Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Minority Report

If you know the future, presumably you can change it. If you knew about Lee Harvey Oswald beforehand, you could possibly stop JFK's assassination. Or, maybe it's the very knowledge of what's to come that drives you to it. MacBeth probably wouldn't have murdered Duncan had the witches not prophesied he'd be king. That question of self-determination versus fate lies at the heart of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), based on a story by Phillip K. Dick, author of the works that inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall.

In the year 2054, John Anderton (Tom Crusie) is the chief of a Washington D.C. law enforcement agency known as Precrime. Using the power of three "Pre-Cogs," humans with psychic ability, the officers of Precrime are able to stop murder before it occurs. Homicides have not occurred in D.C. in six years as a result. The system is turned on its head when Anderton is identified as the future murderer of Leo Crowe, a man Anderton's never heard of. Anderton flees his own agency, pursued by Justice Department Detective Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) who seems to have his own agenda.

Minority Report is almost like an inverse of Blade Runner. Instead of a grimy, cyberpunk, industrial dystopia in Ridley Scott's film, Spielberg sets his world in a brighter, cleaner, more optimistic metropolis. Instead of the morally (and biologically) ambiguous Rick Deckard hunting down his quarry, Anderton is an upstanding citizen who becomes hunted by the system he helped build. If Blade Runner is futuristic film noir, Minority Report is a Hitchcockian chase about the man wrongfully accused.

The paradox driving the plot is how Anderton both looks more guilty as he tries to clear his name and how he would not have been pushed toward this destiny had no one predicted it. He never would known about Crowe if no one had never told him he would murder him. The film is also remarkably clever in the ways it explores its central gimmick: determining how someone could get away with a murder in this environment and the idea the Pre-Cogs, though never wrong, can disagree.

Of course, this society almost doesn't need psychics. Retinal scanners track everyone; billboards and advertisements play personalized jingles and offers when someone's eyes are scanned. These little metallic spiders crawl through apartment buildings to search for suspects. In a sequence that's disquieting and darkly funny, we see them scuttle through a number of rooms, interrupting an arguing couple who pause to allow the search and then resume fighting when the machines leave as if nothing happened. Privacy is dead.

Spielberg loads plenty of action scenes: a chase involving a squad of cops on jet packs, Anderton leaping from car to car as they descend down a vertical highway, and the sequence when Anderton and one of the Pre-Cogs (Samantha Morton) sneak through a mall relying on her powers to know when to stop and go.

Minority Report is certainly one of the better sci-fi movies in recent years. Instead of mindless scenes of destruction, there are some intriguing ideas put forward, and the special effects, quite good, don't overwhelm the story. It's good stuff.

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