Raise your hand if you would be in favor of a world without murder. Obviously, that should be everyone.
Now keep your hands raised if you’re willing to give up some of your privacy in exchange for a murder rate of zero. I can see one or two hands faltering (you’re asking yourselves: how much privacy, exactly?), but ultimately the extreme good still outweighs the intrusion.
Now continue to keep your hands in the air if you are willing to seize three humans and turn them into homicide alarm clocks just so long as you stay safe. Wow, we lost a lot of you there. And that’s precisely the conundrum in Stephen Spielberg’s neo-noir crime thriller, Minority Report.
It’s 2045 and Washington, D.C., has not seen a murder in over six years. This is all thanks to the D.C. Department of Precrime, Precrime Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise), his mentor/Precrime Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), and the three Precogs who we’ll discuss in a bit.
Six years previously, Anderton’s life fell apart. His son was kidnapped at a public pool, divorce and drugs ensued, and he could only cope by enlisting in Precrime and preventing similar tragedies from happening. Precrime is a police division that exists for that very purpose, to prevent crimes before they happen. The key is the Precogs, a trio of human beings housed in a nutrient-rich liquid. These Precogs are the children of drug addicts and only a few were able to survive childhood; one of the side effects they suffer from is the ability to sense and see murder(ers), as murder is more destructive to the human fabric than any other deed. It is up to Anderton and his tactical team then to discover the location of the murders and preemptively arrest the would-be perpetrators.
Matters become complicated though when the U.S. Department of Justice sends in Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) to investigate Precrime from top to bottom, its practices, principles, employees, everything. The government is considering taking Precrime national, so Witwer is tasked with finding flaws — and if there are any flaws, he philosophically tells Anderton, they’re bound to be human.
While Witwer is auditing Precrime, the Precogs make a new prediction. A man named Leo Crow will be murdered in 36 hours. The twist…Anderton is the one who is supposed to murder him. This sends Witwer and all of Precrime on a wild manhunt for Anderton, who knows every move his former coworkers will make – this, of course, leads to some eye-catching sequences of Anderton making narrow escapes, avoiding eye scanners, and temporarily turning his face into a wrinkly mush.
Determined to prove his own innocence and that he will not murder Crow, a man he has never met, Anderton seeks the help of Precrime’s accidental creator, Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith). “I was trying to cure them,” she says. The Precogs were just children at the time and tormented by visions of death and brutality, trying to understand what it was they were seeing. But Hineman reveals that Precrime is not perfect as many believe it to be. In fact, the Precogs can sometimes disagree about their visions, seeing possible alternate futures. These alternate futures are discarded as “minority reports” and kept under wraps as it would endanger Precrime’s credibility.
Convinced that he must have a minority report, Anderton returns to Precrime HQ and kidnaps Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most talented of the three Precogs, in hopes that she can prove his innocence. As an aside, note that all three Precogs are named after famous crime fiction authors — Arthur (Conan Doyle), Dashiell (Hammett), and Agatha (Christie).
The story reaches its climax as the 36-hour window winds down and Anderton and Agatha come face to face with Leo Crow. Crow is in possession of dozens of photographs of children, including Anderton’s missing son Sean. [Spoiler] But when Anderton doesn’t pull the trigger to kill him, Crow reveals he was paid to pose as Sean’s kidnapper in an attempt to incite Anderton to murder. As to who is trying to set up Anderton and why, I’ll leave that for you to discover.
Minority Report remains one of Spielberg’s loftiest films to date. Generally regarded at his peak when handling genre pictures, Spielberg veers into slightly new territory by combining many film noir and crime drama tactics with curiously complex ideas. In a world where society is seduced by the total eradication of murder, questions are raised regarding rights, freedom, governance, privacy, human life, and ethics. In short, what becomes permissible by law quickly becomes permissible in the moral fabric of society.
It’s funny to note then how often religious language gets retread and used to cover up actions that are ethically suspect within a society. “Imagine a world without murder,” says an enticing voice, for example, during a Precrime commercial early in the film. “It seemed that only a miracle could stop the bloodshed. But instead of one miracle, we were given three: the Precognitives.” Not only that but the Precogs are housed in a tank called The Temple, potential criminals are put in an arrested state with a device called a “halo,” and people have begun to deify the Precogs, as one passing character points out.
In Minority Report, Spielberg toys not only with the idea that human life should never be compromised, no matter how great the resulting good may be, but he dives into the complexity of the individual’s role in a system that claims it is acting in the best interest of all people. Who exactly is being protected, who is acting on their behalf, what are their motivations, and are they committing evil or unethical actions in order to bring about a supposed good?
Anderton soon realizes he has never questioned who was keeping them safe or what cost it exacted. As Dr. Hineman puts it to him when discussing minority reports, society has forgotten “the innocents we now use to stop the guilty.”
Anderton, a man who earlier in the movie says, “It’s better if you don’t think of them as human,” comes to understand that discarding reason — whether out of fear or even good intentions — does not dissolve us of responsibility for our actions.
So whether or not you’re in the minority, you can keep your hands down, because this film has more to teach us about our possible futures than we may realize.
Minority Report’s MPAA rating is PG-13 for violence, brief language, some sexuality, and drug content. Stephen Spielberg directs. Based on the short story, “The Minority Report,” by Philip K. Dick. Running time: 145 min.
— Justin Petrisek is a writer based out of Virginia. He received his M.F.A. in creative writing and M.A. in literature from George Mason University as well as an M.A. in theology from the Augustine Institute.