We all know how Phillip K. Dick’s work is a fixture on the big screen. He’s like Jane Austen that way, only with computers and big chase scenes. One of his more underrated stories is The Minority Report, which first appeared in the January, 1956 issue of the sci-fi magazine, Fantastic Universe. Then in 2002 it was released as a feature film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, expanding Dick’s twenty-page story into an epic thriller. While it’s an exciting tale, Minority Report has chilling implications for the world at large, as it raises ethical questions about the balance between freedom and safety.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the basic plot is this: John Anderton is chief of New York’s PreCrime Division, which means he takes out criminals before they commit a crime. He is able to do this via three Pre-Cogs, or Pre-Cognisants, gifted human beings who can predict the future. To prevent the Precogs from being distracted by the outside world, they are kept strapped in chairs and partially sedated, with PreCrime recording everything they say. A machine the Pre-Cogs are strapped to produces cards with names of victims and perpetrators on them, feeding copies to both PreCrime and the Army just for accountability’s sake.
Much to his horror, John finds his name on one of the cards, saying that in two weeks he’s going to murder someone named Leopold Kaplan, whoever that is. John wonders who could have tampered with the Pre-Cogs and if a minority report exists; meaning, one of the Pre-Cogs disagreed with the other two, casting doubt on the predictions.
It’s kind of a mystery what inspired Dick to write Minority Report. He was well-known for being paranoid and fearful about government intrusion and totalitarianism, and maybe in 1956 he merely saw what was coming. Eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain, although the Berlin Wall hadn’t been built yet. China was now a communist country, with citizens fleeing to Taiwan and Hong Kong. North Korea was sealed up tight, with family members separated by boundaries. Dick probably had a lot to draw on in crafting his story.
Spielberg inherited Minority Report from Gary Goldberg, who had intended it to be a sequel to 1990’s Total Recall. What drew Spielberg was that the story was a blending of several genres–action, adventure, sci-fi, and Hitchcock-esque thrill-seeking.
When Spielberg set about making his movie, he built on Dick’s universe, which was wide open in terms of atmosphere. Instead of the story’s ambiguously futuristic setting, the movie is set in 2054, only in Washington, D.C. instead of New York. Instead of the Pre-Cogs sitting in high-backed metal chairs, they’re floating in a tricornered sensory deprivation tank with electrode headdresses, and the machine spits out shiny wooden balls instead of cards. Everywhere people go, their retinas are scanned, they’re identified, they hear personalized ads talking to them. There’s nowhere to hide.
The John Anderton (Tom Cruise) of the movie is a crack PreCrime officer who can find would-be criminals like no one’s business. He’s also a dope addict who lost his son to a kidnapping and whose wife left him. Into his life comes Ed Witwer (Collin Farrell), a Federal agent who’s investigating possible ethics violations in the PreCrime department. John is suspicious, but he goes along with it. He’s got other fish to fry, anyway. One of the Pre-Cogs has seen an echo of a past crime, and John wants to get to the bottom of it.
That is, until John’s name rolls out of the PreCrime machine. He’s supposed to kill a guy named Leo Crowe in thirty-six hours.
John starts running. He doesn’t know who he can trust or where he can be safe. He’s desperate enough to get off the grid that he has a guy with a dripping cold in a dingy apartment switch his eyes out for someone else’s. Above all, he has to figure out how he gets to the point of shooting a man he’s never met.
I know I haven’t given a whole lot of detail about the plot, but the film is masterfully shot and deserves to be discovered. It’s got a pale blue filter throughout most of it, with every scene looking undersaturated and dreamlike. It’s so well-paced that it’s hard to look away.
Or is it?
It has some yucky stuff. That guy who gives John new eyes is so dripping with mucus that one has to wonder if Kleenex exists in 2054. A blind John mistakenly eats rotten, moldy food while foraging in the fridge. John carries his old eyeballs around in a Baggie so he can get back into PreCrime later in the film. The PreCrime officers tote Sick Sticks that make people violently vomit. It’s defnitely not a film for everyone.
It also has the sticky sense of hitting too close to home. Spielberg himself was (and probably still is) scared of Minority Report coming true. In a 2002 interview, he told Roger Ebert, “The Internet is watching us now. If they want to. they can see what sites you visit. In the future, television will be watching us, and customizing itself to what it knows about us. The thrilling thing is, that will make us feel we’re part of the medium. The scary thing us, we’ll lose our right to privacy. An ad will appear in the air around us, talking directly to us.”
He’s not wrong. Minority Report has an unrelenting feeling of the characters being under a microscope, and what’s really creepy about it is that eighteen years after its release we almost live it. Our phones can track where we go, how long we take to get there, what route we take, and how long we stay. Our computers can listen to everything we say and tailor ads based on what we buy and search (Which is why I don’t use Google anymore, thank you very much).
The film might elicit the obvious response: “Why should I be afraid of being watched? I have nothing to hide.” However, such laws tend to be arbitrary as to what constitutes problem thinking and what doesn’t. Depending on who’s in power, that may change all the time, and no one knows what to expect. It goes without saying that it’s a fearful, Draconian way to live.
Then there’s the other obvious issue of being treated like a criminal before one has committed a crime. If that isn’t completely scary and totalitarian I don’t know what is, but it exists. China’s social credit system, for instance, has people earning points for acting the way the government wants them to, and if they don’t, punishments range from embarrassing ring tones and slow Internet to being shut out of jobs and restricted from travel. And that’s for so-called minor infractions.
Sci-fi can be an awesome genre because by its very nature it requires thinking outside the box, but it can also give the power hungry too many ideas. As they say, stories like Minority Report are meant to be cautionary tales, not instruction manuals.
Sorry this Page To Screen was so late, y’all, but life got in the way. You know how it is. And this story gets the brain cells working, so it’s a lot to process. Hope you’ll come back on Friday when we have another story from a different American author. It’s not exactly cheery, but I think it’s really, really good. Thanks for reading, everyone…