Friday, December 24, 2010

Minority Report Futurama

One of the intriguing things about Minority Report is that it represents at least three different story telling motifs, each of which could be lifted out and placed in some other context that would work just as well. On the one hand, it replays the familiar theme of a murder in which the innocent protagonist gets framed and spends the rest of the movie trying to prove his innocence while being chased by the authorities. The bad guys turn out to be part of the system that's meant to protect the little guy. Does that sound just like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive? Now let's add a twist and say that the murder hasn't happened yet, but it has been predicted to happen. In fact, the "system" in this case involves a society, even a police force, that relies on such predictions to prevent murders before they happen. They use clairvoyants, referred to as precogs, whose gifts have been enhanced by technology. Although the framing motif still remains intact, now the methods by which someone can be framed for a future murder become a lot more interesting and different. Note, however, that although this sounds like science fiction, the central mechanism, a pre-supposed belief in clairvoyance, is a paranormal phenomenon, not science. Also, the concepts of free will and determinism that it plays with are more philosophy than science as well.

So if the plot is pure action and drama and the twist turns it into a psychological thriller, where is the science fiction? Basically, it is in the setting in which the story takes place, which is simply human society in the relatively near future (2054 A.D). But unlike most other futuristic tales, this one attempts to be believable, and that alone is what makes this film stand apart from the others. Since the story line, which took some ideas from a short story by the always intriguing Philip K. Dick, relies only remotely on the setting in which it takes place, the creators did not have to mold the future to serve the plot. In fact, Spielberg conducted brainstorming sessions with scientists in various fields to get their predictions about what society might look like 50 years in the future. That's the kind of stuff sci-fi is all about and I'd rather spend a little time looking at what they came up with than doing just a run-of-the-mill movie review. After all, there's lots of that already on the web.

One of the first things you see is Tom Cruz in front of a huge transparent screen sliding images and data around and commanding various operations by making particular gestures with special laser gloves. This is a very natural extension of today's computer technology of course, and it showcased in 2002 a multi-touch type of interface at a time when Windows Surface was just an idea in a few people's heads. Surface was finally unveiled in 2007, and there's great demo video here on youtube. Microsoft's "surface" detects commands via camera image from below, which is actually more like the action-at-a-distance featured in the film than a touch screen device like the Apple iPad. Anyway, the opening sequence of the film that features this future technology plays like a digital symphony with Cruz as the conductor. In fact, the accompanying music track is a symphony that is cleverly worked into the action on screen - check it out here.

Another thing that struck me as quite insightful was the portrayal of the continuity of brand names. Many companies come and go but the ones that last tend to last a long time, and their images will change with the times. For example, car companies are so integral to society that they tend to hang around even when they almost go bankrupt. In the film we see a whole new transportation infrastructure but the same car companies building and selling the cars, often with the same or similar logos. Communications companies like AT&T have lasted forever also because of their importance to a working society. If you look at the number of companies today that were around 100 years ago, it is not hard to imagine them and others like them still being around 50 years from now. You would think this would be rather obvious and yet I've never seen it portrayed like in MR. And it's a win-win because the companies can look real cool and futuristic while Spielberg gets to collect the royalties.

The same goes for architecture. Many homes look the same as today because people like living in houses that look old and traditional and will keep them basically unchanged for many decades, even as more modern offerings are built. The creators really looked back in history to determine not only what might change, but also what might stay the same. That is just plain genius.

One thing that MR does not hold back on is the idea that human nature does not change even as technology advances. Cruz's character is shown going through a divorce and becoming addicted to some type of drug. The delivery mechanism is different and the physical side effects of the drug itself has been refined away, but the effect on a person's life is just the same. Crime will not disappear and so neither would the police, even if their methods change. Instead of fingerprint identification they use iris imaging in MR. If you can be identified instantly by your iris signature, the existence of a black market in eye transplants does not seem like a stretch to me.

Another thing that I think MR got spot on with is the steady encroachment of commercial advertising into our daily lives. We've seen this with every new technology that has come along. Telephones and telemarketers, radio and TV commercials, and now email spam and internet pop up ads. It makes sense in the context of free capitalism. If there's a way to use technology to make a buck, companies will do it. They will avoid public outcry by introducing it slowly so consumers can become acclimated. One of the more memorable moments was when Cruz walks into a mall and is greeted by personalized computer sales pitches based on a remote iris scan that is done as soon as he walks in. It really hits you just how real that might become someday, even if they use a simpler method to identify you.

There are just so many thought provoking ideas to throw around in this film. One of them that struck me as a little ahead of its time was the maglev transportation system. It will take some time to move from oil based infrastructure to electric battery while still keeping the current road system. But to build a whole new magnetic road infrastructure in the major cities and mass transit based on a free running car technology to match it seems closer to a 100 year development to me at least. I'm not even counting the extension of the road system to allow it to go straight up the sides of the buildings and into your apartment on the 47th floor. We're talking major integrated city planning. The helicopters used by the police don't require an infrastructure like that, but whether rocket powered vehicles like that could appear in 50 years is still up for debate. And of course, the little spider bots that search out people is way far off, even if easy to do on film with CGI.

I think the hardest idea to swallow was the way they portrayed the precogs. Even if you could find three people with such abilities, and even if they were willing to dedicate their entire lives to police work, could they really withstand floating motionless in a half dream state for their entire existence? That's just crazy, and even raises some ethical concerns. However, I do think that Jessica Capshaw did an excellent job portraying precog Evanna when she actually had to wake up and do something. I just discovered that Capshaw is Spielberg's stepdaughter, interestingly enough. But I will close here by saying that Minority Report remains a bit of an enigma. How can a film that contains so much fascinating insight suffer from such a one-dimensional plot line? Then again, it is a Spielberg film.

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