The Duck Speaks

Minority Report

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While showing his new assistant around the Pre-Crime Office, John Anderton makes a frightening discovery; the pre-cogs, who predict crimes so that police can arrest perpetrators before they break the law, have predicted a murder, and Anderton’s the killer-to-be. He tries to escape, only to find himself embroiled more deeply in conspiracy with each step…

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John Anderton is in a bad mood. First, a twitty inspector from the government is poking his nose into his Precrime office; second, the precogs have predicted him murdering a man he’s never met. He goes on the run, and manages to get in contact with one of the originators of Precrime. She tells him that in some cases, one of the pre-cogs disagrees with the other two, producing a so-called “minority report.” Desperate to prove his innocence, John returns to his old office to kidnap the one person in the world who can determine his innocence…


“The first thought Anderton had when he saw the young man was: I’m getting bald. Bald and fat and old.”

Doesn’t exactly scream “Tom Cruise.”

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, movies that adapt Dick material are notably loose with their source material. (Someday I’ll get around to doing Blade Runner, promise.) Dick is, well, weird. He writes visionary, hallucinatory novels that never go in the direction you expect them to, have deeply flawed, even unlikable, heroes, and arrive at conclusions that are notoriously oblique. It makes sense that mainstream filmmakers would want to take the “good stuff” and ignore everything else.

Dick’s short stories are generally more accessible than his novels, however, so it’s not surprising that the movies that have been based on his stories are a bit more faithful. Screamers was as close an adaptation as one could hope for, and while Minority Report the movie isn’t nearly as faithful to “Minority Report” the story, it does keep the same basic premise in a vastly different universe: a man, formerly in charge of a highly controlled and well-nigh facist system, now on the run from the very forces he helped to create.

In the story, Anderton is in his late middle-age, probably getting close to retirement; the arrival of Ed Witwer, who will take over the system with Anderton retires, seems ample proof that the powers that be are more than eager to see Anderton on his way. His paranoia is fueled to the nth degree when he finds his name next on the pre-cog chopping block; he decides that it’s an attempt by Witwer to frame him and get him out of the picture. The only confusing thing is, it’s not Witwer’s name in the victim slot but Leopold Kaplan, a man he’s never heard of before.

Anderton goes home to pack for an off-world escape, but before he can leave, he is picked up by an armed stranger who will not state his business. Anderton is brought to a secret base out of the city, and meets an old military man who turns out to be Kaplan. Kaplan is deeply suspicious of the Pre-Crime police’s procedures; however, he decides to send Anderton back, if only to keep his own life safe.

On the return trip, the car crashes, and Anderton is dragged from the wreckage by a stranger who identifies himself as Fleming. He claims to be part of a underground group devoted to bringing the Pre-Crime system down; he provides Anderton with identification papers and enough money to lie low for a week, until his supposed “crime” date has passed and he will be a free man again.

In his hotel room, Anderton catches a stray bulletin on the radio which details how the process of Pre-Crime works. Interestingly enough, despite having pioneered the system himself, he is unaware of its only obvious flaw: the minority report. When a pre-cog makes a prediction, the two other pre-cogs must either confirm or deny it for it be considered valid. It is rare for all three to agree on one future, and in nearly all cases, there is a majority report and a dissenting, minority report which is discarded as invalid.

Charged by this information, Anderton decides to sneak back in to his old workplace and find his minority report to prove his innocence. Twenty minutes worth of searching and he finds it: apparently, the cog who made the initial prediction and the cog who dissented are slightly out of synch, which means the second cog’s prediction was made with the knowledge that Anderton was aware of his future crime. This second version shows that Anderton will not kill Kaplan, simply because he learned he was going to kill Kaplan- and in essence, it clears him.

His wife arrives, furious at him for returning, and demands he come with her on a helicopter out of the city. Once in-flight, Anderton explains the situation. His wife is horrified; it means the end of Pre-Crime, a risk Anderton is willing to take. That choice may not be entirely in his hands, though, as a man bursts out from behind them.

“The Minority Report” is typical Dick: it starts from an intriguing premise, then keeps the reader off-guard for the rest of the story with a series of unexpected, if logical, twists. One thing that always gets me is the oddly naïve and cynical tone present in his work; I’ve read a few “constant surprise” stories, and one generally figures out the rhythm to them. You get three or four blatantly false leads, and then a page before the end, the big reversal occurs, supposedly shocking you out of your complacency.

Dick doesn’t write like that. Often times, those supposedly “false” leads are nothing of the kind- people can be exactly as they seem, and even if the new direction the narrative takes seems like the biggest cliché in the book, you can’t assume it will be dropped or quickly disproved. It’s hard to explain, exactly; he writes like someone who simply read a number of pre-fifties sci-fi novels and then never picked up another one again.

This is a strength, I’ve found, although it’s taken me some time to get used to it; too often, I’ve found myself expecting things to go one way and then being unable to shift gears when they don’t. It doesn’t help that the changes come so fast. There is very little build-up on some plot developments, and while they make sense after the fact, you find yourself having to pay closer attention and think faster in order to keep up. One’s suspension of disbelief gets a vigorous work-out in Dick’s hands.

