When you ask people to name their favorite science fiction films, you'll often hear them mention Blade Runner as the gold standard. My vote however, goes to a different Philip K. Dick adaptation: Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. Released ten years ago today, the movie is as important today as it was back then, when it proved that science fiction could be important.
A movie about precognitive powers, Minority Report really was startlingly prescient. When it comes to movies that predict our actual future, Minority Report has no equal.
Top image: Minority Report concept art by James Clyne.
When it comes to looking into the future and seeing what our surroundings might look like, Minority Report's predictions have held up, and even come ahead of schedule. Rather than some of the more fantastic predictions out of the 1960s and 1970s as to what modern life will look like, Spielberg's 2054 looks remarkably like the world of 2012.
The production team did its homework, and this paid off: During the film's early production stages, a group of technology experts were assembled and began to brainstorm at what the future might hold for us. As a result, it's no surprise that I've seen more technology headlines that reference 'Minority Report' than any other film, when it comes to predicting the future.
Sure, you can make an argument that tablet computers have their roots in 2001: A Space Odyssey and that Smart Phones were inspired by Star Trek. Minority Report's future is firmly rooted in the technology of 2002, extrapolated a handful of years out. The roots of the future are now growing in the present day.
But Minority Report isn't just notable for predicting future technology. What is most striking is the way this film shows how people and governments will use the technology in the future. Spielberg presents a chillingly casual dystopian world where eye-scanners and tracking are prevalent — not only for surveillance, but for advertising purposes — the police can stop your car remotely, and arrest you for literally committing no crime.
In the decade since that time, we've seen most of the major advances that Minority Report posits used in exactly as predicted: video cameras capture crimes in progress and aid investigations, cars with OnStar equipped have stopped cars and criminals in their tracks, robotic drones have been used at home and abroad to watch criminal suspects and terrorists, all the while computer systems have been tasked with crunching statistical numbers to best position police cars to help prevent crimes from happening. The 2054 in Minority Report has come a full 40 years early, and we're just getting started.
In the midst of all this, Minority Report never loses sight of the central part of the story: This isn't about the technology itself, but about what happens to people when they're caught in the midst of all the technology.
In a country where we're increasingly regimented along procedural and mandated lines, this is becoming a very real issue, when people aren't able to apply their judgment and remain in the logic and decision-making loop. While on one side of the coin, Spielberg's future is an appealing one, the other side is a cautionary tale of just how wrong it can get when someone falls unwittingly into the cracks. It's a technological future where people have no place in it: Collin Ferrell's character Danny Witwer notes that there's always a flaw in the system, and it's always caused by a human.
The idea of self-determination is at the core of this story, and it's an important realization on the part of the filmmakers for this film. Within our technology-driven world, there will continually be the question of how much we're in the loop.
In P.W. Singer's recent book on military robotics, Wired for War, he notes that we're increasingly relying on machines, where we're pushed into silos, where human judgment is substituted for a procedure. In John Anderton's case, he's caught between a procedural system without recourse and the opportunity to change the direction of his own actions. In a deterministic world, how do we navigate our lives with such constraints? Or, is there a place for humans, with all of their imperfections, to exist in a heavily regimented and procedural society?
Philip K. Dick's original novella was recently reprinted in John Joseph Adams' fantastic anthology Brave New Worlds, and while reading it, I was struck at how much had been changed between the story and movie, both within the story and in society. Where "The Minority Report" (published in 1956) looked to the differences and conflict between the powers of a domestic Police force and the Army, Minority Report takes the conflict and updates it to focus on the authority of the judicial branch and the trust of the public that it supports and protects. In the past decade, there's certainly been an appearance of this, with broad measures of governmental surveillance and an apparent assumption that the general public is something to be watched, monitored and observed for wrongdoing.
Of all the science fiction works out there, few really are able to stand the test of time: Minority Report remains a highly relevant film in its entirety because it focuses on the underlying characters and story, instead of the gadgets that simply look cool. Compared to other blockbuster films, such as Paycheck (another Philip K. Dick adaptation) that focus more closely on the hardware, they fall very, very short, in both the quality of the film, and in the longevity and relevance.
Minority Report has remained in the forefront of the public consciousness, precisely because both the world (all of the tech and hardware usage) and story were carefully thought out, and put into a film that turned out to be pretty thoughtful, interesting and relevant in the years going forward. It's not all that difficult to look forward and make educated predictions for what the future holds — but it's very hard to put all of the small pieces together, and see the future in action.