Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell
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“Sometimes, in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.”
Indiana Jones. War Horse. Jurassic Park. E.T.. Say “Steven Spielberg” to most people and they’ll recall the warm, fuzzy feeling they get from the director’s family-friendly blockbusters. The man who gave us a modern take on Tintin. A 3-D BFG. A film about Tom Hanks living in an airport. But if your typical Spielberger is served with a hefty slice of cheese, it’s easy to forget that the filmmaker is capable of some really dark things. This, after all, is the precise crafter of suspense behind Jaws and Duel. The man who brought some of the darkest chapters of human history to life in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. In a career of masterpieces, though, one masterpiece is overshadowed by all the others, a dark thriller that doesn’t delve into our past so much as map out our future: 2002’s Minority Report.
With Blade Runner 2049 finally here, Denis Villeneuve’s stunning sequel (and Ridley Scott’s original, which we re-watched recently) brings to mind the equally mesmerising Minority Report. The two have several things in common: based on Philip K. Dick stories, they both find ways to change their source material for the better, they both display exemplary world-building in their dystopian civilisations, and they both use those worlds as a backdrop for gripping stories about big questions and important issues.
The screenplay retains the key premise from Dick’s tale: the year is 2054 and the police can now stop crimes from happening by arresting the culprit before they’ve even committed the act. How? A trio of mutants, who can see the future. Called “Precogs”, they’ve been turned into a hive mind that forms the basis of PreCrime, a new police division dedicated to tackling crimes that haven’t yet taken place. The punishment? Imprisonment inside a virtual jail that forces them to relive the act over and over again, courtesy of a nasty, brain-sapping headset.
John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the poster boy for the scheme, heading up the division and a firm believer in its potential to reduce the crime rate to zero. With his son taken from him years previously, he’s determined to stop anyone else suffering the same loss. One day, though, the Precogs spit out his name for the murder of a man named Leo Crow. Can he prove his innocence for a crime he hasn’t committed yet?
It’s a fantastic hook for a film, and Spielberg’s knack for mainstream thrills lies just as much in his ability to pick the right story with which to work his magic. The tale is significantly different to the novel, which sees Anderton accused of future-murdering General Leo Kaplan, who aims to discredit PreCrime. Instead, Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s script introduces Lamar Burgesss (Max von Sydow on scene-stealing form), a father-like figure to John and the creator of PreCrime. The original’s exploration of the possibility of alternate timelines is also largely muted, boiled down to a more conventional quandary about free will and fate.
But if that sounds dumbed-down, compare it to the other adaptations of Dick for the big screen and you can see just how right Minority Report gets it: The Adjustment Bureau lacks its excitement, Paycheck lacks its logic (and a lot of other things), A Scanner Darkly (an extremely faithful, and unsettling, animation) lacks its accessibility, and Total Recall is fun, but is soft trash rather than hard science fiction.
Minority Report ranks alongside Blade Runner as a Philip K Dick movie that has truly stood the test of time – and, in one sense, even trumps Blade Runner: while Scott’s movie feels relevant in its commercialised society full of pollution, Minority Report has actually accurately forecast what the world will be like. That’s thanks to production designer Alex McDowell, who began his designing long before the script was ready, aiming to create something akin to reality but advanced several steps forward, rather than imagine something fantastical out of thin air.
Sci-fi has the odd ability to make people want it to come true, whether it’s a fancy gadget or a funky vehicle. Jetpacks and hoverboards have been on our Christmas wish lists for decades. Minority Report, though, is just realistic enough to make it all plausible: driverless cars are currently in their preliminary stages, while voice-controlled homes and devices powered by facial recognition are already the norm. Even targeted, personalised ads, based on the websites we visit, are anticipated by Minority Report’s use of eyeballs to identify people – prompting visitors in shops to be greeted by ads that remember what they last purchased. And, of course, there’s the small matter of Tom Cruise’s character being able to control his computer by waving his arms around – a familiar trick for Xbox Kinect owners and something that’s already possible to some degree with the purchase of various add-on gadgets.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoots the whole thing with a cool, grey sheen, just enough to take some of the shine off the curved edges. But while it continues Blade Runner’s retro-future vision of the world, Scott’s timeless gem still feels a long way off; Spielberg’s feels more like The Handmaid’s Tale, a glimpse of our all-too-immediate future.
There’s a through-line between Blade Runner and Minority Report, though, in Dick’s obsession with eyes, here less about offering a window onto the soul and more about the all-seeing eye of the state. It’s in that claustrophobia that Minority Report really revels in its shadowy tones: underlying it all is the Philip K Dick-worthy acknowledgement that it’s not the technology that matters; it’s how people use it. That cynical streak runs deep, turning this into a far from cheerful night at the movies: no matter what the advancement, Minority Report reminds us, humans are always the fallible part of the system. And so the Precogs are kept shrouded in “The Temple” by the police, almost deifying these beings who can only see homicides in their dreams – yet all three treated with a similar amount of disdain and subservience as Blade Runner’s replicant slaves. Targeted ads in the streets exploit facial recognition for consumerist gain. Automated cars trade convenience for GPS tracking. And, of course, there are the scary, spider-like robots that crawl through apartment blocks and scan irises to determine who’s present at a crime scene – less about safety and more about surveillance. And, as with all justice systems, there are always human ways to cheat and get away with murder.
At a time when snooper’s charters are going through parliament and governments are battling tech giants to get back doors into our mobile phones, Minority Report’s bleak atmosphere feels eerily prescient – and not just because those phones are now controlled by swipes, pinches and pulls that make us all feel like Tom Cruise in hand-waving mode. Only this summer, McDowell held a City of Tomorrow Symposium, run by the USC World Building Institute, which uses narrative, design and technology to improve mobility and access in the modern age; Minority Report’s production has literally paved the way for real life.
But the movie’s success lies not solely in its ability to remain thematically relevant, but in Spielberg’s understanding of technology to tell stories. How people use it is what matters, and Spielberg uses it to craft some of the most stunning blockbuster set pieces in recent memory: the automated cars become stepping stones for some gravity-defying roof-hopping; the e-reading devices on trains that automatically update with the latest headlines become photos threatening to give away our innocent man on the run; the spiders crawling into Anderton’s room to scan his eyes, just after he’s had an illegal eye transplant, risk his blindness as well as his discovery; and his breaking out of Agatha (a superbly wide-eyed Samantha Morton), one of the Precogs, results in a delightfully witty sequence, as they run through the city and she warns passers-by about things that will happen to them.
The stunts fly thick and fast, effectively crafting one long chase, which involves jetpacks flying into people’s living rooms – in a typically Spielbergian flourish of humour, they cook burgers on a grill – and, in one dazzling punch-up, cars being assembled in a factory around our hero and his pursuer.
That pursuer is Danny Witwer, played with a smug confidence by Colin Farrell – one of the first roles to demonstrate just how good an actor he really is. Indeed, all four main cast members do a superb job of grounding the whole thing, with Cruise on charismatic form as a drug-addicted, grieving father, but this is Spielberg’s show: the gesture-powered computers aren’t cool because Tom Cruise is the one gesturing, but because the filmmaker uses them as a way to drip-feed new details about every crime, as the visuals scrub back and forth and zoom in and out and around each suspect. By the time the same technique is being applied to Anderton himself, it’s a riveting display of a director at the darkest height of his talents. Tightly plotted, heart-racingly paced and expertly conceived, Minority Report is a study of surveillance and free will that gets darker and darker until it becomes a murky reflection of a world still recognisable 15 years on.
Minority Report is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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