Review of Minority Report, the movie (2002)
I remember how much I loved the combo of Tom Cruise action, futuristic computers, and dystopian plot when I saw the Minority Report movie for the first time. It's still a great movie. But it has a very different story arc, plot twist, and ending than Philip K. Dick's short story.
This hacker review covers Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie Minority Report. Screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, directed by Steven Spielberg, and loosely based on Philip K. Dick's original 1956 short story which I reviewed in my last blog post.
Spoiler Alert: Yup, lots of 'em below.
Hacker Realism: ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacker Importance for the Plot: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacks: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Precrime and Precogs
It's 2054 and law enforcement in Washington DC is able to predict and prevent murders. The system is called Precrime. Would-be felons are arrested and sentenced before their criminal act. They spend the rest of their lives haloed (pacified) and contained (stored in individual, life-sustaining tubes).
Three so called precogs, or mutant precogs, are kept in a pool of liquid nutrition and drugs to keep them healthy and focused on the task of predicting the future. Their brain signals are read and result in fragmented moving imagery and wooden balls engraved with the names of victims and perpetrators.
This means we see murders that eventually never happen.
Precrime officers mention that the grains of the wood make each ball unique which functions as a defense against duplication or tampering. I expect that in 2054, when the movie takes place, we will be able to fabricate wood with any grain pattern we want. There are already companies 3D printing "structured meat" with fabricated muscle fibers.
John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the commanding officer of Precrime. Personnel on the force are called precops. Precrime is directed by the aging Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow).
US Department of Justice agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is auditing Precrime in preparation for a vote on having the system go national. He asks Anderton and his staff all kinds of hard questions.
–You ever get any false positives? Someone intends to kill his boss or wife, but they never go through with it. How do the precogs tell the difference?
–Precogs don't see what you intend to do, only what you will do.
–Then why can't they see rapes or assaults or suicides?
–Because of the nature of murder. There's nothing more destructive to the metaphysical fabric that binds us than the untimely murder of one human being by another.
Witwer demands access to the precogs as part of his audit. Anderton protests and explains that even he isn't allowed into "the temple," i.e. down to the pool.
We keep strict separation so that no one can be accused of tampering.
Witwer insists, pulls rank, and is taken to the pool by Anderton. Down there Witwer explains that he is looking for a human flaw, not a flaw in the system.
Anderton lingers by the pool and suddenly the precog Agatha (Samantha Morton) jumps up and grabs him. She visualizes something. Anderton looks at the clips from her visions and sees a woman being murdered in a lake.
The strict separation makes me think of an information security access control model called the Chinese wall model, or formally the Brewer and Nash model. It was designed to provide controls which mitigate conflict of interest.
Interestingly, the model got popular in consulting and accounting when a firm serves clients who are in competition with each other. A consultant who has served client X, may never serve any of client X's competitors. This separation grows dynamically as the number of cases and clients grows.
In computer systems, the Brewer and Nash model ensures that users' data access can never never create an information flow that crosses boundaries in a way that can cause a conflict of interest. If you open Document A about company X, you lose access to Document B about X's competitor Y, and vice versa. Information flow is a very complex area of research due to implicit information flows, or side channels, such as timing attacks or analysis of power use.
The separation Anderton talks about is instead a one-way information flow. Previsions can flow from precogs to precops but precops can never influence the precogs.
Department of Containment
Anderton goes to the Department of Containment to get the original prevision for the lake murder Agatha showed him. The victim was named Anne Lively (Jessica Harper) and the perpetrator who's "contained" was never identified.
The previsions that Precrime acts on are composites of what all three precogs see. Anderton wants to see only Agatha's prevision. But that data file is missing which is very uncommon.
The victim Anne Lively was a neuroin addict who had cleaned up. Anderton asks where he can find her now (remember, Precrime saved her) but that data is missing too. He takes a copy of the previsions that are available and takes them to his boss Burgess. During their conversation, he says he found several more cases with missing previsions.
