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The Shape of Things to Come

A.I. wasn’t exactly critically drubbed when it hit theaters in 2001, but few people seemed to realize its impact. It was a different sort of Spielberg movie, sure – but no one seemed to realize it would be the start of something new for the filmmaker. The catalyst that would inform all of his 21st century work to come.

It even looked different. With A.I., Spielberg was working yet again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, but the look of the film is far removed from any Spielberg film before it. It’s full of hazy lights, and a sterile, metallic sheen. It’s a look that would continue onward into more of Spielberg’s 21st century work.

Anyone hoping Spielberg would return to his light blockbuster roots was going to be in for a rude awakening. For his next film, Spielberg wasn’t done with the future yet. He would cast the leading box office draw of the time – Tom Cruise. The story would come from Philip K. Dick, the creator of Blade Runner and Total Recall. It had all the makings of a potential popcorn movie. But the end result would be far from ordinary.

Of Minority Report, Spielberg would go on to say: “It’s a popcorn movie – but a gourmet popcorn movie.”

minority report tom cruise


“Everybody runs.”

Spielberg would never again make a movie as hopeless as A.I. (at least not yet). But the Steven Spielberg filmography that followed A.I. proved it was no fluke; no brief diversion. The Spielberg of the 21st century was more cynical; more prone to go to dark, unpleasant places. After the somewhat reserved reaction to A.I., Spielberg perhaps realized that he’d get better traction if he wrapped these unpleasant ideas in a blockbuster package. Enter Minority Report.

A.I. was released less than four months before 9/11; in the film, the Twin Towers are still standing in the future, jutting from the waters that have swallowed-up in New York. Yet in real life, the towers would soon be gone, and the world itself would never be the same. America, and the world at large, was entering into a dangerous new period. It would be naive to say we lost our innocence after September 11, 2001, but the simple fact was that the world was turned upside down following the events of that fateful day, and the world of movies followed accordingly.

Almost immediately, films set in New York rushed to digitally erase the Twin Towers from background shots. Sony had put together a memorable teaser for their upcoming Spider-Man, with everyone’s favorite web-slinger catching some helicopter-flying crooks in a web stretched between the two towers. After September 11, Sony rushed to remove the teaser from theaters, and nixed a poster that showed the towers reflected in Spider-Man’s eye. The fact of the matter seemed to be that Hollywood wanted to avoid the subjects of 9/11 and its aftermath. Spielberg had other ideas. 

Spielberg’s first true foray into the post-9/11 world came less than a full year after the attacks, in June of 2002. The film was Minority Report, and while it wouldn’t distinctly reference the September 11 attacks, it’s nearly impossible to separate the real-life events and their aftermath from the narrative. Spielberg would shy away from overt political connotations after the film came out. The Bush administration was amping up for war, and there was a distinct, and terrifying, “you’re either with us or against us” mentality permeating much of the zeitgeist. Yet in some interviews, Spielberg wasn’t shy about the 9/11 connections. According to Spielberg, Minority Report was asking a distinct question: “How many of our civil liberties are we willing to give up because the government tells us we have to in order to protect us from terrorism in the shadow, the aftermath, of 9/11?”

At its heart, Minority Report is a mystery. A sort of hard-boiled work of pulp set in a not-too-distant future. The mystery genre was one Spielberg had yet to work in, and exploring these new grounds was part of the draw of the film. “I want to tackle subjects I haven’t really tackled before,” he explained at the time. “I’m in a period in my life of experimentation and trying things that challenge me. Minority Report is really a mystery. It’s a who-done-it or who-will-do-it, and you’re along for the ride.”

But once you get beyond the mystery, you’re also presented with an eerily prescient glimpse of a future where privacy is a thing of the past. Here in 2018, in the wake of daily news stories about Cambridge Analytica and their stealing of data, elements of Minority Report feel less like science fiction and more like science fact.

There’s a distinct reason Spielberg got the future so right with Minority Report. Before making the film, the director assembled a think tank of great minds to hash-out the futuristic elements of the story. “I thought it would be a good idea to bring some of the best minds in technology, environment, crime fighting, medicine, health, social services, transportation, computer technology and other fields into one room to discuss what the future a half a century hence would be like,” Spielberg said.