Again, this is a good thing; writers able to create such distinctive and consistently fascinating universes to write in are a rare breed in deed. (Most settle on calling hobbits “haflings” and making the Ring of Power an evil necklace of some sort.) The surreality in this story is mainly evidenced in the way it ends. While not obviously unreal, it has the virtue of taking a philosophical viewpoint that I’ve never heard anyone else share- a viewpoint that is both entirely reasonably, and deeply disturbing.

Before we get to that, however, a word on Minority Report the movie, a work with a philosophy no one is surprised by.

Both the story and the movie start with the arrival of a young, power hungry outsider, Danny Witwer. (Ed in the story.) However, the movie also starts with a demonstration of Pre-Crime in action, and it’s a terrific set-piece.

We open with a series of disturbing half-glimpsed images: a man, a woman, another man, there are scissors, blood, stabbing, a man again- it’s intentionally confusing, but clearly, something bad is happening.

Or about to happen, for at the end of the sequence, a bald woman in a strange metallic swimsuit opens her eyes and says “Murder.”

The wheels begin to turn, and two wooden balls are made with names on them. The first ball, in the “Victim” slot, has two names. The second, in the “Murderer” slot, has one.

Jon Anderton (Tom Cruise) arrives, and immediately goes to work. He swears himself in with the help of two witness judges, and then begins a search of the images in the precog’s vision to help him find the killer’s location.

While he does this, Witwer (Colin Farrell) arrives. Anderton has no time to deal with him directly, so one of the other Pre-Crime agents takes the man aside and starts explaining the system to him. We learn that while the pre-cogs can generally predict murders up to a week in advance, crimes of passion are more difficult to detect, as there’s no pre-meditation; pre-meditated murders have dropped to almost nothing since the Pre-Crime system went into affect.

It’s a brilliant opening, for a number of reasons: it hooks the viewer, gets us rooting for the hero even if we don’t immediately understand what he’s doing, and more importantly, manages the daunting task of explaining exactly what’s happening by first showing it to us- and with all the soaring music and rapid cuts, it’s doubtful that we realize we have no idea what’s happening- and then, once we’re involved, providing us with the exposition in short dialogues that in no way slow down the action. There are no clunky “We both should know this, but I’m going to tell it to you anyway” moments, always the bane of high concept sci-fi.

Even more interesting, we’re rooting for the success of a system that we will soon learn to mistrust.

After the chase, Jon Anderton visits his boss and mentor, Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow), the founder of Precrime. We learn that there’s some political intrigue going down: Precrime is currently only running in Washington DC, and it’s up to the approval of a Senate committee if the program goes nation wide. Burgess believes that Witwer is most likely a plant from those who don’t want Pre-Crime to continue.

There’s one last piece of set-up before the story proper kicks in: Jon lost his son a few years back, and when he couldn’t pick the pieces of his life back up, he lost his wife as well. He consoles himself by huffing some futuristic drug and stoning out to old holograms of his son. It’s important to note that the loss of his son was the main thing that inspired Jon’s involvement with Precrime from the program’s initiation; as usual with mainstream cinema, a hero must have a tragic past in order to motivate his involvement with anything less than completely pure.

The next day, the “Fugitive meets the Jetsons” plot major kicks in when Anderton picks up a ball from the psychic pinball machine and finds his name on it. And most definitely not as the “Victim.” He goes on the run, engaging in another kick-ass action sequence before escaping to the countryside and learning about the “minority report” from the mother of Precime herself.

This movie’s pretty good; as a summer blockbuster it’s a complete success, with Speilberg’s talent for special effects integration and plot momentum full in effect. It very nearly succeeds as a political satire as well- it’s not that difficult to see our government (especially our government lately) implementing a law-enforcement program that removes from citizens the right to choose their own actions.

My biggest criticism here is that it attempts to marry hoary action movie tropes with intelligent, challenging ideas, and in the end, those ideas must make way to insure the plot concludes with all the rough edges sanded down as smoothly as possible. You can actually hear the clichés being slotted in as the movie nears its climax- the situation is complex, the motivations contrary and yet still understandable, and then bam! We get a villain, he gets his comeuppance, and the good guys get exactly what they most want in the world.

That’s not just precise storytelling. That’s backing down from a premise and making sure everything’s tied up so tightly that no test audience could possibly complain of ambiguity.

In terms of its relation to its source material, it’s readily apparent (even past that opening line) that the two are vastly different takes on the same material. However, the basic character arcs remain the same: both Andertons begin the narrative with a general sense of incompetence. Anderton, Dick’s hero, is, again, old, fat and bald, plagued by insecurities over his position and willing leap to paranoid conclusions about those around him with only the slightest provocation. Jon, the movie version, is great at his job, but awful at everything else- the only thing that keeps him going is his work and the drugs. By the end of both versions, each hero has discovered a level of ability in himself that allows him to reconstruct his life into something better.

