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Virtual Actuality: The Prescience of 'Minority Report'

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Wednesday, Apr 21, 2010
Sure, some of the material in Minority Report is present to serve the narrative needs of the whodunit mystery, but for the most part, the movie is a postcard from the edge, a glimpse into how far we will go to create an embryonic, cocooned existence.
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Minority Report (Blu-ray)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Max Von Sydow, Steve Harris, Tim Blake Nelson, Peter Stormare

(20th Century Fox and DreamWorks; US DVD: 20 Apr 2010 (General release); UK DVD: 20 Apr 2010 (General release))

Advanced scientific techniques used to thwart and even anticipate crime. Viral marketing campaigns directed at you personally, as well as your Web-tracked preferences. Omnipresent surveillance that utilizes face recognition technology to parse through and pinpoint identification. DNA gathering. Vehicles which easily convert from horizontal to vertical travel mode. Genetically mutated psychics predicting murders and funneling that information to the police. The deeper you crawl into Steven Speilberg’s 2002 future shock masterpiece Minority Report, the further away it seems to leap from our current social situation. But if you look closely at the list above, and contemplate the changes to our world in the last eight years, you see that this Philip K. Dick inspired statement is not so far removed from our existing high tech trapped order.


It’s stunning to see the film now, so far removed from its making (and the media scrutiny of its lead). At the time, the pairing of a more mature and somewhat serious popcorn king and the once (and future) superstar looked like a commercial match made in talent agency heaven. Spielberg was coming off the brilliant Stanley Kubrick “experiment” A.I., Cruise off the dual “disappointments” of Mission: Impossible 2 and Vanilla Sky. Still, both were in their prime when they paired up to tell the story of the planet circa 2054, Washington D.C. Police Chief John Anderton, and the unique Precog unit he overseas. Developed by Dr. Iris Hineman and lorded over by Director Lamar Burgess, it employs three ‘gifted’ humans who ‘visualize’ murders before they happen. With the information they provide, and Anderton’s detective skills, said crimes have been wiped out in the area.
  
Enter Danny Witwer, an FBI agent with a mission - investigate the Precog find its flaw. With a national vote scheduled, the current administration (and Justice Department) wants to vet the process before it can become the standard. Naturally, things go awry the minute the outsider arrives. Anderton’s secret life as a grieving father and drug addict are exposed. Cracks in the Precog façade emerge, and then something truly terrifying happens. The psychics “see” the Chief confront and kill a man named Leo Crow. Now marked for an act he has yet to commit, our hero must escape his own men, figure out who framed him (if anyone has), and determine why he, of all people, would pull the trigger on someone he doesn’t even know. All paths lead to the Precog Agatha, a volatile female member of the ‘hive’ that’s desperate to uncover the truth behind the death of another - a woman named Anne Lively.


From the description alone, Minority Report appears wholly outrageous and borderline unbelievable. After all, in a world so awash in perceived rights that we’ve mistaken entitlement for an actual claim, the notion of people being arrested for crimes they’re supposed to commit seems unethical. Tack on the semi-supernatural means of making this determination (sentient beings floating in a pool of primordial mind food) and the razor sharp efficiency of Cruise and his men and you’ve got a nightmare of dystopian disillusion. As entertainment, it allows Spielberg to play in both film noir and Hitchcockian North by Northwest territory. It gives him ample room to accent and detail - and no one is better at building a fictional reality than Mr. Blockbuster. More assuredly, it allows for the kind of social commentary that makes sci-fi such a special genre.


Looking at the film from such a long perspective, we see how prescient it predictions really were. England is currently so overrun with micromanaging rules and in public surveillance that it consistently ranks near the top as the most intrusive country in the West. Similarly, the US has been using face recognition technology as a means of metering out unwanted elements at sporting events, airports, and other high profile gathering places. Everyday, a new hack or virus is discovered, some highly paid IT professional developing malware and other forms of spying with the sole purpose of tracking our web activity, gauging our interests, and then hard selling products directly to our presumed aesthetic. While the way in which Minority Report presents these ideas makes them far more incredible and fantastical, it’s their truth - and the possibility of same - that turns the film into something far more dark and sinister.


If we were living in a situation where technology was not so ever-present and intrusive, if we didn’t see local and state law enforcement scrambling for every newfangled gadget and justice-inducing aid, if video phones and meta-marketing weren’t part of who we are everyday, we would dismiss this movie. The Precog material with its floating visionaries and title “flaw” would exist only as fictional device, a moralizing warning of the ridiculous shape of things to come. But are they really any more misguided than profiling, tracking individuals based on race, religion, reading habits, retail proclivities, or other incomplete sciences as a means of making crime finally pay? Sure, some of the material in Minority Report is present to serve the narrative needs of the whodunit mystery, but for the most part, the movie is a postcard from the edge, a glimpse into how far we will go to create an embryonic, cocooned existence.


Indeed, the most startling thing about the movie is how easily it manages the Me First personal zeitgeist of now. Cruise sees himself as above the law, able to abuse drugs because of his lost child, as well as his status as supreme judge and jury. While murder has been reduced to an afterthought, the future does seem rife with other types of crime, suggesting that once it goes national, the Precog program could actually be “applied” to other types of felonies (though we do learn that the psychics can only “see” homicides). From cars that act like movable living rooms, leaving the front door and floating automatically to your destination, everything in this new D.C. is about the hermetical seal and the sense of safety. Add in the endless media opportunities preprogrammed to your own individual ‘need’ and you’ve got existence as a revisionist recluse, a loner without the need to shuffle off to some secluded wood.


With its glove manipulated computer displays (closer to reality than you know) and tentacle-like access to information, Minority Report is less conjecture and more of a certainty. Like the best of the genre, it takes recognizable elements from our own life and extrapolates them out into novel, yet totally recognizable, conceits. Sure, sometimes the vision of the future is clouded (we are still waiting for those jet packs and interplanetary shuttles) or corrupted by the need to serve a specific type of entertainment (no one is calling Star Wars a “forward thinking” film). But here, Cruise is not battling space beasts. Instead, he is walking the fine line between legitimate enforcement and manipulated martial law. With Spielberg’s solid directing skills in tow, the action is electric while the subtler moments resonate with real emotion and insight.


In fact, the biggest problem facing anyone coming at this film for the first time is how close to today many of the concepts are. Things in the future should seem further away, not ramming right up to our front door. Such a circumstance can actually undermine the effectiveness of Spielberg’s vision, its glossy magazine ad patina hiding a universe of moral dilemmas. The new Blu-ray from Paramount does provide some insight into the whole “visualization” process, how real tech was merged with movie magic to provide a potent backdrop. But ideas are only as valid as their visualization. Concepts can be undermined if not handled or highlighted properly. Minority Report doesn’t suffer from being underserved. Instead, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise have created a chilling look into what’s ahead - and sadly, it’s much closer than we even realize.


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