A.I., Minority Report

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Four movies for the price of one. Can’t beat that. Steven Spielberg finishes off Stanley Kubrick’s last project. So expect it to be an excellent film. It is.

Act I

Sometime in the near future, we see an antiquated lecture hall where a robotics engineer is speaking to a group of colleagues. He turns to an apparently normal young woman, tells her to open her mouth, presses on the roof of her mouth, and she shuts off and her face divides into several sliding panels. It turns out she’s a robot.

(This particular make of robot is designed for sexual gratification. Without going into graphic detail, an on-off switch in that location could be very awkward under certain circumstances. In fact, it's hard to think of a place to put an on-off switch that couldn't be accidentally triggered. Having your partner spontaneously disassemble could take the magic right out of a romantic evening. But I digress.)

The engineer describes his latest vision: creation of a robot capable of human emotions. A year or so later, the prototype robot, called David, is ready. The company decides the ideal test family is an executive and his wife whose own son is permanently comatose. They are warned that once the robot’s emotions are turned on by repetition of a set of code words, the bonding with his human partners can never be reversed.

The film doesn’t quite seem able to decide if David is a robot, a boy, or something in between. At times he displays emotions as if he’s fully human, other times he doesn’t have the most rudimentary social skills or real-world knowledge, things anyone trying to mimic human behavior would surely program in. At one point, he attempts to eat, requiring emergency technical assistance. We are to believe a company can make robots that can fully mimic human behavior but can’t provide an elementary safeguard to prevent foreign materials from gumming up the works?

Crisis comes when the couple’s son is cured and returns home. He’s instantly jealous of David, and quickly convinces us that he would have been better left in a coma. Eventually, he maneuvers David into lashing back, at which point the father decides to have him returned to the factory for deactivation. But his mother can’t quite bear to think of it, so instead of taking him to the factory, she drops him off in the woods. The driving scenes show a neat view of future technology: a revival of Buckminster Fuller’s three-wheeled car design.

Act II

A male gigolo robot, designed for sexual gratification, is framed for murder by the husband of one of his clients and flees. He, David, and a gaggle of cast-off robots of all descriptions converge in the woods and are swept up and transported to a robot demolition derby, where audiences enjoy the spectacle of robots being destroyed in various spectacular ways.

Here’s where the film reveals its greatest shortcomings. The theme of the film, building on HAL of 2001, is whether machines can have souls. But the robots, mostly clunky by David’s standards, display fear and plead for a chance to continue serving. They display, in short, more humanity than David’s father, David's truly loathsome biological brother, or the audiences at the robot destruction shows. It might have made the issue far clearer if we were to see humanity in something obviously mechanical (say the hero of I, Robot) than in becoming attached to a robot who is all but indistinguishable from a real boy. Another side of the issue is that part of being human includes being downright repulsive at times. Kind and gentle robots might be pleasant to be around, but are they human?

The audience, struck by David’s human behavior, suspects he might be real (apparently there have been unfortunate errors in the past) and riots. David and his gigolo guardian escape. David has decided that his only hope is to find the Blue Fairy from the fairy tale Pinocchio (which his mother used to read to him), the only one who can make him real so he can return to his family. They begin by catching a ride to a pleasure city, where David visits an information booth that gives him cryptic clues to the Blue Fairy. The police, meanwhile, have located the gigolo, and he and David flee in a stolen police cruiser (This is the future. Of course cars can fly.)


The fugitives head for New York City, now half submerged by rising sea level following the melting of the polar ice caps. There are some spectacular shots of flying between and under fallen-over buildings before the fugitives find a building matching the description they got from the information booth.

They land at the building, where David meets his creator and we learn that David is actually a likeness of the designer’s own dead son. The creator, it turns out, has planted clues that would lead David to him. While he runs off to get his colleagues to plan their next great step, David slips away. He is about to rejoin the gigolo when the police arrive. The gigolo is hauled away, but David dives the cruiser (of course it’s a submarine, too) into the water and escapes. He ends up at the submerged ruins of Coney Island, where he sees a statue of the Blue Fairy.