Missing data as indication of malfeasance happens a lot in fiction. A missing file in a cabinet, erased evidence, or someone cleaning up their tracks. Undetected data removal seems improbable for a system like this which is used to sentence people to lifetime in containment. But it is a case of what's called "silent failure."
Silent failures are among the worst in computer systems – everything keeps working and no alarm is raised to say that data has gone bad or missing. Only later when you need the data do you discover the problem.
If you are writing hacker fiction and you want important data to be missing, I encourage you to show how the attacker circumvented data integrity checks and avoided the audit log.
The Framing of Anderton
Witwer goes to Anderton's studio and finds neuroin. Anderton is an addict himself, mourning over his long lost son Sean, and the marriage that he lost in the aftermath.
The precogs produce a wooden ball with the victim name Leo Crow on it. When Anderton looks through the previsions to start the process of preventing the crime, he sees himself shoot the victim. Anderton's name naturally appears on the second ball. He's confused but realizes that he's being framed.
Witwer joins Anderton in the elevator down, not knowing Anderton is fleeing. When he says Anderton is in a lot of trouble, Anderton pulls a gun. Witwer is confident he won't be shot since there's no Precrime murder alarm.
Anderton leaves in a car and calls Burgess. He's convinced it's Witwer who's set him up. Burgess can't see how.
– Who's the victim?
– Somebody. Leo Crow.
– Who is he?
– I have no idea! I've never heard of him. But I'm supposed to kill him in less than 36 hours.
– But how could Witwer have access to case files?
– Can you fake a cerebral output?
– But why would anyone want to? I doubt it very much.
– Would Hineman know?
– Listen. Come in.
– I'll keep you safe until we get to the bottom of this.
– No, no, Lamar, listen to me. Talk to Wally. See if Witwer's gone inside the temple again. Then ask Jad for any off-hour eye-dents into the analytical room.
"Can you fake a cerebral output?" is an interesting question, not in the least on a higher level where you consider mimicking natural signals. To go from the physical world to the digital world where computers operate, you use an analog-to-digital converter. This goes for sound, images (moving and still), and brain output. If you're going to hack such a system, it's probably much easier to fake the digital data directly than fake the analog signal to produce the desired digital data. That's what Anderton speculates about in the novella The Minority Report. He assumes that the person framing him has inserted a rigged punch card in the stream of digitized output from the precogs.
Note the stray reference to a Hineman. That person will show up later.
You might ask what eye-dents are. That's next.
The car Anderton is fleeing in gets an override signal and automatically starts to go back to the police station. Anderton exits the car in motion and daringly continues on foot. Inside a mall, his eyes are constantly scanned and personalized video ads are played on the walls as he dashes past.
He gets on the subway and an eye scanner identifies all passengers as they board. Anderton's coworkers at the police station follow him as he gets "eye-dented" along the way. Eye-identified.
A passenger on the subway reads the newspaper which updates automatically with huge headlines "Precrime Hunts its Own."
Eye or retina scanning is Hollywood's favorite futuristic identification system. Yet, we see very little of it in real life. Instead we see fingerprint scans and facial recognition.
Facial recognition in stores, airports, and other public spaces is what has become the surveillance nightmare the movie alludes to. See for instance the report on the drugstore chain Rite Aid's deployment of facial recognition in their stores. One reason why it's become so popular is the availability of training data. There are tons of portraits online to train machine learning models on. Meanwhile there are no piles of retina scans available. It is also much harder to scan eyes at a distance whereas the look and shape of peoples' faces are relatively easy to pick up.
Anderton barely escapes first the Precrime squad and then Witwer and his men. He drives into the countryside to see an elderly woman he calls Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith). She treats him as a trespasser at first but then reveals that she knows him.
Anderton asks for her help since she invented Precrime. She says it's a stretch to say she invented it since it was the result of unintended consequences of "science gone haywire."
Hineman explains how the three precogs are merely the ones who survived, not a deliberate output of some process. She was treating kids of neuroin addicts, kids with severe brain damage. The few kids who survived got the "gift" of dreaming of murders whenever they slept. Soon it was discovered that the murders actually happened shortly after the nightmares. This eventually led to the Precrime system.