M.I.T. scientists, urban planners, architects, inventors, and writers came together at a hotel in Santa Monica, California, to concoct the futuristic details of the film. Spielberg, screenwriter Scott Frank, and production designer Alex McDowell and his team sat in on the meetings, and over a period of three days, they came up with the future world of the film. The end-result is nothing short of stunning, and also disturbing in its accuracy. 

minority report samantha morton


In this futuristic world, murder is a thing of the past, thanks the Pre-Cogs – three psychic beings who can predict murder before it happens. Heavily medicated, they float in tanks, their very thoughts hooked into complicated (and never entirely explained) tech that broadcasts their visions into mini-movies for officers of the Pre-Crime division to see. 

The top cop in charge of it all is John Anderton (Tom Cruise). Years ago – before the use of the Pre-Cogs – Anderton’s son vanished from a public pool, and Anderton has been beating himself up ever since. Now, he handles the Pre-Crime division in a tough, no-nonsense way – when not self-medicating. The Pre-Cogs predict a murder, and Anderton and his team spring into action.

The perps they collar – or, more accurately, “halo”, by placing ring over the suspect’s head that sends them into a coma – haven’t really committed a crime yet. They’ve only thought about committing a crime. But that’s good enough for Anderton, his team, and his boss, Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow).

Yet the concept of the Pre-Cogs, and the Pre-Crime division, doesn’t quite sit right with some members of the Justice Department. Enter Danny Witwer, played by Colin Farrell right at the cusp of his big break-out career. Witwer is there to audit Pre-Crime and make sure everything is on the level. As bad luck – or perhaps fate – would have it, soon after Witwer arrives, things start to go very, very wrong for John Anderton.

When the Pre-Cogs have a vision of murder, the respective names of the victim and murderer are engraved on separate wooden balls. The sequences showing the creation of these balls unfolds with high energy, with Spielberg capturing every single moment – from the ball rolling down a Rube Goldberg-style chute, to a laser cutting the names into the wood – like a giddy kid obsessing over his toys. These early scenes set the energy for the film. Minority Report never slows down. It’s always on the run. And so, too, is John Anderton. Because a ball has just come in with his name on it. According to the Pre-Cogs, someone is going to be murdered very soon – and John Anderton is going to be the one to pull the trigger.

It’s high-concept as hell, and it’s a hoot. How do you stop a murder if you yourself are supposedly the murderer? Anderton thinks he’s being set up – perhaps by Witwer – and he’s determined to prove it. Occasionally, the Pre-Cogs are in disagreement, and this disagreement creates a minority report. If a minority report exists clearing Anderton’s name, it will reside in the more powerful of the three Pre-Cogs – Agatha (Samantha Morton). Anderton’s solution is to abduct Agatha from the halls of Pre-Crime and try to use her to fight the future.

It’s hard to believe that Spielberg and Cruise had never worked together before Minority Report. Both are superstars in their own respective fields, and it seemed only natural that their paths would eventually cross. At the time, Cruise was still coasting on his nice-guy persona – his famous smile had a starring role in all his films. But Spielberg specifically instructed Cruise not to flash that grin in Minority Report. Instead, he drew a frantic, manic performance out of the actor. In years to come, frantic mania would be commonplace for Cruise – especially after his couch-jumping appearance on Oprah. At the time, though, it seemed fresh. A new direction for Hollywood’s number one leading man – a chance to stretch himself more.

The real MVP of Minority Report, however, is Samantha Morton, who gives what might be the best performance in any Steven Spielberg movie, ever. When Morton’s Agatha is pulled from her tank, she’s a mess. She hasn’t been in the real world for years, and everything on the outside is terrifying. At the same time, she’s having constant flashes of the future, and Morton portrays all of this with a wide-eyed, painful innocence that at times is almost too much to bear. Agatha is constantly being torn apart inside, and Morton nails that. In a quick yet harrowing scene, she clasps the arm of a random woman and rasps, “Don’t go home – he knows.” We get no further explanation of this, but from Morton’s delivery we know exactly what’s going on – someone at home is waiting to kill this woman, and Morton is desperately trying to save her life.

We ache for Agatha. Indeed, we care more about her than Anderton. Later, when Anderton is captured and Agatha is reintroduced to her tank environment, it’s infuriating. She was free, damn it, and they just locked her away again.

Continue Reading 21st Century Spielberg: A.I. and Minority Report >>

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