D.C.’s Precrime Division, an experimental and well-funded policing enterprise looking to expand nationally. Three imprisoned psychics, known and semi-worshipped societally as the Precogs, experience visions of murders before they happen. The program has been so successful that premeditated murder has become a thing of the past in D.C. Now the Precogs only see crimes of passion; visions triggered by the emotional intensity that comes from spontaneous homicide. Those visions are then sifted through by Anderton, whose conductor-like haptic gestures rewind, fast-forward, and shift the visions through opaque glass that reflects the sterile, desaturated faces of himself and his fellow policemen.
Our initial exposure to this process is in the opening scene, via three perspectives. First we watch the vision of the lead Precog, Agatha (a poignant, eerie Samantha Morton), of a man murdering his wife and her paramour with scissors. Next Anderton and his team cross-reference Agatha’s vision with public records to triangulate the location of the murder. Spielberg then alternates the present scenes of Anderton’s search, with scenes in the expected murderer’s present, as he gradually picks up on the breadcrumbs that reveal his wife’s infidelity.
The dramatic, and temporal, irony in these scenes reflects the ways Anderton is initially separate from the world he inhabits. By exposing viewers to this would-be murderer’s point of view, the world engages them in the possibility that he’s being violated. Agatha’s vision is not necessarily set in stone, and the discrepancy between the dramatic point of view of Anderton, and the contradicting point of view of this man in Anderton’s world, plants seeds of doubt as to whether or not he really would have killed his wife.
The emotional boundaries of limitless technology
Anderton’s ignorance to the surrounding perspectives, and his belief in the dystopic system, is driven by his grief and exacerbated by his dependency on illegal synthetic drugs. While high, he watches special-ordered holographic videos of his presumably dead son Sean—kidnapped under his watch at a public pool—and his estranged wife, Lara (Kathryn Morris). Anderton, whose private life is an indigo haze of retrospective pain, is unequipped to see beyond what’s initially presented to him, both by the Precogs, and by his duplicitous partner and mentor Lamar (played with disarming mischief by Max von Sydow), the director of the Precrime unit. It’s not until the world comes crashing down on Anderton, and the Precogs’ vision shows him as the murderer, that he loses the ability to wield his power over others, and is consequently challenged to see the fascistic effects of his predeterminist perspective.
In Minority Report invasiveness—personal and otherwise—is a given. Throughout Anderton’s desperate efforts to prove himself innocent, Spielberg’s camera (in collaboration with the sharp eye of director of photography Janusz Kamińsky) captures Anderton’s impositions into that world. When he fights off the jetpack-toting associates he helped train and who’ve been ordered to take him in, he makes life hell for every civilian that happens to be in his way. Anderton crashes his assailants through a window while a family is preparing for dinner, then launches the assailants up through the dinner table of another family who live above. He escapes at the cost of other people’s privacy. Holding onto his delusion of innocence, Anderton is insistent on running, ignorant to the disruptions he causes in the lives of the people around him.
This scene is mirrored later when Anderton becomes even more desperate. After realizing that his every move is tracked by the eye-scanners that monitor D.C., he engages the underground network from which he buys drugs to have his eyes replaced with someone else’s. While he recovers from surgery, Anderton’s fellow officers deploy a cadre of spider-like drones to search for him by scanning the eyes of everyone in the apartment complex where he’s hiding. In a virtuoso overhead one-shot, Spielberg follows as the insistent spider drones interrupt people during their most private moments (a couple engaged in passionate sex, a taciturn man sitting on a toilet) to scan their eyes and confirm their identities, all before the crawling bots finally close in on Anderton.
The expanded perspective of the camera suggests the developing perspective of Anderton: By literally seeing the world through another person’s eyes, Anderton put himself in a more vulnerable position, the position of a civilian. Like the Norse God Odin sacrificing his eye to see Ragnarok, the end of the world, Anderton is now more privy to the danger of weaponizing precognition to intrude upon the intimacy of others.
