January 10, 2011

The Majority Report - aka The Big Picture [review time]

"Careful, Chief. Dig up the past, all you get is dirty."

I spent my Sunday night revisiting a great sci-fi action flick - Minority Report. If you haven't seen it, it's not too late. The special effects are still incredibly impressive, despite being from 2002, and the film still really holds up. It's set on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, whose "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was the basis for Blade Runner, so you know the writing will be excellent and the plot is going to be above the average gun-blazing action movie. In fact, even the action scenes were so well done that I didn't fall asleep. I've been known to nap during the intros to Bond movies and wake up when the really good stuff starts happening.

The story is deeply philosophical and thought-provoking. A technology is developed that effectively puts an end to murder. It involves predicting a future murder and preventing it, a very dangerous notion in the land of the free where one is "innocent until proven guilty." These murderers never get the chance to commit their crime, but they are treated as if they had on the basis that the predictions are completely flawless, and the murder would have been committed. When the chief of the PreCrime team, John Anderton, becomes suspicious that the system is not flawless at all, he becomes the victim of a set-up that will cause him to lose his freedom, and he has to prove that his suspicions are correct, or rot in... well, a really shitty futuristic version of a cell. He's going to rot like a brainless vegetable.

That's about as much of my review is spoiler-free. If you haven't seen Minority Report, I know what you're doing next Sunday.

My only complaint about the film is in the overall anti-technology message we get when PreCrime is shut down. Think about it for a moment. This technology has completely eradicated murder in Washington D.C. Not a single murder has been committed successfully in six years, or so the PreCrime advertisements claim. So Anderton discovers some flaws. It's possible that the PreCogs can see different futures for some murderers, so they might not be flawless. Also, it's possible to use the PreCrime system to hide a murder if you can re-create the murder scene as it was predicted and after the original murderer was arrested.

Flaw number 1: the minority reports. Did any actually exist? The two the audience was given access to were Agatha's vision of John Anderton killing Leo Crow, and the vision of her mother's death. But it is revealed that John Anderton doesn't have a minority report, and the vision of her mother's death was simply misinterpreted by the investigators. So now we have no evidence that a single minority report actually existed. If we believe that the minority reports existed, but simply weren't central to the plot and therefore omitted, then I guess it depends on your stance on William Blackstone's “Better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer”. Even if you agree with this statement, which I personally do not, this is known as the Blackstone Ratio, and a better one is unrealistic. The evidence from Minority Report gives us a ratio of thousands of guilty murderers to a few dozen potentially innocent prisoners. The most we ever get is Anderton uncovering "a dozen more cases with missing pre-visions". Compared to catching each and every murderer in the city, and soon the nation.

Also, I might add, the PreCrime system, when not operating in a state of corruption, has a much better chance of catching the innocents who fall through the cracks, by further investigating Agatha's visions, and maybe holding a trial or two. ALSO, maybe they would consider a more lenient punishment than life in an incubator for first-time offenders, particularly when there is some doubt as to whether they would have actually committed the crime?

Flaw number 2: Lamar was able to use the system to almost get away with murder. So if someone can use a technology that is designed to prevent murder, and succeeds 99.99% of the time, it should be abandoned completely if a single person can commit a single murder while hiding behind it? He's caught in the end, for chrissakes. I'm not sure whether any more really needs to be said on the matter. It's just that simple.

Technology is a beautiful thing. It has costs and benefits, true, but overall it has improved the standard of living in the modern world. If we want to be reminded of how technology could destroy humanity, we'll watch Terminator. We got the memo. Can't we celebrate technology every once in a while? Anderton solved the crime of the murder of Ann Lively and put Lamar away - does PreCrime need to be locked away too?

I did a bit of poking around and found an acceptable theory that makes the ending consistent with my view of the film. Some film critics theorize that after Anderton has been caught and locked away, the rest of the film is a coma dream. This is suggested by Gideon's line when Anderton is put into the thinktank: "It's actually kind of a rush. They say you have visions. That your life flashes before your eyes. That all your dreams come true." When you look at the ending, it really is too good to be true. Lamar is taken down, PreCrime is ended, Agatha is freed, and, against all realism, Anderton reunites with his wife and they have another child. Think I'm drawing at straws? Re-watch the scene where Anderton pulls up to Lara's house after she phones Lamar. Sean's tricycle is very deliberately sitting on the front lawn as if he'd just finished riding it, threw it over, and went running down the lane. Six years after he was kidnapped. In a Spielberg film. Tell me that isn't a dreamlike twist on reality. I rest my case.

Maybe the message of the film isn't "Technology bad, fallible humanity good". If you take the end to be a coma fantasy, PreCrime is stilling fighting crime in the USA, and technology is making the world a safer place to live.

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