I wonder just how long buildings submerged in sea water would maintain their structural integrity, and after 9-11, I really wonder whether they would simply lean over gently or collapse in a heap of rubble. I also wonder why, after decades submerged in sea water, the Blue Fairy wasn’t so covered in marine life as to be unrecognizable, much less still be bright blue.

But there’s a bigger problem. One of the benefits of going to graduate school at Columbia is that you learn your way around New York City. Attention, filmmakers! Coney Island is not just down the block from midtown Manhattan! It’s a fairly long subway ride. David’s chances of blundering into it by accident as opposed to, say, Paramus, New Jersey are pretty miniscule.

While gazing at the fairy, David disturbs some of the wreckage around him, and one of the amusement park rides collapses, trapping him and his cruiser. David gazes lovingly at the fairy until his batteries run down, years later. This would have been a great ending for the film, ambiguous and poetic and totally in the spirit of 2001. In fact, when the scene faded to black, my first thought was “Wow, neat ending.” But it’s not the end.

Act IV

Two thousand years later, Manhattan is encased in ice. Super-intelligent robots are excavating the site and come upon David. They are thrilled to realize he is an original robot that actually knew human beings (a vital clue that these are robots and not visiting aliens). They reactivate him. 

David tells them the one thing he wants more than anything else is to spend a day with his mother. The robots explain that they can reactivate dead humans, complete with memories, from their remains but the reanimated humans only live 24 hours, and this can only be done once. David insists. He still has a lock of his mother’s hair, which the robots use. The robots recreate David’s home, and he and his mother spend an idyllic day before darkness falls and the film ends.

Still, the sun will rise, David will still be there, and his mother will be irretrievably gone. Then what?

There are a number of obvious homages to 2001 in this film: the black title screens with the same lettering style, some musical themes. The whole theme of robots achieving humanity is an elaboration of the issues raised by HAL in 2001, as is the fact that the robots are more human than the humans around them. The ending of the film in a simulated environment is clearly patterned on 2001. There are lots of vivid, memorable images. But I still think dropping the whole of Act IV would have been better.

Minority Report

The year is 2054. Washington DC has enjoyed six years without a murder, thanks to an experimental precognition program. As the film opens, we see detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise) sifting frantically through a melange of images broadcast by three precognitive sensors, hoping to avert a murder due to happen in less than an hour. The precognitives, who owe their talents to prenatal drug abuse, are kept semi-conscious in a bath, wired to sensors that pick up their thoughts. They can sense the names of the victim and the murderer, and the time, but curiously enough, not the place. The names come out engraved on wooden balls that make an amusing display but whose purpose isn't otherwise convincing. Supposedly the natural grain of the wood can't be counterfeited, although it's not clear why that's any more effective than any of a hundred other security devices. After all, I can buy wooden balls at any craft shop. 

Old-fashioned but high-tech detective work has to determine the location of the crime. The police get to the murder scene in the nick of time as a betrayed businessman is about to do in his adulterous wife and her lover. The businessman is arrested for "future murder." This is, understandably, a hotly controversial civil liberties issue, although why it's necessary is also not clear. They caught the businessman just as he was attacking his wife. They have a clear case for attempted murder. On the other hand, sensors that can pick up thoughts, like those wired to the precognitives, would be the perfect interrogation tool. That would be a civil liberties problem. 

The precognitive program is about to go national, and on the scene is a smarmy Justice Department agent, looking to federalize the program. No effort is spared to make this guy irritating, right down to a scruffy 1930's style villain mustache. Soon another pre-murder comes in, and Anderton realizes that he's the perpetrator, predicted to kill someone he never heard of in four days. He flees just in time to avoid being pre-arrested himself, but now he has a problem. In 2054, the world is full of sensors that automatically recognize everyone by their retinal patterns. Every shopping mall has billboards that greet each customer by name and remind them of possible purchases they'd like to make. Just picture a crowded mall at Christmas and ask yourself how annoying that could be. Or maybe "Hi John Smith, don't forget to pick up more Depends." Or picture being with your significant other and hearing "Hello, will you be coming by the sex shop again soon?" 

