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This Week in Genre History: Minority Report predicted our future
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
For years, Hollywood tried to make a movie out of The Minority Report, the 1956 short story from Philip K. Dick, the visionary sci-fi writer whose work inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall. Then Steven Spielberg took the reins, approaching Scott Frank, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Out of Sight, to crack the story. There was one problem, though: Frank didn't consider himself much of a sci-fi guy. Spielberg wasn't concerned: "I said, 'Let me worry about the sci-fi element," he once recalled to the late Roger Ebert, about Frank. "Just write a terrific detective yarn. This taps into your strength. This is a murder mystery, a film noir, a whodunit.'"
Of course, Minority Report, which hit theaters on June 21, 2002, was much more than just a simple whodunit. Set in the year 2054 — when Washington, D.C.'s police is overseen by PreCrime, an elite law enforcement unit that arrests criminals before they can commit illegal acts — the movie starred Tom Cruise as John Anderton, a dogged PreCrime captain who's wholly devoted to his job, especially since his young son went missing and his wife left him. But soon, Anderton himself will be the target of his unit, which is powered by the PreCogs, a trio of psychics who can predict crimes and believe he will commit murder. Anderton goes on the run, trying to clear his name even though he hasn't done anything wrong. And because he lives in a future where retinal scans are everywhere so that the police (and advertisers) can find you at any moment, that means he's going to need some new eyeballs, which led to one of the film's most upsetting scenes.
Besides being a gripping action-thriller, Minority Report was a dark commentary on post-9/11 life — specifically, our collective anxiety about an American government that was increasingly invading our privacy in the name of national security. Disturbingly, that element of the film has only grown more prescient over time — not to mention its prediction of an extremely online society in which corporations target us individually in insidious ways.
That all of these bleak real-world ideas exist in what is, ostensibly, a summer popcorn movie featuring one of the planet's biggest movie stars, remains remarkable. Nearly 20 years later, Minority Report is both a terrific blockbuster and endlessly thought-provoking. It still feels ahead of its time.
Why was it a big deal at the time? Spielberg was already a two-time Oscar winner, cementing his reputation with 1998's Saving Private Ryan as a filmmaker capable of huge spectacle and serious drama. No longer dismissed as "just" the entertaining showman behind Jaws and the Indiana Jones movies, he was now in his 50s and essentially had his pick of projects. After Saving Private Ryan, he had turned his attention to a moody sci-fi drama close to his heart, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which had been birthed by his hero Stanley Kubrick, resulting in a movie that evinced a darker view of humanity than you'd expect from one of cinema's great optimists. When Spielberg was getting ready for Minority Report, that darkness was still on his mind.
"Not a lot of skepticism has gotten into my work," he said around the film's release. "Certainly in the last few films — Amistad, Schindler's List, and Private Ryan, and A.I. and Minority Report — there's been a, well, I'm not sure I'd call it skepticism, but a being unafraid of the dark truth, the difficult realities. I feel as I've gotten older, I've gotten more courageous."
And if you're trying to be fearless, it makes sense that you'd work with Cruise, who's made his name doing his own death-defying stunts. Like Spielberg, he'd been showing newfound depth in his recent films, working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson on Magnolia, memorably portraying the rabid misogynist Frank T.J. Mackey. But this was still a man who could put butts in seats: 2000's Mission: Impossible II was one of that year's biggest hits. So with Minority Report, you had this perfect storm of a blockbuster star and blockbuster director, both at the peak of their powers, deciding to trust their instincts and take chances. Storyboards weren't used — they simply hatched ideas on set every day.
"He's very experimental, and he's very prone to wanting to have the director say, 'Let's go off what you prepared and memorized, and let's go off script and try something new,'" Spielberg said of Cruise during a BBC interview. "He loves that. He lives for that ... Tom was always encouraging me to explore along with him and find things for him to do that were new and he hadn't done before."
Where Spielberg focused his preparation was in designing Minority Report's future world, assembling experts for a three-day summit during preproduction. "When we started brainstorming we invited some of the far-reaching thinkers in the areas of science and medicine, technology, transportation, and the environment to imagine what the near future would bring," he told WIRED in 2002, later adding, "We had all of them in one room talking to each other. Most of the software in the movie is based on their suggestions of what it will be like in 50 years."
But what Spielberg couldn't have possibly imagined when he shot his film in the first half of 2001 was the tragedy of 9/11 that was soon to come. Released about nine months after the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., Minority Report was always meant to be a somber, noir-ish action movie — suddenly, though, it was a dystopian tentpole that felt incredibly timely.
What was the impact? Although boosted by glowing reviews, Minority Report wasn't a colossal hit, no doubt in part because of its downbeat story. The summer of 2002 was largely dominated by escapist films that helped audiences forgot the trauma of 9/11 — Attack of the Clones, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Men in Black II — and it's understandable that viewers weren't ready for a movie that unconsciously reflected this disturbing new age of terrorism and the surveillance state. (As film critic Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, America's new Department of Homeland Security was being proposed almost exactly when Minority Report came out.)
Nonetheless, the film served as a mirror, presenting a society in which law enforcement prosecutes citizens without a trial, all in the name of keeping people safe. As the U.S. government ramped up surveillance and warrantless wiretapping, eroding civil liberties in the process, Minority Report illustrated the dangers in such a system when (as Anderton learns) the watchdogs are corrupt.
And that's to say nothing of the movie's suggestion that we'd lose our privacy in other ways, too. Once Anderton goes on the lam, he discovers just how hard it is to hide when public digital ads can find you anywhere, trying to sell you things based on your previous purchases. "The Internet is watching us now," Spielberg said in 2002. "If they want to, they can see what sites you visit. In the future, television will be watching us, and customizing itself to what it knows about us. The thrilling thing is, that will make us feel we're part of the medium. The scary thing [is], we'll lose our right to privacy. An ad will appear in the air around us, talking directly to us."
Eighteen years ago, Spielberg basically predicted our modern reality.
Has it held up? This remains one of Spielberg and Cruise's nerviest big-budget efforts. Minority Report is filled with excellent action set pieces, but it ripples with paranoia and dread as we follow along with Anderton on his desperate mission to save himself. (As Spielberg later put it, "I think my first direction to Tom was, 'No smiling!' I think I told him, 'You'll smile three times in this film. I'm not even sure where those three times will be. We'll discover those times together.'") It presents a world in which no one is really free — just like Anderton, we're all being monitored.
In subsequent years, there have been plenty of articles detailing what Minority Report got right about the future, including driverless cars and multi-touch interfaces. But what's perhaps scariest is that corporate marketing strategies are starting to follow the film's lead. In 2015, Jeff Malmad, the head of the marketing company Mindshare North America, predicted that wearable technology will allow "your shopping experience or your travel experience [to] be tailored so that the world around you bends to your likes and interests. …When I walk into that store my playlist could be running in the background, different lights could shine on clothing that will likely interest me, or that I've already searched for in that app."
Spielberg and Cruise would team up a few years later for a remake of War of the Worlds, which was a much bigger commercial success than Minority Report and a more overt commentary on 9/11 anxiety. But the quiet hum of menace that courses through Minority Report — and its bold, bleak look at where we're headed — still echoes today.
As Jon Cohen, Minority Report's other credited screenwriter, saw it, the film had a simple but powerful message. "It's about righting a wrong," he said. "The system stinks: Fight it. Someone is suffering: Help them. Also, don't let anybody mess with your eyeballs."