In 2001, Steven Spielberg began work on his science fiction film Minority Report, famously assembling a “think tank” that tried to figure out what the future might look like. Many sci-fi movies feel dated just a few years after they’ve hit the screen, but 15 years after its original release, Minority Report still looks like the future. Why? Because Spielberg’s group clearly understood that while forward-thinking visual design is important for longevity, nailing how a society may actually evolve is essential for creating a truly prescient story.
Minority Report opens with a montage of visions from a trio of “pre-cogs”: individuals who have the ability to see into the future, predicting murders before they happen. Their forecasts alert the PreCrime division to arrest a man who’s about to kill his wife and her lover. But then the pre-cogs predict that the leader of the PreCrime unit, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), will commit murder. He’s forced to go on the run from the people he’s trained, trying to get ahead of the future as he unravels a conspiracy that shakes the division to its core.
From the beginning, Spielberg understands that it’s not just the technology that makes the future, but how society uses it. The result is a world that’s futuristic, but completely recognizable. People shop at The Gap, read on the metro, and use computers, but everything is dialed forward just a bit. Rail passengers read paper-thin screens that update as news rolls in; customers shopping at the mall are greeted with a barrage of ads that scan their retinas and call them by name as they walk by.
‘Minority Report’ was already predicting that the promise of security and convenience trumps any right to privacy
The film focuses on societal trends just as much as design, resulting in eerily predictive moments like the scene in which Cruise’s Anderton walks into The Gap. The store doesn’t just greet him while he’s trying to keep a low profile, it also eagerly remembers and recites his shopping history. Amazon was only eight years old when the film was released, just about to turn a profit for the first time, but Minority Report was already predicting the world of consumerism it, and similar services, would lead to: one where the promise of security and convenience trumps any right to privacy.
The larger vision that emerges is one of a consumer-friendly, interconnected surveillance state. Eye-scanners are everywhere in this film, allowing the police and corporations to track down and identify people as they go about their lives. The PreCrime unit itself also has extensive surveillance abilities, monitoring public cameras or deploying spider-like retinal-scanning robots to crawl through buildings and identify those inside.
Minority Report came out the year after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, but it presaged a wave of concern about governmental overreach that became commonplace in the decade to follow. Films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and shows like the CBS procedural Person of Interest made surveillance state paranoia commonplace in popular culture, but Minority Report was able to grasp these concepts well in advance. The concerns may have been speculative during production, but Spielberg’s dark technological vision has arguably been confirmed in the years since the film’s release.
predicting the future would be the crowning achievement of any surveillance state
These themes aren’t new, of course. The tension between a citizen’s right to privacy and the need for the state to ensure safety is something that the United States has always grappled with. But predicting the future would perhaps be the crowning achievement of any surveillance state, giving it the power to control citizens by preemptively locking them up before they’d even done anything wrong. It’s the essential moral question of Minority Report, and the characters do wonder whether their work is ethical. As Colin Ferrell’s Danny Witwer notes at one point, they’re arresting people who haven’t committed a crime, while billboards simultaneously present compelling examples of people who would have otherwise died, had it not been for PreCrime.
These are questions with real relevance in 2017. Police departments have turned to analyzing vast amounts of data to allocate resources, predicting where crimes are likely to occur, while government agencies commonly try to locate potential terrorist threats by sifting through messaging. In both cases, the state makes an argument that gathering information on citizens is essential to ensure safety, whether that’s collecting eye scans of a fugitive moving through the mall, or having the ability to break into a locked iPhone.
Some elements of Minority Report have become dated since its release, and no speculative view of the future can ever be perfect. By looking back, it’s clear that Spielberg and his team’s focus on the central philosophical arguments around human behavior lead to the most special kind of futuristic fantasy: one that is more relevant, fresh, and terrifying today than it was when it arrived 15 years ago.