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It’s fitting (and ironic) that Minority Report, a movie that spends most of its riveting run time concerned about the future, has only become more appreciated in hindsight.
Steven Spielberg’s 2002 collaboration with Tom Cruise (his first) is arguably the director’s most underrated film, a Raymond Chandler-esque detective yarn wrapped in big-budget future noir. It centers on the drug-addicted chief detective of Precrime, John Anderton (Cruise), who struggles to prove himself innocent of a murder he has yet to commit, but that the Precogs he works with predicts he will. The system is flawless, the movie — and Anderton himself — tells the audience. So from the jump, we have no idea how this “guilty” man will prove his innocence, or if he even can. But we’re instantly hooked to see how it all plays out, especially when John’s desperate race to find proof exposes the perfect system to be far from it. Minority Report's premise is one of science fiction’s best, especially when its full potential is let loose in a chase sequence where Anderton is on the run with a fragile psychic in tow, Agatha (Samantha Morton), who can predict their dogged pursuers’ next moves before they can make them. And fans of the genre are a sucker for a future-set thriller where the hero becomes the very victim of the tech he uses or the enemy of the very organization he works for.
But what makes Minority Report as resonate as it is thrilling are the emotional tentpoles that Spielberg and the movie's co-screenwriter Scott Frank (Queen’s Gambit, Out of Sight) thread all the impressive action through, culminating with the perfect distillation of what the movie is all about — when theme and plot literally collapse into one frame. This frame:
The most iconic single shot from the film, in a movie full of “only-Spielberg-could-pull-this-off” visuals, has been the subject of praise and analysis for 20 years. In 2002, Roger Ebert devoted a whole sidebar interview with Cruise and Spielberg to it.
The shot, along with the scene it takes place within, is as beautifully composed as it is narratively essential. Anderton, standing in the lobby of where his future crime is to take place, minutes before he is supposed to commit it, faces forward as a psychic who traffics in visions of the future holds him back with an embrace while looking behind them. She stares with teary, imploring eyes at a past that has brought them to the one moment neither one can evade, but she so desperately wants to. Hell, it’s her efforts that put them on a collision course with this seemingly fixed moment in the first place. The seer of the especially terrible future that awaits John seems compelled to save him from it, as John struggles with what’s more important to him: The truth, or a chance to change his fate.
“Everybody runs,” John says to his colleagues earlier in the film, moments before leaping (and jet-packing) into fugitive status. It’s a refrain John and his team know all too well from experience chasing the other perps who have tried to outrun that which Precrime tells them is inescapable. But here’s John, with a chance to take another path. Instead, he chooses to press forward down the one that’s still being paved. One whose construction he controls, despite his profession’s convincing attempts to tell him otherwise.
Of course John must proceed, or else the movie would be over too soon. But more than that, the notions of fate and destiny create a constant tension throughout the film, creating an action-packed tightrope that John must walk (or, mostly run) along in search for whatever truth there is to be found when you’re the prime suspect in a crime that has yet to occur. In doing so, Minority Report peels back the curtain to reveal Spielberg’s most tragic and haunted (and haunting) action hero. This is a PG-13, four-quadrant summer movie blockbuster whose protagonist is a cop hooked on a drug nicknamed “the whiff”. A cop who jogs at night through the rain-slicked, shady streets of Washington, DC, in search of his next hit to escape the years-long grief of losing his son.
Sean was a little boy when an unseen assailant took him from his dad at a community pool. Anderton was never able to recover his son, which led him and his ex-wife to assume the worst. Ever since then, Anderton has made it his job to protect others’ families from crimes that he couldn’t save his own from. It’s only in this moment, this one shot, that Anderton gets to “live” in the present after spending a career focused on the future to make up for a tragedy in his past.
Anderton’s obsession with proving his innocence is fueled by the guilt he feels for his son’s loss. John’s relentless efforts to solve one murder is tied inextricably (and, potentially, tragically) to another likely homicide — Sean’s. (Given the fact that authorities never recovered a body, or found his kidnapper, it’s safe to assume that Sean is dead.) John finds this loss so profound and devastating, that he entrenches himself in a kind of science fiction to escape his reality’s very real pain. He dedicates himself to a job predicated on saving folks from being murdered in a vividly-glimpsed future as means to absolve himself of the pains of the defining failure of his past. Using law and order as means to seek redemption and penance, in a system that’s revealed to be flawed and corrupt from long before John became its poster boy, is just one of the many dramatic ironies Minority Report wields like a “sick stick” at its audience. This is intentional; Spielberg and his fellow creatives intend to explore the toll such pre-existing narrative conditions take on a man charged with investigating a crime that he is the main (and, to many, only) suspect in.
Thankfully, John discovers that he is not a murderer. He alters his fate by finding faults in Precrime’s foundation and within one of its founders, John’s mentor, Lamar Burgess (the late, great Max Von Sydow). By using his friend and colleague’s past against him by way of bribing some sap to pretend to be Sean’s pedophilic abductor, Lamar puts himself high on the list of most punchable movie villains ever. But his terrible behavior and the exposure of it unlocks more than just Anderton’s innocence, it also allows him to finally achieve catharsis.
If it wasn’t for Lamar’s pinning a “red ball” future murder on his all-star cop as means to protect his past crimes from taking down his life’s work, Anderton wouldn’t have a life. Rather, he wouldn’t be able to salvage and rebuild what’s left of the one he thought disappeared the day his son did.
Again, dramatic irony pulls many a character’s strings in this complex movie. Thankfully, in the aforementioned iconic image, Anderton ignored Agatha’s attempts to pull him a way other than forward. “Everybody runs,” sure, but no one outruns their past. Even if you’re as fast as Tom Cruise.
If this single shot is successful at anything, it’s proving that as scary as the future may sometimes seem, it’s better than existing solely in one’s past.
Minority Report is now streaming on Peacock.