Minority Retorts

Post-Cogging Spielberg's Action Allegory


"You know I'm blind without them," says a would-be murderer at the start of Minority Report. Let's keep that antecedent unclear. It's an apt first line for a film so relentlessly concerned with the dangers of visualization—and at the same time so generous in its capacity for spectacle. In a world of murder-mapping ESP and retinal ID scans, heartrending holograms and massive surveillance, the metaphoric and literal burdens are such that it's no wonder the eye becomes the site of trauma. Faces without an eye: A child scissors out peepholes in an Abraham Lincoln mask; a dealer in what look like illicit asthma inhalers has wormy voids instead of orbs; Tom Cruise's John Anderton, the chief of the Department of Pre-Crime who finds his name on the guilty boccie ball, submits to eyeball replacement surgery—Un Chien Andalou set to A Clockwork Orange. It's enough to make you cancel that Lasik appointment.

Blade Runner was a first-rate re-imagining of a first-rate Philip K. Dick novel; Minority Report is in some ways more impressive in its elevation of much weaker PKD material, a 1956 short story with little to offer beyond its premise. Both films are, at heart, detective stories. Beneath its F/X whistles and bells,* Minority Report made me think of that inexorable murder in Borges's "Death and the Compass" as filtered through Plato's allegory of the cave (the images pulled from the grotto-dwelling "pre-cogs" appearing on the ultimate flat-screen monitor), as well as recent Cruise vision quests Eyes Wide Shut and the Dickian, ridiculous Vanilla Sky.

"Can you see?" Secret sharers Morton and Cruise
photo: David James/Dreamworks
"Can you see?" Secret sharers Morton and Cruise

I can hardly be the first viewer to have noted that the names of the mutants, Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell, correspond to three grand masters of popular detective fiction: Christie, Conan Doyle, and Hammett. Anderton, hunted by his own agency, essentially dons the mantle of private eye, a slave to grit and revelation. He plucks from the "temple" (as the pre-cog lair is called) his private eye and secret sharer, Agatha (bald and bloodcurdling Samantha Morton), "returning" to the scene of the imminent crime in order to defeat what the fates have decreed. "Can you see?" Agatha repeatedly asks. For much of Minority Report, before the filmmakers give in to rote conspiracy (Dick, in this case, fared no better), those words seem charged with ancient horror, in that voice as old as tragedy. —Ed Park

*And I love the whistles, I dig the bells: the animated cereal box, the beautifully vertiginous cascading traffic, Anderton hiding in the tub from the police spiders like it's Fear Factor 2054. (The show has a chance, as Cops will apparently still be on the air.)


If I could return from the future to prevent the bad parts of Minority Report from happening, here's what I'd do: impound the steam-iron-shaped police cruiser (stolen from Boba Fett) and all the telephone-receiver-shaped cars (stolen from Tron). I'd arrest the whole black-suited police force (on expired visas from Brazil). Above all, I would take whatever action was necessary to prevent John Anderton (Tom Cruise) from getting back together with his estranged wife (a family drama straight out of E.T.). When I was done, the movie would consist of only a handful of images: three androgynes twitching in a bathtub; the artfully shaky Agatha guiding the shakily artful Cruise through the mall of the future; the mutants dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

As a writer, I feel an affinity for the pre-cogs: They survive only under particular conditions, and they don't relate well to the outside world. They have their bathtub; we have Yaddo. In Dick's short story, the pre-cogs don't see the future; they speak it. "All day long the idiots babbled," Dick writes, "imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps." It's the only part of the story that really comes to life; one imagines that Dick (chained to his desk by penury) knew his material well.

Spielberg's pre-cogs, on the other hand, are not author figures, despite that last scene where they read New Directions paperbacks and grow out their hair. Can you imagine Steven Spielberg in a see-through shirt, bathing in goo? Don't try. If Spielberg has a counterpart anywhere on-screen, it's Cruise, making power-mime gestures at a sheet of Plexiglas. The pre-cogs, meanwhile, stand in for the audience: immobilized in our comfy seats, imbibing sugar-rich fluid in bluish darkness.

It may seem like a small difference, but it means everything. Dick's story is about seeing the future; Spielberg's film is about being stuck with the present. Consider the features of Minority Report's 2054: ads that know your name, universal surveillance, preemptive attacks on potential wrongdoers. It's a vision of the future the way the shadow of a falling piano is a vision of the future: You see it; you look up; splat. Of course, Spielberg is a moralist; he wants us to believe that our gloomy predictions don't have to come true. Look, he says, if Tom Cruise can change the future (he does so twice in the course of half a dozen final scenes), why can't you? But the question rings false. If we're really dissatisfied with the way things are going, we'll have to get out of our comfy seats and do something, and the film doesn't encourage that. Unlike Dick's fiction, which was depressing but new, Minority Report is about being happy to sit through what you've seen before. It's enough to make you leap out of your bathtub and whisper, "Murder!" —Paul LaFarge

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