To hide, Anderton needs a new pair of eyes. Fortunately, by 2054 they've licked the twin problems of tissue rejection and nerve splicing. He goes to a seedy underground doctor who fixes him up. But he can't remove the bandages for 12 hours or he will go blind. Meanwhile the cops have tracked him to that particular building, and they unleash a swarm of mechanical spiders to prowl the hallways and identify all the occupants. The spiders finally corner him, peep into one of his new eyes, misidentify him, and go on their way. Now the smart thing to do would be to hole up until after the predicted murder, then use his detective skills to figure out what went on. But no. Anderton sneaks back into police headquarters using one of his old eyes for identification. As many reviewers have pointed out, why didn't they lock him out of the system or better yet, trigger an alarm? 

He kidnaps the most powerful precognitive and spirits her away to have her hidden thoughts scanned. Seems that occasionally the precognitives don't always agree, or sometimes they see the same murder differently, and those records are deleted from the computer. But not from the precognitives. With the cops hot on their tail, he runs off to get to the scene of the pre-crime. The precognitive does a neat job of giving him apparently pointless clues, like "grab an umbrella" that allow him to evade capture in a mall full of cops. 

Six years earlier, Anderton's son was kidnapped in broad daylight and never seen again. The clues lead him to an apartment where there are photos suggesting that the occupant kidnapped Anderton's son. Anderton comes very close to killing him but relents at the last second. But it's all a setup. The "kidnapper" laments that if Anderton doesn't kill him, his family won't get the money he was promised. Finally he grabs the gun and fires it, dying just as the visions had predicted. So if it's not a murder, but a suicide, why did the precognitives see it as a murder? And if the "kidnapper" killed himself, even by making Anderton pull the trigger, why did the precognitives give Anderton as the perpetrator? 

Anderton and the precognitive flee again just before the police arrive. The smarmy Fed had worked homicide before going Federal and realizes that the evidence is just too neatly laid out. He's obnoxious, but smart. So the Fed goes to see Anderton's boss (Max von Sydow). He shows him the precognitives' slightly different views of an old murder and notes that there were actually two different events. There was an attempted murder, where the perpetrator was caught in the nick of time, followed immediately by a real murder staged to look like the same event. 

Now wait a minute. The cops arrested one murderer just as he was about to kill the victim. When the victim later turned up dead for real, didn't anybody bother to note that the victim was still alive when the first "murderer" was arrested? Guess not. Seems the victim was the precognitive's mother, a drug addict. But later on she got clean and wanted her daughter back. Since her daughter was the key to the whole pre-crime program, the mother had to go. So Max von Sydow set it up. He notes that the precognitives can't see the future any more without their key member, and shoots the Fed. On the right side. This would make for a nasty sucking chest wound and a collapsed lung, but not immediately fatal. Nevertheless, the Fed slumps to the floor with a huge growing blood stain. If there was ever a moment where it was revealed that the Fed was one of those rare anomalies who have their heart on the right (it does happen) I missed it. Anyhow, Max deals with this plot hole by making another hole in the Fed, just to make sure. 

Anderton is tracked to his ex-wife's place, arrested, and put into suspended animation like all the other pre-murderers. Why? He's not a pre-murderer. He really was involved in a killing. Why didn't they just lock him up like any other criminal? Max offers his condolences to Anderton's ex, and inadvertently reveals he was involved in setting Anderton up. Anderton's ex springs her hubby, Max's involvement is broadcast for the world to see, and Max kills himself. The film ends on an upbeat note (like almost every Spielberg film). Anderton and his wife are reconciled, the suspended prisoners are freed, and the precognitives are settled in a cabin on a remote island on the coast of Maine, where they presumably will not be plagued by visions of upcoming murders. 

Part detective story, part sci-fi, and despite a few holes, great fun. The visions of future technology are well thought out and executed. The interface where precognitive visions are sorted out looks really doable and Cruise works it like he's intimately familiar with the technology. The high-tech spiders are both whimsical and menacing.

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Created 11 March, 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010  

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