One of my favorite movies of all time is Minority Report, a 2002 movie by Steven Spielberg which was based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name. I watched it for the first time at a young impressionable age and spent maybe a little too much time thinking about its morals and themes, but when I wanted to revisit it recently before the ill-fated Minority Report reboot aired, I found that I had lost my copy of the DVD. Fortunately for me, it finally turned up, and I settled in to realize that the messages of this movie, though somewhat flawed, are still relevant today.
Spoilers after the jump.
In 2054, Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas have a program called “PreCrime”—the government has a way to see murders before they happen and has a whole police division dedicated to stopping said murders and arresting the perpetrators before they ever commit a crime. The PreCrime chief, John Anderton, believes wholly in the PreCrime program and when Danny Witwer from the Department of Justice comes to check it out, he advocates strongly for it to be expanded nationwide. Anderton introduces Witwer to the program and the three genetically altered humans, called precogs, who are the heart of PreCrime. The three precogs have the ability to see every murder that occurs in the near future, and a machine reads these visions and gives Anderton and his team the names of the victims and perpetrators along with the precogs’ vision of how the murder will occur. Anderton’s easy acceptance of this system shudders to an abrupt halt, though, when his own name comes out of the machine as a future perpetrator. In just over a day, he’s supposed to kill some man he’s never met. So Anderton steals Agatha, the strongest precog, and goes on the run.
In the world of Minority Report, security is done through eyedents—scans of the eye which show all your personal information so that companies can advertise to you or, more ominously, identify you for security purposes. Security cameras and scanners are everywhere, meaning the police know everyone’s every move. This makes it far easier for PreCrime to profile potential future perpetrators, creating a police state, and it should come as no surprise that the strongest and most remembered message from Minority Report is this idea of free will vs determinism. Though the precogs see every murder, their visions are only some of the potential futures: the people arrested under PreCrime have committed no actual crimes. As Anderton finds out when he himself is accused of future murder, someone can decide not to commit murder and thus foil the precogs’ visions. The people he’s put away using PreCrime visions and eyedent profiling could all be innocent.
Though Anderton insists to Witwer that the system is perfect, Witwer tells him that if a system is perfect, then any flaws to be found will be found in the humans who run said system. Unfortunately for Anderton, this turns out to be true. He discovers that his boss and one of the founders of PreCrime, Lamar Burgess, had utilized the system to cover up the death of Agatha’s mother, Anne Lively. Burgess hired someone to kill Anne, and when that murder was seen by the precogs and foiled, he dressed up as the murderer and killed Anne in the exact same way. Precog technicians saw this as an “echo”, or a repeat of the same murder, and deleted the vision from the system. Burgess insists to Anderton that this murder had to be carried out: he judges that the death of Anne Lively is worth the hundreds of lives that PreCrime has saved, and when he tries to kill Anderton to shut him up and ensure the continued survival of the PreCrime program, he uses this same justification. In saying that the flaw is in the humans, Spielberg is saying, through Witwer, that if an absolute police state did exist, it wouldn’t lead to security—the powerful and corrupt would use the system to profile and kill those whom they deemed unworthy. This movie came out in mid-2002, almost a year after the events of 9/11, when invasive security measures were being ramped up for “safety”. Spielberg’s commentary on a police state is perhaps even more relevant now, in the age of NSA transgressions and Wikileaks.
It’s a complicated concept, but the movie grounds itself in emotionally realistic characters and family relationships. Anderton is driven by the kidnapping of his son, Sean, which happened when Sean was six. The kidnapper was never found, and Anderton goes on to dedicate himself to catching other criminals, leading to his steadfast belief in the PreCrime system. His experience with broken families directly parallels Agatha’s—Agatha is the daughter of a drug addict, the aforementioned Anne Lively, who gave her up to the system. But Anne gets help for her addiction, stops doing drugs, and tries to come back for Agatha, only to find that Agatha is now part of the PreCrime program and the government kills Anne to keep the program going. When Anderton steals Agatha from the precog pool, similar to how his own son was kidnapped from a pool, the two of them come close to forming a makeshift family—though they don’t quite make it there.
This is because, despite the movie’s many strengths, it also has some major faults. For one, there are few characters of color of note, even though the story is set in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Northern Virginia, three very demographically diverse locations in real life. For another, it’s hard to say that any of the female characters are more than their archetypes—Lara is simply Anderton’s estranged ex-wife, Agatha is a magical innocent, and Anne is dead before the story begins. But most importantly, the narrative fails to take into account the humanity of the three precogs on which PreCrime rests. As Anderton says earlier in the movie, “it helps if you don’t think of them [the precogs] as human.” Indeed, the three precogs are basically slaves of the PreCrime program, drugged and hooked up to machines to ensure that they will continue seeing the murders of the future for their entire lives.
When Anderton meets Iris Hineman, the other PreCrime founder, she tells him that the precogs’ abilities are the result of having mothers who used drugs during pregnancy and of further human experimentation. This doesn’t help Anderton start to think of the precogs as human—he only steals Agatha because she’s the strongest “tool”, as it were, and he doesn’t take her in as a daughter (which would have been a far stronger ending, as one critic has said.) The narrative places a lot of weight on the death of Anne and the potential death of Anderton and discusses, in depth, if these deaths are worth it to keep PreCrime running and supposedly saving lives. But it never discusses how the program also ruined the lives of the children who were experimented on and specifically the lives of Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell, the three precogs who were kept against their will for the six years PreCrime ran; nor does it discuss how the precogs were reintegrated into human society after the main events of the movie. In a movie so filled with morals and ethics, it’s strange that no one ever considered the human toll of the PreCrime program past Anne and Anderton. It’s clear that the characters did not think of the precogs as human, but unfortunately, neither did the narrative. In a story about security, privacy, and human rights, it’s unconscionable to not even consider the lives of the precogs, who are most in need of protection, in the equation.
Though Minority Report has some flaws, the ethical dilemmas it invites us to discuss are still scarily relevant today. America now basically has an outright Muslim ban, the TSA is pushing for ever more stringent security checks, and countries worldwide are seeing the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric thanks to the misconception that immigrants are all bad people who are destined to do bad things. In these circumstances, it’s important to remember that invasions of privacy will do nothing for security, and profiling potential criminals will only result in innocent people being wrongfully detained or worse, wrongfully convicted, jailed, or killed. If you haven’t seen Minority Report before, I would definitely recommend it.