Minority Report: The Question of Free Will & Fate By Mark Trinkle
Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) stars Tom Cruise as John Anderton, an agent of a division of the government known as PreCrime. This division uses the abilities of three individuals, the precogs, who are able to see the future (precognition) to prevent murders from occurring. This concept was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same title. The film takes place in a world different from our own in technology and society, but it explores the concepts of fate vs. free will and the essence of humanity, ideas that are very relevant to our lives.
There are fundamental questions in life that we may never know for sure, but we can imagine how they might play out. Science fiction often does what realism films cannot do, and plays with the philosophical or the metaphysical. Playing in these fantastic realms and by their bizarre rules allows for different ways to ask questions, or reframe commonplace dilemmas. Minority Report does this in several ways. Two of the most fundamental questions that are raised by the film center around the precogs, the three people who can see the future, an ability that makes them the most blatantly science fiction element in the film.
One concept to ponder is whether it is fair to punish someone for a crime they have not committed. Another is whether or not it is immoral to use these people, whether or not it is for the greater good, in a crime system without their consent. The film does not explicitly state what is right or wrong, but instead addresses the scenario and leaves the final decision on the issue up to the audience.
This film brings up a very interesting problem, one that has been discussed by philosophers and laymen throughout history, namely the debate over the existence of fate or destiny. Do we have free will? Or are we living out a predetermined path that we cannot change? The entire system of PreCrime is based on the assumption that the future is determined, and that a person is destined to commit a crime if they are not prevented. John Anderton describes this assumption when he is talking to Danny Witwer about the system, claiming “The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.”
After having been thoroughly convinced of the reliability of the system, Anderton gets a ‘print out’ that says he is going to commit murder. He has never heard of the man whom he is supposed to murder and has no reason or desire to kill him, and out of confusion and fear does whatever he must to prove that the vision was wrong. Throughout his struggles he realizes that no matter how he tries to avoid it, it seems his future might be outside his hands.
When the film comes down to the scene where he meets Leo Crow, the man he is supposed to kill, he discovers he actually has a hidden motive (the revenge for the kidnapping of his son) and comes to the brink of murder. In this moment, he has with him the most powerful of the precogs, named Agatha, who encourages that he fights his desire to shoot Leo. She tells him that because he saw this future, he doesn’t have to do it. He realizes he has a choice. However, despite this, the film shows Leo Crow die the same way he did in the vision, with John holding a gun to his chest.
In this way the precogs are constantly torn between destiny and free will, and since there is only so much that they can prevent, the system designed around them leaves them and the PreCrime operation as human and helpless as the rest of us. Because of this, the entire matter of free will is still left unresolved, but by making this vague impersonal philosophical debate something real and relatable, it creates an engaging narrative where we question John’s and by extension our own choices and limits.
Another issue this film deals with is the unclear matter of whether the precogs are truly human or not. As beings that have abilities that are beyond that of normal humans, who are used to help humanity, how should they be treated? It cannot be humane to allow them to be subjected to these constant visions of the future, witnessing hundreds of thousands of unseen violent murders. It is because of this moral issue that Agatha’s mother had refused to let her daughter be a part of the PreCrime system. However, terribly enough, in order to continue a system that would save lives, Lamar Burgess, the founder of PreCrime, murders her and goes to considerable lengths to hide it from that very system. Seemingly blinded by the potential greatness of the precog system it would seem that he would rather overlook the fact that these precogs are individuals, humans (perhaps even better than humans) who are forced into a tank and drugged up to the point where they cannot do anything but show us our own future.
In the short story Minority Report was adapted from, the precogs are referred to as idiots who babble and write out information that can only be understood by analytical machines. This portrayed the precogs as humans who could do absolutely nothing besides process information. The parts of their brain involved in precognition deformed the rest of their brains, essentially leaving them incapacitated. Spielberg’s precogs, however, are capable of normal human cognition and interaction as long as they are not on the drugs that facilitate the precognition. This was an interesting choice because it suggests that they are unwilling participants who actually may have an opinion on their treatment, but are simply never asked. This is not to say that it is morally acceptable to force disabled, yet gifted individuals into fighting crime for us, but it seems almost impossible to say that drugging and forcing more conscious humans to experience homicide after homicide without their consent is morally acceptable. In some ways it could be said that the precogs are more human than the other humans in PreCrime because they feel empathy and can see beyond that which we can.
Like any science fiction film, it is through the spectacular unreality of Minority Report that we can see reflections of our own lives. Although the plot is complex, and the pseudo-noir lighting and digital effects are visually intriguing, the film holds the viewer’s attention with its detailed exploration of the types of themes that have always been present in the human situation. Whether or not someone is human, or whether we truly have control over our lives and futures are the concepts that we will be left to ponder long after the memories of Tom Cruise racing against time and fate fade away.