Readers of these pages may be surprised to learn that one of my favorite books as a child was a hardcover collection of science fiction posters. Not movie posters, mind you, which were hardly as interesting, but depictions of art with a science fiction theme. At the time they seemed more fantastic than what often excites people of my disposition, the art and worship of Greek and Roman gods (whose magnificence, admittedly, I have still not come to accept). Yet the reason was clear then and even clearer now. However bizarre the portraiture, however odd and evil the extraterrestrial contours, and however soulless the gizmos and gadgets, there was an underlying humanity about the drawings that could not be denied. Over time, of course, it lost its allure and ultimately ended up on the bottom of a shelf at my familial home never to be consulted again, relegated to a part of my experience as a child that means little if anything as an adult, and unmolested by sentimental curiosity. Summoning its images to the surface only makes me smile because I remember childhood's innocence and simple pleasures, its unknowing sweetness and endless future. For that reason do so many writers venerate their childhood: children are immortal beings, the walking future, their dreams all visions of options, roads and possibilities. Nevertheless there is something vital that children's notions of the world invariably lack, and that is context. As a child, these posters and drawings seemed fantastic, as did any story that truly involved an investigation of the blackness that surrounds us. But what I didn't know was that the stories that accompanied these pictures were of two sorts: those which actively sought to break from human language yet used language and its concomitant values to try to express this break (a fruitless task that even the greatest of geniuses could not fully overcome), and those which told tales that featured oddities from this galaxy or another but which essentially were integument for plain stories of love, hatred, war, peace, jealousy, desire, memory and homeland. Humans and non-humans bound in inexplicable and unending conflict with nothing in common except their weapons may sound like a wild fantasy, but as historical allegory it is one of the most repeated events in our existence. So is, for that matter, the conundrum of crime and punishment, which brings us to this remarkable film.
The premise is a favorite of Hitchcock's – the wrongly accused man framed for a murder he did not commit – but we'll get to that. The year is 2054 and the American capital, once renowned as the bloodiest in the world, is now free of violent crime thanks to the labors of three psychics called "precogs" ("precognitives" doesn't quite roll off the tongue). In our age of wretched skepticism it would seem unreasonable to assume that a film could portray a psychic as anything more than a half-possessed freak, a conduit for some higher force to vent hints of its grandeur. For that reason alone is the appearance of the precogs explicable: they all look like sick, bedridden adolescents constantly assailed by nightmares (there is a lot of twitching, shaking and yelping, as if demons were gnawing at their lobes), their terrible fate being to reimagine death in all its iterations every single night. And every night their three young minds see what malice man keeps in his heart and what he plans to do about it: they can tell you the name of the future criminal, the name of his victim, and give you an almost exact appointment with death, but the remaining details will have to be inferred by the crack investigative team headed by John Anderton (Tom Cruise). On the basis of this information absorbed and processed into a rather sadistic machine that then spits out murderer and victim like lottery balls in blood red, PreCrime, an organization run by the stately but unplump Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), intervenes in a timely manner and jails the future criminal without his ever having killed anyone. Now no longer permitted to operate in secrecy because of whispers of conspiracy (the official line is that we should all celebrate PreCrime's accomplishments), the organization plans on making its systematics available to public scrutiny. But before it does, a Justice Department auditor by the name of Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) must make sure that everything is legitimate and safe, which of course it cannot possibly be.
The noir origins of this tale – a setup against an innocent man, a fallen world where no one can be trusted, money and power as the only incentives, a city fraught with suspicious looks and dangerous shadows – promote two potential plot lines. Anderton could be a robotic bureaucrat whose machine does not work in time or at all and who has to become more human to compensate for this glitch; or Anderton the super-cop can have his own name roll out from the computer on a red ball. That last path bifurcates into whether he will be the victim or, much more deliciously, the killer. Why would Anderton, by all indications a model citizen, be plausible as a murder suspect? Simply because even good men have their weaknesses. Anderton's is the disappearance of his son owing to parental negligence a few years back at a public pool, a personal motivation to develop PreCrime to its maximum capacity. Now estranged from his wife and addicted to a powerful descendant of current anti-depression medications, Anderton may be a fine officer but he is a nearly unapproachable human being. He waltzes through the motions of his "busts" on the verge of a regrettable loss of self-control, and it takes no great leap of faith to envision him on the giving end of some nasty business. And that is exactly what the three precogs – named Agatha, Dashiell, and Arthur in homage – see him doing in thirty-six hours to a man called Leo Crow.
The rest cannot and should not be revealed, except that the title refers to a dissenting opinion among the precogs, usually from Agatha (Samantha Morton) towards whom Anderton feels a great deal of parental tenderness. To be sure, there will be chases, impossible traps, and an ingenious explanation to all this mischief; but it is Anderton's slow discovery of his own thoughts and desires that separates the film from the pack of futuristic allegories of freewill, and in the case of the precogs, of hell itself. The philosophy behind the original story may be summed up in the following citation from a pleasingly anonymous internet source:
The precogs are kept in rigid position by metal bands, clamps and wiring, which keep them attached to special high-backed chairs. Their physical needs are taken care of automatically and it is said that they have no spiritual needs. Their physical appearance is somewhat different from that of ordinary humans, with enlarged heads and wasted bodies. Precogs are deformed and retarded, "the talent absorbs everything"; "the esp-lobe shrivels the balance of the frontal area." They do not understand their predictions. Most of the data produced is useless in preventing murders and is then passed on to other agencies.
Should this remind you of a similar perspective on a different subject, I will not persuade you otherwise. Suffice it to say that Minority Report's success as a crime thriller is buttressed by the profundity of the questions it hesitates to ask, but for which it provides more than ample speculation. And amidst the rubble of good intentions gone horrifically awry, there are true moments of artistic insight. Burgess, for example, quips: "We don't choose the things we believe in; they choose us." And if the inevitable guilt of man has chosen John Anderton, why should he, a man, be any exception?