Anderton says he's not a murderer. Hineman says he will be because the precogs are never wrong. "Well, occasionally they do disagree," she adds. Anderton is intrigued, and desperate.
She introduces him to the concept of minority reports – a single disagreeing prevision which is discarded immediately to not suggest fallibility of Precrime. "After all, who wants a justice system that instills doubt?" she asks rhetorically.
Anderton realizes he has probably sentenced innocent people to containment. He's furious. Hineman says that those people may indeed have had an alternate future. She says that Burgess has known about the minority reports all along.
Hineman is not fond of Precrime and urges Anderton to not trust anyone, and find the minority report for his own case, if there is one. The record of it is destroyed so as to not reveal the disagreement, but she secretly designed the system so that each of the precogs keeps a copy of all reports they've produced. Anderton needs to get direct access to the most gifted precog – Agatha – since she is the one who sometimes disagrees with the others.
The way Hineman describes it makes me think there are implants in the precogs, perhaps doing the analog-to-digital conversion. That would allow her to store all reports locally.
With Agatha jumping up to grab Anderton at the pool and showing him her vision on Anne Lively, it seems like Agatha is aware of her prevision getting discarded for that case. We don't yet know what Agatha is trying to tell Anderton about Anne Lively. He is after a potential minority report to clear his own name.
Anderton goes to a seedy place in the Sprawl where Dr. Solomon P. Eddie (Peter Stormare) will replace his eyes. That way he'll be able to pass all the scanners without being identified.
Solomon is seen sitting by a laptop with lit up, rigid connectors from the fingers of his left hand to the computer. On the screen we see a model of one of Anderton's eyes.
Changing your eyes to change your identity is way over the top. But it points to something profound – biometric signals such as fingerprints and face shapes are more or less impossible to change. This means that if governments base centralized identity systems on them, people who need protection will not be able to change their ID. Think about ones who've witnessed against organized crime, undercover agents, or victims of domestic abuse. It is super important to be able to change your ID. My novel Identified goes into this problem.
Dr. Kia Washington at University of Colorado has been working since 2016 on making full eye transplants a reality. They had not started human trials yet as of June 2021. Here's a 3-minute high level intro to Dr. Washington's research. She explains that the three major challenges in making such a transplant are:
- Restoring blood flow to the new eye.
- Ensuring that the body will not reject the new eye.
- Making sure that the optic nerve regenerates.
I think this is one of the stronger scenes in the movie. Not only does it envision a future where eye transplants are possible, but takes it one step further with back-alley transplants. Also very cyberpunk, which I love.
Subtitles for Solomon and his assistant say they speak Russian to each other but they are in fact speaking Swedish. :)
Precrime is doing a full search of the Sprawl in search of Anderton. They figure he's gone there because of the lack of eye scanning surveillance. "Fever consumers" is the reason why people aren't tracked in the Sprawl.
The Precrime officers are able to know from the outside that there are 27 warm bodies in a multi story building. Small disc-shaped robots on thin, flexible legs are released to find and eye-dent all 27.
Officer Fletcher (Neal McDonough) delivers a vocal message to all residents as the search begins:
– Residents of 931 Powell. This is Officer Fletcher of D.C. Precrime. Under authority of P.C. section 6409 we are deploying spyders into your complex.
We see the spyders spread, enter apartments, climb onto people's faces, and scan their eyes.
Anderton is in this building, 931 Powell, healing from his eye transplant. When he hears the search announcement, he fills the bathtub with cold water and ice cubes. And when the sound of spyders are outside his door, he submerges himself. He has six more hours to go before he can lift his bandages without risk of going blind.
As Anderton goes underwater, the warm body scan immediately drops from 27 to 26. Fletcher and his fellow officer go in to check where that last person went. Anderton can't hold his breath any longer and is quickly surrounded by spyders. Just as the Precrime officers are about to enter, he lifts the bandage over his new eyes and lets a spyder scan him. He's clear.
