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Chesterton House

A Center for Christian Studies at Cornell

Minority Report

"You'd think we'd have found a cure for the common cold by now," opines Director Burgess as he blows his nose. In the year 2054, there may be no cure for the flu, but the Bureau of Pre-Crime claims that they have found a cure for murder. The Washington DC that we know as a madhouse of murder has been transformed by the mid-21st century--murder has become a thing of the past thanks to the new police system that prevents the crime before it happens.

"Minority Report" is director Stephen Spielberg's stylish techno-thriller based on the science fiction short story by Philip Dick. "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall" were also inspired by Dick stories, and "Minority Report" is repeatedly compared with "Blade Runner" as a visionary, provocative sci-fi cinema.

Science fiction of every literary form focuses on social and political rebellion and transformation. Something needs to change. However, living in the present we cannot see clearly because we are too familiar with life as it surrounds us. So, science fiction prophets change the setting to a world in which both our hopes and our nightmares have become a reality. "Minority Report" takes us forward only half a century from the present, and the changes to life-as-we-know-it are not outside the universe of what we can conceive might be possible (okÉ the elevator cars might be an exception). So, while philosophical in tone and futuristic in style, "Minority Report" maintains a sense of the present as it explores the ideas that shape the story. Therein lies much of its power--we can't write if off as something that could never happen.

In the film Washington DC has become the safest city in the U.S. because the Department of Pre-Crime has found a way to prevent murder before it happens. Three children, specially gifted with pre-cognition, are able to see murder before it happens. They are literally the brain-center of the Department of Pre-Crime--they exist in a semi-comatose state in a bath of fluids. The images that appear in their brains are wired to computer screens monitored by the Pre-Crime police--they see the crime-to-be-committed, and the police run to the scene of the would-be crime to arrest the criminal before the commission of the act. So, the images and ideas of the film set up several serious questions.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, what price are we willing to pay to feel safe? The motto of the Pre-Crime unit is: "That which keeps us safe also keeps us free." We are living in a changed world after 9/11, and many people live with heightened fear and anxiety. Many of us have envisioned draconian security measures that have become necessary for us to continue to feel secure in our homes.

Serious crimes require society to take serious action. Who hasn't wished that someone could have intervened in time to prevent the senseless taking of life? If hindsight is 20/20, wouldn't it be great to have that knowledge in advanceÉ assuming, of course, that we would put that information to honorable use. What is more honorable than saving lives?

Our pursuit of justice is many times energized by the evil we have experienced. So it is with John Anderton (Tom Cruise), chief of Pre-Crime. His little boy was kidnapped, right under his nose, 6 years ago, and he is haunted by what he could have done to prevent that crime from occurring. He is determined to do whatever is necessary to make sure that a crime like that never happens again--that no parent ever endures his pain. What could be more universal that the desire to shield one another from suffering and harm?

The film raises questions about personal safety, fear, justice, protection, power, checks and balances, criminal prosecution, government, privacy, and the sanctity of life. Like most science fiction, "Minority Report" does not answer all the questions it raises, but it does manage to fix a glitch in the system.

There is a cool, clinical mood to much of the film. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler's List") paints the screen in sleek, steely blue. The tone is indifferent and detached (yet, the chrome-like scheme suggests speed, suddenness, steely-swift justice) pointing to the depersonalizing consequences of the technological advances being championed. The Pre-Cogs do not give their gifts for the good of their neighbors, but their brains are used thanklessly--they are little more than machines. Individuals lose their identity to the scanners and optical readers that monitor their movements--their names are shouted out by digital billboards (designed to make advertising personal), their movements are tracked (because if we want to be protected we have to be found when we need help). As we watch this future world, we find that all the technology makes sense--we can see ourselves wanting it in our lives for the same reasons the characters in the film probably welcomed it into theirs.

But is it too late to undo the madness?

"Minority Report" is about seeing. Stylistically it employs a vision of the future. But it also acknowledges an increasingly prevalent view of the world, and our view of our place in the world. To undo the tyranny, Anderton has to get new eyes, literally. He is blind to the immorality of Pre-Crime and the abuse of the Pre-Cogs. He has to stop his addiction to the drug "Clarity" that keeps him reliving the past. He has to interpret what the Pre-Cogs "see" when they predict that he will murder a man he does not know in 36 hours. He is a man known for integrity, and he thinks of himself as one who would never behave any other way--so he has to explore his own self, his motives, and "see" himself in a new way.

"In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

In a way quite similar to "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys," "Minority Report" is about control. Ironically, the savior figure is Agatha, one of the Pre-Cogs. Yet she is helpless. Her body is limp and weak, barely able to stand. There is an extraordinary cinemagraphic moment when Anderton is holding her--her head on his shoulder is looking back, he is looking forward, and their eyes tell all. Anderton believes that the Pre-Crime Department has found a way to control the evil of the human heart, but he discovers that even the Pre-Crime developers are corrupt. He set his eyes to look in another direction.

Finally, the film toys with some religious ideas and images. Perhaps most prominently it ponders the tension between predestination and free will, or fatalism and determinism. Can we change the future? Are we doomed to do what has been foreseen? If we cannot choose (and Agatha pleads with Anderton as he points his gun at the man the Pre-Cogs saw him kill, "You can choose!"), how are we not machines, and why should we not employ sophisticated technology simply to manage our existence? Michael Karounos writing in the "Journal of Religion and Film" observes: "The area where the Pre-Cogs are kept is referred to as 'The Temple'; the police officers are called 'priests' and 'clergy'; the punishment chamber for the future murderers is called a kind of 'hell'; and the 'handcuffs' are an immobilizing headset which is referred to as a 'halo.' Moreover, there are three Pre-Cogs (constituting a kind of trinity) and the warden of the 'death penalty' wing is called Gideon."

In "Signs" the wife of Graham Hess tells him with her dying breath, "See!" Open your eyes - stop walking around in a blind stupor. "Minority Report" asks us to see, too. Are we blind? Are we controlled by fear? Are we moral beings that have responsibility for the choices we make? Are we willing to change the way we see the world and embrace solutions to the problems that plague our cities and invade our lives?

"Minority Report" is brilliant visually with solid performances by Tom Cruise, Colin Ferrill, and Max von Sydow. Samantha Morton is mesmerizing as Agatha. It's a long film--2 hours and 20 minutes. We will start the film on time so we will have some time for discussion afterwards.

-Steve Froehlich