In terms of changes, aside from the plot specifics, the most immediate difference is in the presentation of the Precrime system. In the movie, the precogs are treated with reverence becoming holy figures, and that reverence is transferred to the process of harvesting their visions. It’s ritual, pure and simple, from the elegant plastic structure of the computers, to the creation of the balls, to the witnesses and Jon’s preparations for investigation- even the music he plays, Schubert’s Symphony #8, gives his work the formal feel of a dance or performance.

Contrast that with Dick’s world: the pre-cogs, instead of saints, are giberring idiots, hidden in a back room behind piles of machinery and wires. They mumble incessantly, and the computers are there to take those mumbles and translate them into something of use. While the precogs in the movie are only able to sense violent crimes while in their chamber (supposedly), Dick’s idiot savants respond to just about everything. The results of each vision get printed out on cards: no lasers or exciting visual sequences required.

While the movie version is terrific watch, the print version is more believable; Pre-crime in Dick’s world is simply one other government branch, as passionless as the IRS or the Department of Revenue. Interestingly enough, while the story agency has pretty much taken over the country, the movie version is still in its infancy; the results are the same (in both instances, there are outside pressures to change or dismantle the system), but the feel is different. The movie version is, unsurprisingly, more hopeful- there are authorities Precrime still has to answer to, and it’s limitation to one city implies that humanity is at least slightly dubious about the concept.

Also unsurprising is the “prettying up” of the precogs in the movie. In the story, you have retarded, twisted grunts that horrify people with their ugliness. In the movie, you have a bald Samantha Morton in a swimsuit. No contest, really. While I normally despise movies that insist on beautifying their source material’s harsh realities, here I think it works thematically. Dick is all about dehumanization, and Speilberg is about the myth of humanity. For Dick, the pre-cogs are a simple plot device, while for Spielberg, they serve as the most obvious victims of the system’s tendency to put the ends before the means.

It doesn’t hurt the case Morton gives one of the best performances in the film- her vulnerability and almost alien ethereality increases our investment in the dismantling of her prison, and Cruise’s compassion for her makes us admire his character all the more. (Confession: I developed a slight crush on Ms. Morton after seeing this movie. I don’t think it influenced my critical judgement.)

Then there’s the concept of the minority report itself. Surface wise, both versions have the same idea: the minority report is the vision of the one precog who disagrees with the prediction laid out by the other two. It’s generally the vision that sees the supposed criminal as innocent. But while in the movie, the existence of this report is a shocking revelation that threatens to bring down the whole system, in the story, it’s told casually over the radio as a way of better explaining how the pre-cogs work.

The minority repot in the movie is an anomaly; if Precrime were perfect, it wouldn’t exist. In the story, however, the so-called minority report is proof of the essential validity of the pre-cogs predictions. If the report exists, that means that there is more than one possible future, and there must be more than one possible future for the system to work. After all, if all three of them always saw exactly the same future, there would be no point to trying to apprehend the criminals, since the future would be intractable.

It goes even further than that, however. While the minority report in the move is a way of showing the possibility of free will in ever human transaction, the idea that by arresting people in advance you are taking away their chance not to commit a crime, in the story, the report shows that every action is predictable, and that the pre-cogs are even more powerful than initially suspected.

(Here’s a major spoiler for the short story, so if you want to read it yourself, skip the next two paragraphs.)

All three reports are minority reports; all three disagree. The first one states that Anderton will kill Kaplan. The second, taking the first into account, says that because he learned that he will Kaplan, he won’t. But the third takes both predictions into account, and due to political maneuverings, and his desire to keep Pre-crime viable, it says that Anderton will kill Kaplan all over again. So the majority report was produced because two of the pre-cogs were in agreement about the crime being committed, but neither report agreed on when and why the crime would happen.

In essence, all of Anderton’s actions were predicted before that card with his name on it was printed; so while the pre-cogs weren’t all right, they were exactly right for the future they were looking at. Since the only time such a situation could occur was if someone knew of their crime in advance- and the only way that would happen was if they worked at Pre-crime- the system remains valid. The pre-cogs will always be able to see the future, the minority report is simply the prediction that, since the future shows the criminal being apprehended before the crime, the crime will no longer be committed.

(End spoiler.)

In the end, it’s the Clockwork Orange dilemma: is ensuring personal freedom worth endangering society as a whole. (Indeed, the movie acknowledges its debt to the novel in naming a major character Burgess, after Orange’s author Anthony Burgess.) This would be one of those great college bull-session topics: how far should we go to prevent crime? Is having a murder-free world worth the loss of certain personal liberties?

The movie is worth seeing, although its disappointing climax prevents it from being a complete classic. The story is also worth a read, if only for a totally different perspective on the subject. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I should be creeped out by its implications, or cheering for Precrime’s success. Probably the latter, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of fatalism.


The IRS with pre-cognitives? Now that’s creepy.

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