A cop awakens to a criminal’s perspective
These are the moments that the intersection of the imaginative world and story of Minority Report feel the most engaging; when the design of the world pushes Anderton through a physical ringer, wearing him down to a point where he can recognize the impact of his actions. Beat-up and literally deformed by an enzyme that disguises his face, Anderton kidnaps the Precog Agatha in search of his minority report—the alternate version of the future Agatha sometimes sees—as proof he won’t commit murder. But in the pursuit of that goal, he becomes more open to the suffering of others in his world, and gradually unveils the truth about Agatha, whose mother was killed by Anderton’s mentor, Lamar, to preserve the Precrime program.
John never gets the minority report he wants from Agatha. She instead helps to remind him that he has a choice; that the grace he was unable to extend to the people he arrested, the foreknowledge of his own murder, is also the opportunity to choose otherwise. Though Anderton chooses not to be a murderer—at least not purposefully—the film spirals towards a dénouement where Anderton works with Agatha and Lara to reveal the crime that gave birth to the Precrime program. Lamar commits suicide, Precrime is disbanded, Anderton reconnects with his wife who becomes pregnant once more, and the Precogs are allowed to live the rest of their lives at a cabin far from the chaotic futures of other people.
However, before all of that, Agatha delivers another, unexpected minority report, a vision triggered by the love she feels in the room of Anderton and Lara’s lost son, and a touching counterpoint to the emotions of anger and desperation that trigger her visions of crimes of passion. John admits how much he misses his son out loud, connecting with Agatha, who reflects/reveals that her mother was murdered for wanting Agatha back after having given her up due to drug addiction. He asks Agatha to tell him who killed her mother. She screams for John to run, but it’s too late. He’s captured and imprisoned.
Exploring the mysteries of the third act
There’s a theory that the third act of the film, full of maybe too-satisfying resolutions, is the dream of the captured Anderton. A haunting shot that caps off the film’s second act is the strongest evidence of this. We see John, comatose, in a graveyard of luminescent, floating pods, all people he put away while working for Precrime. “They say you have visions,” says the bemused prison watchmen, “That your life flashes before your eyes. That all your dreams come true.” Anderton’s pod descends, and he is left alone in a darkness whose only illumination is the glowing halo that keeps him unconscious.
From that point on, we never see Anderton actually escape the facility, but the film’s third act seems to cater to his deepest wishes; his wife is assured he wasn’t a murderer, Agatha’s mother is given justice. Even Lamar, the closest thing Anderton has to a father figure, apologizes as he collapses and dies by his own hand. But if it’s a dream, where is Anderton’s lost son, Sean? But the admittance of his grief after Agatha’s account of Sean’s alternate future, the unexpected but more meaningful minority report, may have opened his mind and heart to desire further resolution beyond his loss. Especially in Spielberg’s sentimental hands, there’s little reason not to accept the warm resolution of the film. But the possibility of an even darker ending, where the bad guy wins and Anderton pays for his lack of perspective, aligns with the film’s sci-fi dystopia, and noir roots.
Minority Report was the first of two features released by Spielberg in 2002 that featured a lead character desperately running from the inescapable, monitoring influence of a larger American institution. The second was Catch Me If You Can, and in both films, running proves to be futile. And yet, both films have disarmingly positive endings. But what’s remarkable about Spielberg’s filmmaking is the contrast between captivating, emotionally inviting images that draw us to the symbolic foundations of Western society, and the shadows of corruption that haunt them.
Whichever of Minority Report’s endings is the “right” one, its doomed path towards a surveillance state marches on into our current all-seeing, all-recording present. But the fact that Spielberg has historically leaned into sentimentality as one of his greatest tools makes him especially prescient in depicting next-generation technology; because as Anderton demonstrates, it’s the intimacy—and power—of emotion which ultimately may mark the right (or wrong) choice between seemingly predestined futures.