Steven Spielberg's 'Minority Report' starring Tom Cruise - Precogs, prophets, and the purposes of God
Feature article by James Anderson
Questions that challenge
'What would you do if you were accused of a murder, you had not committed ... yet?' So runs the tagline for 'Minority Report', the latest action-thriller-cum-futuristic film noir from director Steven Spielberg. But this is not the only conundrum raised by this entertaining and thought-provoking film. 'Minority Report' touches, in an imaginative, contemporary, and stylish manner, on a host of age-old ethical and metaphysical puzzles - some raised explicitly, others apparent only on later reflection:
- Are we free to determine our futures or are we destined by fate?
- If you know in advance that someone will perform a certain action at a certain time, can that person be acting freely?
- Could it ever be just to punish a person for a crime they didn't commit, yet would have committed had others not intervened to prevent it?
- Is a crimeless society thereby a virtuous one?
- When are privacy and freedom more valuable than safety?
- Where does justice end and vengeance begin?
- Is it ever justifiable to treat human beings as means rather than ends?
Such questions have been pondered by thinkers from a wide range of religious and secular standpoints.
Images that communicate
For followers of Christ eager to communicate the faith to our contemporaries, 'Minority Report' is also a goldmine of imagery and illustrations for communicating biblical themes imaginatively and relevantly. For example:
- Is mere intent to sin a sufficient basis for moral judgment and punishment? (Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 5 verses 27-30)?
- Are we bad by nature or by nurture - and either way, why should we be thought responsible for our actions?
- When a society turns away from God, does it inevitably end up deifying something or someone else?
- What kind of a 'god' can be harnessed and exploited by man?
- Can anyone but God know the future? (Compare what God says to the false gods in Isaiah chapter 41 verses 21-23)
Who is the master of my fate?
The film is commendably non-committal about many of the issues it raises, but Spielberg cannot help showing his hand when it comes to the central question of determinism. The moral of the tale is that I am the ultimate determiner of my future. As W.E. Henley famously put it:
Against the backdrop
of a society with a mechanistic view of the world ('science has stolen
all our miracles', laments one character), 'Minority Report' repudiates
fatalism in its closing scenes. Appealing though it may be, this is
a profoundly humanistic vision, at odds with the biblical picture of
a universe in which God is sovereign over the destinies of His creatures
chapter 46 verses 9-10; Proverbs
chapter 16 verse 9). Is a picture of human history determined by
an uncoordinated mass of billions of fallible, self-interested, relatively
impotent organisms more reassuring than a picture of human history sovereignly
directed by an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful Creator who loves
and cares for His creation?
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The eyes have it
The 'eye' metaphors spread liberally throughout the film
are particularly provocative: The precogs have the power to see the
future, yet they are pathetically blind to the present. Anderton is
forced to risk losing his own sight to evade the eyes of others. In
the future, we are warned, the eyes will truly become the windows of
the soul, being the means by which people are identified and known (compare
this with the words of Jesus in Matthew
chapter 6 verses 22-23). Moreover, the state will have its own myriad
eyes, peering down on every street and poised to penetrate any home,
making it practically omniscient. The justification for this intrusion
is protection: but compare this vision of governmental security solely
through fear and judgment with the biblical picture of God's providential
care (for example in Psalm
chapter 12 verses 6-7). Consider too the disconcerting depiction
of future advertising in 'Minority Report': by becoming so personalized,
the hi-tech billboards are paradoxically found to be utterly impersonal
- their 'special knowledge' of each consumer only serves to emphasize
with irony the fact that they treat their targets as objects and care
little for them as persons.
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There are further elements of 'Minority Report' offering fruitful material for Christian communicators. However, in the remainder of this article, I would like to draw attention to a subtle incoherence in the storyline of the film that leads us to a striking comparison with the biblical narrative of God's redemptive plan:
The film presents us with a seemingly plausible series of events that on closer analysis turns out to be quite paradoxical. In the year 2054, the Department of Precrime in Washington, D.C. possesses technology that enables the law-enforcement services to predict murders before they are committed, and thus to intervene and prevent their occurrence in the first place. This technology, designed to channel the psychic powers of three 'precognizant' children, provides crucial details of the impending crime: the names of the perpetrator and the victim, the date and time of the murder, plus sketchy visual details of its location and circumstances.
The unit chief, John Anderton, has unswerving confidence in the reliability and value of the revolutionary precrime system - until the day it calmly spits out his name as a future killer, along with the name of a victim whom he has never met and about whom he knows nothing. The central portion of the film involves his desperate attempts to avoid arrest by his colleagues and to track down this future 'victim' so as to demonstrate his innocence.
Now here is the perplexing thing about this course of events: Throughout the 36 hours leading up to his predicted crime, Anderton is guided by the information he has received from the precrime system. However, the system does not purport to determine the future, only to accurately predict it; thus, the information it provides is based on events that have yet to occur - events that will be determined in part by Anderton's own decisions.
So there is a vicious
circularity at work: the reason Anderton acts as he does is because
the precrime system gave him the information it did; yet the reason
the precrime system gave him the information it did is because Anderton
acts as he does! In short, he is like a dog chasing its tail, with no
external direction or purpose. In Anderton's waking nightmare, events
just happen because they happen: period.
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There is an intriguing parallel here with the biblical storyline. In 'Minority Report', we are presented with:
- a future killing of an innocent person
- reliable predictions of the details of that murder based on prescient visions, and
- a central character who lives a period of their life according to these predictions.
There are two significant differences:
First, in 'Minority Report', the one guided by the predictions is the killer and his goal is to preserve his life. In the Gospels, however, the one guided by the predictions is the victim, and his goal is to sacrifice his life.
Secondly, there is no external direction or purpose in Anderton's life; yet the events of Christ's life and death are not merely foreseen, but planned in advance by God. (Acts chapter 2 verses 22-24, chapter 4 verses 27-28; Ephesians chapter 1 verse 11, chapter 3 verses 8-11). Thus, the prophecies of the Old Testament and the actions of Jesus are not dependent on each other (resulting a futile circularity) but are both grounded in the eternal redemptive purposes of God. It is God's plan that gives meaning to the events of Christ's life - and thereby to our own lives.
There are philosophical
mysteries here that are at least as inscrutable as the abilities of
Spielberg's precogs; but the visions of God's prophets offer a far greater
hope and comfort for the future (Isaiah
chapter 35 verses 5-7, chapter
42 verses 6-7).
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