Minority Report

Minority Report is the third feature film which takes its inspiration from a Philip K. Dick science fiction story. Its blend of genres, narrative impulses and representational issues makes it a useful text for Higher and Advanced Higher Media Studies.

Before discussing thematic, narrative or aesthetic qualities of films such as Minority Report (cert 12), it is crucial to recognise that this is a commercial product. Produced by 20th Century Fox (a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) and Dreamworks, the financiers would regard this movie as a form of mass entertainment and as a business venture whose principal role is to make money. It can be regarded as a ‘package’ with:

  • An A-list star (Cruise)
  • The world’s best known and bankable director (Spielberg)
  • An already established blend of genres (crime, science fiction, action and film noir)
  • The popularity of the source document (a short story by Philip K. Dick whose work has been represented in Blade Runner and Total Recall)
  • Easy to digest advertising slogans: “Get Ready to Run” and “You Can’t Hide”
  • The scope for tie-ins and merchandising such as computer games, DVD, posters and the like
  • Openings for product placement: Pepsi, The Gap, Guinness, American Express, Aquafina and Radio Shack are brands which receive, presumably paid for, coverage during the course of the film.

This latter feature is ironic since some of the film’s themes are about the rampant commercialism of modern life and the tendency of the corporate world to encroach on the lives of ordinary citizens.

The classifying of films according to genre is useful both to audience members who have a broad idea of what to expect from a film and for the film’s producers as a study of previously successful films might give them a lead on public tastes.

In recent years the science fiction, crime and action genres, individually or in combination, have proved popular with turn-of-the century audiences. Minority Report is an example of a generic hybrid as the director fuses several film styles. The most obvious genres present in Minority Report are science fiction (the film is set in the future – 2054 – in a society where technology and its use are of crucial importance); crime/detective (the film features the work of a homicide squad), action (a series of set piece spectaculars occur in the first half of the movie) and, interestingly, film noir. The latter is a term first used by a group of French film critics in the 1950s to describe a number of film adaptations of American crime novels. The earliest of these films include The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and feature a cynical, hard bitten, streetwise private eye entangled in a complex web of intrigue. Since the 1950s critics have written a great deal about film noir, in particular its distinctive visual style and iconography. A number of its features can be discerned in Minority Report:

Mise en scène: note the use of chiaroscuro lighting which results in shadows falling over the faces of characters perhaps heightening the mood of suspense or possibly masking their true intentions or feelings. We see an example of this in the scene in the ‘sprawl’ when Anderton is buying the drugs from the dealer. Pulling back his hood the drug dealer reveals two eyeless sockets. At this point he offers the old maxim – “In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. The film cuts to a close up of Anderton his face obscured by shadow and only one eye visible. This is a shot which is repeated at least once.

Indeed, the early scene of the abortive murder contains all the elements of a noir crime of passion: the cuckolded businessman husband who wears glasses and attempts to use a pair scissors as the murder weapon; the mirror in the bedroom.

Whereas the classic films noir of the 1940s were invariably shot in black and white it is worth noting Minority Report uses a bleached out effect and colours such as blue to recreate the dark, bleak feel of the originals. The lighting is also used for expressive purposes. The director chooses extreme camera angles, big close ups and so on to create a distorted, rather unbalanced effect, and another reference to the noir visual style.

As a contrast to the futuristic design and media in the film much of the setting, icons, clothes/ costume and character types appear to hark back to an earlier age, possibly the 1940/50s. Examples include Burgess’s office, Mrs Hinnmen’s house with its echoes of the early hothouse scene from The Big Sleep, and the suburban house where the first murder was supposed to take place. Indeed, this is a film of contrasts: the sleek, synthetic, corporate world versus the Dickensian, rain sodden squalor of ‘the sprawl’ versus the sun kissed, bucolic homesteads of Anderton’s wife and Agatha and the twins.

Characters: witness the construction of the federal agent Danny Witwer with his brylcreamed hair and double breasted suit, for example. It might seem appropriate to have noirish references in a crime thriller since the story also leads to an expose of corruption at the top in the shape of Lamarr Burgess, the false hero. As well as the principal characters we are also introduced to a variety of minor figures who could quite easily have stepped out of a traditional noir mystery. The eccentric Mrs Hinnman, the co-creator of the precrime system, and the lazy, rather sleazy desk cop are but two examples of this. There are examples too in the dialogue of a rather dated, B movie feel: “Careful, chief, you dig up the past, all you get is dirty”, warns the desk cop as Anderton begins to re-examine the Anne Lively case.

Interestingly, Blade Runner (directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer), which might be referred to as a companion piece to Minority Report, attempts a similar generic hybridisation. Audiences and critics were divided over the wisdom of combining genres in Blade Runner. One suspects that Minority Report will also divide opinion for this and other reasons. Nevertheless it did help to spawn a new subgenre of films which have come to be known as ‘tech noir’, including the Terminator films, Strange Days and, arguably, The Matrix.

It is interesting to note that attempts to create a brand new world of 2054 are relatively sparing. In terms of science fiction iconography we see high tech media, computer based systems of surveillance and information manipulation, Marvel comics style jet packs and a highway system which echoes the ones from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Nevertheless, the film makers appear more interested in exploring the impact on social relations and identity.

The film’s advertising slogan is “everybody runs” and certainly a great deal of the film’s second act or middle part concerns Anderton’s flight and attempts to extricate himself from his predicament. This and other “races against time” represent one of the narrative pleasures of Minority Report. The opening sequence, for instance, allows us to see Anderton at his professional best as he races against the clock to prevent a homicide. Indeed, to boost the adrenaline the director synchronises plot time and screen time so that we are with Anderton and the SWAT team.

