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Steven Spielberg was in the midst of an especially prolific stage of his career when he directed Minority Report (2002), one of his best films and the second of three big movies he turned out in quick succession. (The others: A.I. Artificial Intelligence  and Catch Me If You Can .) While Minority Report and A.I. can both be labeled as science fiction, all three films are quite different tonally, the result of a conscious effort by Spielberg to branch out and try new things. As he said at the time: "I'm at a period where I'm experimenting. I want to challenge myself and, in turn, challenge the audience. I'm trying to find myself in my mid-fifties."
Of the specific challenges of Minority Report, he said, "I wanted to make the ugliest, dirtiest movie I have ever made. I want this movie to be dark and grainy, and to be really cold. This isn't a warm adventure the way A.I. was. This is, rather, the rough and tumble, gritty world of film noir."
Set in 2054, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as John Anderton, a police captain in the "Pre-Crime" unit with the ability -- thanks to "Pre-Cogs" who can see into the future -- to apprehend would-be criminals before they commit their crimes. But when Anderton himself is revealed by the Pre-Cogs as the murderer of someone in three days' time -- someone Anderton doesn't even know -- he must go on the run and solve the mystery before he himself is caught.
Based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, whose work had also been adapted into Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990), Minority Report uses its thrilling surface tale to delve thoughtfully into questions of paranoia, free will, existentialism, alternate reality, memory, media culture, technology and politics. The material was tailor-made for a thoughtful film adaptation.
The property had been floating around the Fox studio for a decade, originally intended as a sequel to Total Recall, with various filmmakers interested at one time or another. In 1997, director (and former cinematographer) Jan de Bont optioned the story and commissioned a screenplay by writer Jon Cohen. Tom Cruise read the draft and shared it with Steven Spielberg. The two had met in 1983 and agreed to one day work together should the right script come along; this was it, and they attached themselves to the project immediately. Scott Frank was hired to do a rewrite, and the film went into production in 2001, the soonest time that Spielberg and Cruise were both available.
The film's portrait of the future was treated with great care. Spielberg organized a conference of leading architects, urban planners, professors, computer technicians, crime fighters and scientists one weekend in Santa Monica, Calif., to discuss how society might look and operate in 2054. Spielberg wanted the film to come off as plausibly as possible.
One prediction that drew unanimous agreement was for a near-total loss of privacy. "Not so people can spy on you," said screenwriter Scott Frank, "but so they can sell to you. In the not too distant future, it is plausible that by scanning your eyes, your whereabouts will be tracked. They will keep track of what you buy, so they can keep on selling to you."
Spielberg agreed, noting (in 2002) that "Orwell's prophecy really comes true, not in the twentieth century but in the twenty-first. Big Brother is watching us now, and what little privacy we have will completely evaporate in twenty or thirty years."
One piece of futuristic technology in the film that especially caught the imagination of moviegoers was the motion-operated computer used by Tom Cruise in some stunning set-pieces. By waving and gesticulating with his hands in the air in front of a giant computer, Cruise is able to manipulate images and data on screen. This technology has not only since been portrayed in other movies but now exists in the real world, though it is not yet as fluid or perfect as that depicted here.
Critics took note of Minority Report's striking portrayal of the future. Variety critic Todd McCarthy wrote that the film "offers the most persuasively detailed portrait modern Hollywood has created of what the United States may look like 50 years hence." Overall, McCarthy found the film "outstanding... in line with what American films have historically done best, which is to excitingly tell a strong story with high style and just enough substance."
To achieve Spielberg's desired "ugly," grainy look, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski employed a number of tricks. One was to shoot the film in Super-35mm (a first for both Kaminski and Spielberg) and use certain filters and lenses such that when the film was blown up optically for release in anamorphic widescreen prints, "the highlights got slightly brighter, the shadows got slightly harder and the colors got slightly more pastel-ish."
Kaminski also said that he most often used wide-angle lenses (never longer than 27mm) because "Steven likes the actors to be as close to the camera as possible... He's very much an old-fashioned filmmaker in terms of how he tells his stories. That seems like a very tricky statement because his movies are so technologically advanced, but when you see a special effect in Steven's movies, you can experience it in a wide shot. He likes to see action play in one continuous shot rather than being interrupted by an editor's cut... We staged a lot of scenes in wide shots that have a lot of things happening within the frame. Of course, there is plenty of quick cutting in the film because there are extensive action sequences, but many scenes are about people and emotions, and we often let the emotions play out in a single wide shot."
Kaminski's most interesting trick, however, was to desaturate and mute the film's colors by employing a "bleach bypass" system. Normally in negative processing, the film emulsion is bleached. By skipping this step, the film ends up looking like a simultaneous color and black-and-white image, resulting in increased grain and contrast. Kaminski said, "The process pulled about 40 percent of the color out of the image, but we worked to get that back in by adding more color to the lights. Overall, the image has a bleached-out quality with deep shadows and blown highlights."
The mesmerizing and intense Minority Report garnered excellent reviews and was a solid hit with audiences, grossing $350 worldwide. It received a single Oscar® nomination, for Best Sound Editing, but lost to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002).
During filming, Tom Cruise started dating Penelope Cruz, which became public when they flew to a private island near Fiji for a vacation. A month later, Cruise and Nicole Kidman would divorce.
By Jeremy Arnold
Jay Holben, "Criminal Intent," article in July 2002 American Cinematographer
Ian Johnstone, Tom Cruise: All the World's a Stage
Andrew Morton, Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography
Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster
Frank Sanello, Spielberg: The Man, The Movies, The Mythology
Andrew M. Cohen, Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg