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Free will. What a concept! A Wikipedia rabbit hole I stumbled down years ago took me to Laplace’s Demon, the idea that if a demon could track every atom in the universe, the outcome of everything could be determined using, to put it simply, math. Science fiction is rife with possibilities, as crazy as Laplace’s demon and as
crazy reasonable as space travel. The best science fiction reinforces truths about human nature in the present. Obviously, this isn’t always true, but if a story is going to sell there usually needs to be something for its audience to grab onto.
Originally a short story by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report (2002) was directed by Steven Spielberg at an exciting point in his career: He was coming off of what might be his magnum opus, Saving Private Ryan, in 1998. A.I. Artificial Intelligence followed this in 2001, which hilariously, in retrospect, spells out what A.I. means in its title, and less hilariously, was only directed by Spielberg because Stanley Kubrick passed away during pre-production on the film. He’s no stranger to sci-fi, never going more than ten years without directing something in the genre. Did A.I. Artificial Intelligence1 stir something in Spielberg?
Set in 2054, Minority Report takes place in the Department of Precrime. The film is a masterclass in storytelling. An opening sequence shows us, explicitly, what it’s like to be a precog, a seer of the future held against their will by the government, predicting a brutal murder as it flashes from action to action, scissors to blood, to forgotten glasses, to dying victims. Precogs, it appears, exist to show us murders before they happen so murder can be prevented altogether. We move to an action sequence showing us John Anderton’s (Tom Cruise) team at work. The story then efficiently gives us an intimate understanding of what drives John in his career, followed by an apparent conflict with DoJ agent Danny Witwer. (Colin Farrell in his Hollywood breakout role) Witwer seems to have some issues with the idea of predetermination. When Anderton shows up in a vision, murdering someone no less, the game is afoot!
A surprising genre mash-up at times, It’s a short stretch to imagine Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin chasing their old eyeballs down a hallway rather than Tom Cruise. It’s a balancing act of moods that appears lost in today’s films and is uniquely Spielbergian. One concept that seems impossible in today’s cultural climate; is that the government would spend time and money to prevent murder. Suppose the department that John Anderton heads up proposed gun legislation in this film, the department of precrime would be shut down in a heartbeat. Of the many sci-fi concepts being bandied about, perhaps the most prescient is its prediction of ad targeting as Tom Cruise is on the run and sprinting past billboards and placards that call him out by name, telling him he deserves a Guinness and would enjoy a Lexus, or asking him how he likes the pants he bought last time he was at the Gap. To think this movie was released three years before Facebook hit the internet, and we all bought into being tracked willingly. Spielberg ties this neatly with the true insidious force underneath the film: Not murder, but government surveillance.
Minority Report is visually striking. It’s bathed in silver halide and framed with the fervor and intensity of a director making his first film as if he has something to prove. It’s hard to believe the movie is 20 years old. While watching, I was reminded of an interview I read years ago, Roger Ebert in conversation with Spielberg, where Ebert remarks on the incredible sense of discovery from a specific two-shot in the film (see the image above):
Ebert: "Who would have thought there would be another way to compose a two-shot?"
Spielberg: "I swear to you, I discovered that shot through the viewfinder. I had them hug, and suddenly I saw it through the viewfinder, and I asked Samantha to turn her head a little for more profile, and I found this shot. I called Janusz Kaminski [the cinematographer] over and said, 'Look at this thing! It's amazing!' And it was just there."
The special effects in the action sequences feel like a bridge between the present and the past; a perfect blend of practical effects and CGI makes sequences that feel surprisingly real, more realistic than much of what we get in theaters today. Add to this that Spielberg always finds a way to bake domesticity into his action sequences, for example, when Anderton is attempting to escape from the law, and his commandeering of jetpacks takes him and his pursuers through an apartment building where families are watching TV, eating dinner, and cooking burgers. In a later sequence that foreshadows the effects work that will be done on War of the Worlds (2005), “spiders” comb low-income housing to find a missing person by scanning every resident’s eyeballs. The future might be filled with wonders and incredible innovations for shoppers, but Spielberg doesn’t fail to show us that inequality and its terror is alive and well.
There is a depth to Minority Report that is easy to overlook, given the sheer effectiveness with which Spielberg makes big Hollywood films. It’s easy to take it in as an action thriller with some hidden yet obvious (in retrospect) character twists. At the heart of the film is the subject of free will. Do we truly have a choice in our actions? The more the film settles in, the more I believe the subtle message hiding in the murky depths of the film is that free will is a spectrum. Pay attention to the characters who have the privilege of making choices, and those that don’t, despite whether they’re the archetypical heroes or villains of the story. The demon is in the details.
Written by Philip K. Dick, Scott Frank, and Jon Cohen; Directed by Steven Spielberg
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
There are SO many great films in theaters at the moment. Let’s run down the list of movies (along with some mini-reviews) that are worth your money and that you can’t see at home!
The Woman King - Viola Davis can do it all. I felt like I was back in the 90s watching an epic like Gladiator or Braveheart or Last of the Mohicans or Ben-Hur (Ok that’s older). Epic and grand and scored beautifully (and surprisingly also 90s-esque). A perfect movie in the Hollywood sense, altering and claiming history as a form of empowerment.
Tár - My favorite of the current crop! Incredible. Near the end there is a masterful scene that shows us what Tár truly values; she's moved to tears by something music adjacent, but not the music itself. #TárNATIONRiseUP
Aftersun - Haven’t seen it yet!
The Banshees of Inisherin - As sharp as one would expect from McDonaugh. Incredibly sad. Acted to perfection. I'm excited to turn this over and over in my head. Just felt a tad long, though I could see this growing in esteem upon a revisit.
Armageddon Time - Haven’t seen it yet!
Decision to Leave - Modern Hitchcock; beautiful and confounding. I will go back to the theater to watch this again.
Triangle of Sadness - Didn’t love it, but hey, check out the trailer, you might!
And more movies are on the way! Including the latest from this week’s director, Steven Spielberg: The Fabelmans (2022). I’m not going to lie; every time I see the trailer, and Michele Williams says she bought a monkey because she needed a laugh, my face scrunches up in discomfort. But I digress.
Movie nights are great, but get out and watch one of these films with a crowd!
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I think it’s funny to always refer to this film strictly as “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”