Conventional narratives follow the three act structure – initial situation/ equilibrium, a disruption, and resolution/ new situation. “Todorov suggested a slightly more complicated description of narrative structure than the simple situation/ problem/ resolution structure. He posited five stages:

  1. a state of equilibrium at the outset
  2. a disruption of the equilibrium by some action
  3. a recognition that there has been a disruption
  4. an attempt to repair the disruption
  5. a reinstatement of the equilibrium

(Lacey, Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies)

Applied to Minority Report one might offer a structure as follows:

  1. The Precrime system spearheaded by Anderton and Burgess is about to go national
  2. During a routine case Anderton sees himself appear on screen as a future perpetrator
  3. Anderton tries to cover his tracks but his colleagues soon discover the news of the Pre-Cogs’ predictions
  4. He flees and begins his quest to find the truth; meanwhile the full force of the criminal detection system is brought to bear against him
  5. The narrative is resolved with the exposure and destruction of Burgess, the winding up of the Precrime experiment, the reuniting of the Andertons and the freeing of the Pre-Cogs – Agatha and the twins.

Note the conventional happy ending: the Andertons are to return to being a contented nuclear family living in a rural, Middle American setting, which is an emblem of happiness in many, if not most, of Spielberg’s movies. It is certainly not the typical conclusion to a classic film noir.

Another early structural theorist, Vladimir Propp, identified what he regarded as a familiar set of character functions to be found in virtually all of the folk tales he studied. Later theorists have applied his ideas to contemporary forms, often with surprisingly accurate results. Simplified, Propp’s character functions consist of the following:

  • The villain who creates the narrative disruption
  • The donor who gives the hero something, it may be an object, information or advice, which helps in the resolution of the narrative
  • The helper aids the hero in restoring equilibrium
  • The princess is the character most threatened by the villain (and acts as the hero’s reward)
  • The dispatcher sends the hero on his or her task
  • The hero, usually male, is the agent who restores the narrative equilibrium, often by embarking upon a quest …The hero is invariably the text’s central character
  • The false hero appears to be good but is revealed, at the narrative’s end, to have been bad…” (Lacey, ibid)

Minority Report then has a fairly conventional narrative structure though it does contain a multitude of enigmas, which will serve to intrigue its audience.

In terms of representation Minority Report offers a number of interesting commentaries on the way we are now and how the future is likely to appear if current social and technological trends are allowed to develop. It is common for science fiction story tellers to use the form in order to offer a critique of the contemporary world: Aldous Huxley did it with Brave New World as did George Orwell with Nineteen Eighty Four. Contemporary science fiction texts are generally less concerned with the ‘outer space’ of flying saucers and extra terrestrials and more with the ‘inner space’ of technology, genetic experimentation and mind control (‘thought crimes?’). ‘Big Brother is Watching You!’ might continue to be a suitable slogan for movies like Minority Report. Two key words here: utopia defined in the dictionary as, “An imaginary perfect world where everyone is happy” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English) and dystopia, its opposite.

As a mainstream Hollywood film, however, Minority Report relies upon the convention of having a handsome, white, athletic, heterosexual male actor play the central, heroic role. While Cruise’s character might be alone and masking his grief with designer drugs, he remains fit and agile, even jogging in the rain to visit his dealer! Quite a contrast with the chain-smoking anti-heroes who populated the crime stories of Chandler and Hammett. In terms of gender representation it is worth noting too that Agatha, a latter day oracle or prophetess, fits into a historical pattern which depicts the women or girl as ultra sensitive, visionary. Agatha is throughout the film attired in white clothing, connoting purity and innocence. Indeed, the mise-en-scene and lighting in the Anderton’s matrimonial home serve to imbue Agatha with angelic, celestial qualities. Gender representations in Minority Report remain then rather conventional.

Since the scanning of eyeballs allows the authorities and corporate advertisers to recognise, and potentially control and exploit, people, it is a hugely important element of this film. This is signalled in the opening sequence where we are shown an extremely big close up of Agatha’s eye, an image that takes up the entire screen. An alternative slogan might be the question uttered several times by Agatha: “Can you see?” Indeed, the few moments of black humour (sight gags?) in Minority Report relate to Anderton’s rather gruesome eye transplant – “I only have eyes for you” and the sequence where Anderton chases after his wayward eye balls tumbling down the corridor.

Prior to the shoot the director and production team assembled a variety of futurologists in order to discuss likely prospects for the western world 50 years into the future. The video and DVD extras, including the mini documentary at the end of the film, discuss some of their views, as does an online interview with one of the advisers Douglas Coupland (www.inside out.co.uk). Some of the issues raised in the film are:

  • Free will versus predetermination: citizens of the future are guilty until proved innocent
  • The imperfections, due to human fallibility, of any system, no matter how advanced the technology
  • The power of future surveillance technologies, which can be exploited by both state agencies such as the police and by private corporations such as advertisers. What price privacy in the 21st Century?
  • Medical ethics: the Pre-Cognitives are by products of medical experiments

So while Minority Report has a number of narrative thrills and spills it does at least indicate some weighty social, political and moral issues for the future. This presumably explains some of the religious references, which you may pick up from the earlier scenes in the film e.g. the police restraining device being known as a “halo”, the Pre-Cogs’ tank is known as “the Temple” and one of the officers ponders the thought that with their ability to intervene in personal narratives they “may be more clergy than cops”.

Nick Lacey (1998) Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies, Basingstoke: Palgrave

© 2003 Tom Brownlee – Richard Hale School, Hertford