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Back to the Retrofuture

"Minority Report" fails the future—and the present

Bruce MacCauley / FOX

The future is grim; not because of widespread government surveillance, climate change, or perpetual war, but because, according to Fox’s new adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, by the year 2065 selfie sticks will have evolved into selfie drones, Tinder will be a quaint anecdote about how your grandparents met, and vinyl will still exist, but only for golden oldies like Iggy Azalea.          

In the thirteen years since Steven Spielberg’s film introduced viewers to a universe ruled by mental surveillance, Minority Report appears, on paper, to be a timely dystopia, resurrected in the shadow of Edward Snowden, the NSA, hidden video of police brutality, and mass incarceration. Instead of probing the consequences that scientific advancements in surveillance and digital technology have wrought on society, the show is a doddering police procedural whose central conceit is that everyone just really, really wishes they had handy psychic precogs to solve crimes before they happen.

Some of the fault may lie with Dick himself, who, despite his futurist brilliance, was an astoundingly bad writer of prose. Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker that “at the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences.” In The Guardian Darragh McManus summarized Dick’s problems as “hammy dialogue, amateurish narrative pacing, some truly terrible descriptive prose.”

FOX’s Minority Report could be described in the exact same way. Despite the limitations of his prose, Dick has a phenomenal talent for spooling out the consequences of whatever innovation he imagines. What happens when the line between android and human is blurred? What happens if you can’t distinguish between what memories are real or fake? It was the force of these questions that propelled Dick’s work past its author’s mediocre prose, and it could have been these questions that elevated the Minority Report show from police dramedy to social relevance. But in the TV show, Dick’s innovation—the precogs—have become untethered from any consequences. There is only a nostalgia for the heyday of Pre-Crime—how can Dash, one of the three precogs featured in Spielberg’s film, get his precog powers to work again?

In FOX’s adaptation, the precogs are now the heroes. The show follows Dash and his police accomplice Detective Lara Vega, as they attempt to skirt the law in order to use Dash’s fractured visions to arrest baddies, not the people imprisoned for crimes they may never have actually committed. Though the show takes place after the movie, this shift of focus makes it feel like a prequel: Minority Report is more concerned with the made-up technologies which enable psychic powers than what the impact of those powers and technologies may be.

Still, surveillance is inevitably a theme. The show’s pilot hints that a longterm plot arc will be the pitting of a government surveillance program against the precogs. Dash and Vega don’t seem to have any qualms with the consequences of Dash’s powers—in fact, they seem to think that his powers make government surveillance unnecessary. After all, if crimes are stopped before they happen there will be no need to invade privacy with constant monitoring. But no one seems to realize that the precog system is already the über-surveillance system, one that’s all the more frightening because it’s even more unreliable than technology. Both the original short story and film demonstrated how easily corruptible the Pre-Crime unit is: “If there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is,” says a character in the film. The television show seems—so far—uninterested in exploring this problem, focusing instead on the hijinks of Dash and Vega as they scramble to assemble clues for a murder Dash has seen.

Dash and Vega’s wistfulness makes them seem childish, a feeling compounded by the show’s design. Set in Washington D.C., the future is full of bright colors and light—all the grit and darkness of the film is scrubbed clean. DC’s metro is an elevated monorail, a sanitized version of the future that is hokey instead of haunting, more 1950s than 2060s. Bright colors are not inherently un-dystopian——Utopia, a British show set to be remade for HBO with David Fincher directing, was saturated in sickly yellow—but the production’s design feels tonally off. The world of the film balanced breathtaking technology with a mix of jumbled cables, messy piles of computer discs, and dirty alleys. It was a lived-in future, where it was clear that technology was so accepted it was almost mundane—not unlike our own current attitude to the Internet and ubiquitous smartphones. But the shiny streets and funky “future” makeup on the television show feel cheap and insubstantial—there’s nothing to ground the reality of the show. Other than a few scattered cultural references—the Nationals win the World Series in 2054—the setting of Minority Report seems hermetically sealed, which limits the show’s ability to reflect questions back on our own reality.

Science fiction has played a minor, but important role in the television renaissance of the last decade. The 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica dealt brilliantly with contemporary fears about terrorism and immigration, this summer’s Mr. Robot captured the psychotic paranoia of the digital age, and UK import Black Mirror has churned outstand-alone episodes exploring our technological obsessions and the consequences therein. The producers of Minority Report, who include Spielberg himself, clearly intend Minority Report to be TV’s next great sci-fi show, but it seems that no one on the production team grasped what made other sci-fi shows, as well as the  original Minority Report, succeed. Great sci-fi is a double whammy of entertainment—jet packs are great!—and philosophy—maybe predicting murders isn’t the key to utopia. Campy science fiction can also be brilliant (Doctor Who is delightful but not exactly strenuously philosophical) but the current iteration of Minority Report fails to be that, either. It takes a film that worked on multiple levels— an action movie with arty cinematography and existential questions—and compresses it into a one-dimensional procedural.

Some of Dick’s other work will soon have a chance for the proper TV treatment, though it won’t satisfy those looking for pure science fiction. Last January, Amazon released the pilot of a version of Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, about a world in which the Axis powers win the Second World War and America is split between Germany and Japan.  The pilot, executive produced by Ridley Scott, was Amazon’s most-watched ever, and the full season will be released at the end of November. The Man in the High Castle already looks much better than Minority Report, with better acting, a more nuanced production design, and a script that doesn’t talk down to the viewer. As a pseudo-historical show it tackles fundamentally different themes than Minority Report but at least —unlike FOX’s Minority Report—it does tackle them.

The proliferation of Dick adaptations is not a coincidence. His work is populated by massive corporations, all-seeing governments, and individuals trapped in the chasm between perception and reality. We live in a world shaped by those exact same concerns. As we move closer to the futures described by twentieth-century writers we are pushed up against the edge of dystopia, finding life to be full of gadgets but the same old societal problems.

At it best, science fiction helps us untangle our present and parse our anxieties about the future. The time is ripe for a show that gives life to Dick’s darkest, most paranoid fears and predictions, but Minority Report isn’t it.