Steven Spielberg’s cinematic pedigree is virtually flawless, with over 40 films in his storied career and plenty of classics sprinkled liberally. From his first feature film, Duel – a TV movie good enough to merit a theatrical release – to its hearty summer blockbusters and the more mature work of its later career, it consistently rises to the occasion and makes the most of its wide-ranging material .
In the midst of this, it’s easy to overlook several absolute masterpieces that have to compete with more well-known works for attention. Perhaps most notable is Minority report, his 2002 sci-fi epic that still stands as one of his undisputed masterpieces. And yet, he never really received his due, in part because of his placement in the career of the great director.
Certainly, Minority reportTomatometer’s credentials are beyond reproach, with a 90% rating from Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes and a respectable if not jaw-dropping $358 million worldwide gross at the box office. It found the director in one of his darkest creative periods, having just come out of Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and AI: Artificial Intelligence. Minority report was based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose paranoid and existential views were seemingly at odds with Spielberg’s more optimistic ones. It depicted a future in which all murders could be anticipated and prevented, thanks to a trio of “Precogs”, who provided details of the crime before it happened.
At its most basic level, Minority report mirrors the popcorn rollercoaster Spielberg made his name on, with compelling visuals and thrilling action. The story begins when Tom Cruise’s police officer, John Anderton, is framed for a future crime, forcing him to kidnap one of the Precogs to avoid his seemingly inescapable fate. That includes her share of chases and escapes – topped off with a sequence in which Anderton eludes a phalanx of pursuers by adhering to the Precog’s instructions as she reads the immediate future to determine where her pursuers will be.
But beyond that, it not only understands a lot about Dick’s dystopian vision, but presents an oddly plausible future in which some of his more troubling notions have become commonplace. The precognitive system has made homicide a thing of the past, at least in Minority reportin the Washington DC setting, but it comes at the cost of a troubling surveillance state where privacy violations have become routine. Those arrested for crimes they haven’t yet committed are sentenced to a living death in a permanent coma, even though – strictly speaking – they haven’t actually committed any crime.
Spielberg develops these notions as thoughtfully as the more technical components, while creating a beautiful visual palate with which to deliver it all. At its heart is a legitimate meditation on the nature of free will, wrapped in a compelling murder mystery and punctuated by one of Cruise’s finest performances. And despite its final message of reconciliation and honesty, it carries far darker shadows than most of the director’s other films.
And yet it tends to be treated like no other when comparing Spielberg’s best work. Minority report released a few months ago Catch Me If You Can, which then marked the beginning of a period of relative dryness for the director. This has left it unfairly overlooked, although its 20th birthday is a prime opportunity for reassessment. There’s nothing else in Spielberg’s canon quite like it.