Steven Spielberg is a Phillip K. Dick character. He’s an immensely wealthy propagandist with a cynical streak so wide and so all-encompassing that, without the proper distance, can easily be mistaken for naïve mawkishness. Spielberg doesn’t have the microscopic misanthropy of, say, a Kubrick or a Lynch or even a P.T. Anderson, dissecting characters to find whatever teratoma is at the core of their motivation; rather, his cynicism is macroscopic and industrialized.
Spielberg has commodified vague humanism into a cheap and mildly addictive form of maudlin catharsis, shipping it out in market-tested and focus-group-approved family-friendly packaging. And, like all Industrialists, Spielberg knows that the secret to success is volume, Volume, VOLUME! His movies are all super-sized big-gulp value meals, each roughly 900 minutes in length, requiring theaters to hire hospice nurses to adjust catheters and prevent bedsores. Motherfucker is Sam Walton in director’s jodhpurs.
Spielberg’s cool-ranch flavored film-like product, “Minority Report” (2002), is based on PKD’s short story “The Minority Report” (1956, published in the January issue of Fantastic Universe). It’s often considered one of PKD’s lesser stories. Anthologized only once before his death (in The Variable Man and other stories, 1957, it never made it into the “Best of” volumes. That’s perhaps a little unfair. The story has some good ol’ Dickian sci-fi-noir flourishes: dualistically antagonistic bureaucracies, a conspiracy that sweeps an unsuspecting victim into a sudden reversal of fortune, an amoral main character, a plot that deals with the question of surveillance and State power, and (I think) a deeply hidden subversive message. Of course Spielberg gives these only the most cursory of glosses before chucking them out the window, choosing instead to focus on his favored themes: broken families, cartoonish action sequences, and inexplicable middle-school humor.
The story, both in print and on film, revolves around the travails of John Anderton, head of the Precrime division. PKD’s Anderton is a bald, fat, fifty-something upper management type with some severe age-related performance anxiety issues, whereas Spielberg’s Anderton is played by cursed-mannequin-come-to-life Tom Cruise. Fun fact: the force-perspective techniques used in “The Lord of the Rings” movies were pioneered in this film, used in this film to make the diminutive Scientologist appear to be a normal-sized human being.
The Precrime Division that Anderton runs is legalistically complicated, in as much as it relies on the knowledge of future misdeeds to convict people of a crime BEFORE they do it. This is achieved through the exploitation of a trio of Precogs, whose appearances differs dramatically between the source material and the film. In the story, the Precogs are horribly deformed mutants, all giant heads and withered limbs, muttering and mumbling and incapable of understanding what it is they are seeing. In the film though, they’re represented by blandly attractive people in swimsuits, lounging in a spa and spouting prophetically about future murder. A little more Esther Williams, a lot less Rubber Johnny.
That’s the first of many major differences between PKD’s and Spielberg’s visions of “The Minority Report”. In the story, the precogs utter a constant stream of words and sounds and descriptions, in random order and without any context or purpose. They are fundamentally receivers, and their raw data is collected and interpreted by computers before getting spit out as crime reports for Precrime to act on. In the movie, the attractive psychics sit in their sauna and project visual images of the crimes, while a specially retrofitted powerball system spits out the names of victims and murderers.
In PKD’s story, the reports are just that: reports, distillations and interpretations translated (by computers) from the primary data of whatever the Precogs are picking up. The movie precogs produce videos, moving image records of a future crime, effectively allowing the Precrime cops to act as witnesses to a future crime. Functionally, Spielberg’s precogs and cops are more proximal to the murders, whereas PKD’s world transposes a layer of translating-and-correlating computers between precognitive idiot savants and the machinery of justice, a difference that reflects our changing concerns regarding surveillance. Dick, like many others in the fifties, found himself under FBI surveillance due to his past activities as a leftist and friend of activists. In other words, the State reinterpreted his activities into a newly criminalized context. Our modern surveillance fears, however, hinge more on technological rather than methodological changes in the system, resulting in Spielberg’s portrayal of Precrime detection as an omnipresent record that “pre-witnesses” our guilt.
Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that Spielberg is going to explore those themes at all, because he doesn’t. After Anderton discovers his own name on this week’s winning powerball, evidently murdering someone he’s never even met before, Spielberg enters a fugue state and we slide into a terrible succession of actions scenes and some truly regrettable comedy relief, including a booger surgeon. This rich, deep character, and his mucus, replaces Cruise’s eyes with someone else’s, preventing him from being tracked by the retinal scanning ads everywhere (another Spielbergian trope: introducing a potentially rich theme, and then never commenting on it or discussing it again in the film).
After Anderton goes on the run, the movie and the story never really intersect again, although they both introduce a red herring in the form of “minority reports”, situations where one of the precog’s visions doesn’t match those of the other two. In both the movie and the story, Anderton believes that by finding his minority report he will be exonerated.
Here’s the red herring bit:
In the movie, Max Von Sydow (who must’ve owed a lot of money to some seriously dangerous people to have been made to appear in this thing) plays Anderton’s inexplicably-accented boss Lamar Burgess. In a shocking turn of events, the gravelly-voiced German guy ends up being the Real Bad Guy, using his knowledge of the precog swimteam to commit a murder by mimicking a PREVIOUS precog vision exactly. Thus, when his murder pops up on the screen, everybody just assumes it’s a scene of the other, older murder, and disregards it. In trying to get his own nonexistent minority, Cruise’s Anderton discovers this secret and realizes that Burgess killed one of the Precog’s mothers in order to keep his pruney psychics right where they are, detecting precrimes and keeping him in power. Nefariously byzantine, or muddled and stupid? Only you can decide.
The story’s red herring is cleverer and, I think, a key to how we should be reading the ending of PKD’s “The Minority Report”. In it, hidden conspirators have alerted Anderton to the existence of minority reports, and he sneaks back into Precrime to find them. However, instead of finding a single minority report, Anderton discovers three; each precog has produced a different report. The precogs, it turns out, see into slightly different futures. The first precog gave the “Anderton kills Leopold Kaplan” report. The second precog, looking into a future slightly further ahead (where Anderton has seen the first report), says “Anderton DOESN’T kill Leopold Kaplan”. The third report, from yet farther in the future, explains how Anderton, armed with both reports and his knowledge of the conspiracy to discredit Precrime, decided to kill Kaplan, thereby maintaining the 100% accuracy rate of the precogs.
Pretty different, and much darker. In the movie, Precrime is discredited by a wonky but of free-will sleight of hand, where Burgess kills himself rather than Anderton. The water-logged psychics are freed and sent to some cabin in the middle of the nowhere to wear cableknit sweaters and read books, Anderton and his estranged wife get back together and produce a new broodling to replace their previously murdered kid, and everybody is happy, especially anyone who had been thinking about murdering someone but hadn’t on account of those pesky psychics. For those guys, it must’ve been like Christmas.
The movie is dumb, a mess, and very long, where nothing really makes sense and the tone of each scene is unrelated to anything that comes before or after. In the story, Precrime is saved because Anderton follows through and kills his man publicly, as predicted. And that is way, way, way grimmer. In the story, Anderton suggests that his “triple” and self-referential minority report is a danger unique only to those who KNOW what their minority report says; everyone else is kept in line by the simple fact that they don’t have enough information to act. PKD has envisioned the perfect panopticon, where the fear of surveillance (in this case, of a person’s intentions) is enough to keep people in line, regardless of how efficacious that surveillance is. It’s literally the darkest, most dystopic vision of a surveillance state imaginable, working ONLY because the citizenry doesn’t know how it REALLY functions.
But hey, who needs a careful deconstruction of a society crushed under the threat of perfect surveillance when you can have a jet pack fight!