Had not the officers been required to announce the search, Anderton would have been found. Convenient for the film makers. But I'm willing to believe that they have to let civilians know before using spyders.
I don't think we're that far off from drones or robots patrolling areas in an overt way. They are already used to enter places that are dangerous in other ways, such as radiation. And there's a lot of covert aerial surveillance going on. The question will be if robots get the right to ID people dragnet-style.
Hiding your body heat to fool sensors is a classic. Future robots will likely use an array of sensors to find humans. I envision technology mimicking mosquitoes who detect humans through carbon dioxide and skin odor. In the future, hacking your way to not be detected will be a lot harder than hiding in a bathtub full of cold water.
Anderton manages to get to the Precrime building and uses his old eyes in a ziplock bag to enter. He's there to get Agatha's minority report. Meanwhile, Witwer is analyzing the prevision of Anderton killing Leo Crow and finds that Agatha herself can been seen in the background of the scene. He realizes that Anderton will be getting her.
Anderton enters the the precog pool area and convinces an old coworker to help him rewind Agatha's previsions. He wants the Leo Crow murder one. Agatha wakes up and again replays her prevision of the Anne Lively murder.
Witwer discovers the intrusion and Anderton pulls the emergency flush of the pool to escape with Agatha down the drain.
As the Precrime officers start issuing commands, Witwer says it's useless. The prevision already tells them Anderton will be able to bring Agatha to the scene. It's all about finding the room and stopping the murder.
Being able to get all the way to the precogs through a back door and an eye scan is not believable to me. The short story instead has Anderton get help from the inside.
From a hacker perspective, going in virtually would be much less risky. Anderton doesn't have the skills for that but if he can get an eye transplant he should be able to get hacker help.
The pool scene with the flush is powerful and works well on screen. It's a nice case of putting the protagonist in a tough spot and figuring out a novel way to get them out. But a remotely triggered flush to get Agatha out hacker-style would have been great!
Rufus T. Riley
Witwer discovers that someone named Rufus T. Riley helped Anderton build the original Precrime computer system. Rufus is a "dreamweaver," and Rufus is exactly where Anderton takes Agatha to access her minority reports.
– She's got information inside her. I need you to get it out. (…) You've been busted twice for felony hacking.
– So I need you to hack into her.
– I tell you what. I do this, I get to keep whatever images I get from her head.
– They don't belong to anybody.
– Take her to RadioShack.
[Anderton slams Rufus to the floor.]
– Rufus, you gotta help me.
Rufus reluctantly agrees and connects a set of lit-up wires to Agatha's head. Anderton whispers to her as they get started.
– Agatha, I need to see. I need to see what's going to happen to me.
She smiles back and is able to replay her prevision of the murder of Leo Crow. It looks exactly like the one he saw at Precrime. Anderton gets desperate and grabs Agatha by the shoulders.
–Where's my minority report? Do I even have one?
– Do I have one?
Agatha proceeds to show Anderton her prevision of the murder of Anne Lively. Just as she's about to reveal the murder of that case, she instead see's that Witwer and the Precrime unit is in the building.
While any details on the hacking are lacking, there's a plot point here that's interesting. Going back to the original designer of a system and convincing them to help you hack it. The implication is that people who know the inside also know how to break it. This is what happens in for instance WarGames (see my review).
Real security, as in for instance cryptography, should stand up against knowledge of its inner workings. But in practice it's a huge advantage to have a hacker with inside knowledge. They'll know what shortcuts they took, what design choices they made, what they'd make differently today, and any back doors they've put in place.
In this specific case, it's not clear that there's any special security at all. For all we know, physical access to a precog and knowledge of how to connect to their brains may be enough. The one thing that may require real hacking is if Dr. Hineman has protected the previsions stored in the precogs.
(The reference to RadioShack is quite stale already, but the brand still exists.)
The Crime Scene
Anderton flees with Agatha. She helps him by foretelling the near future such making sure they stand in an exact spot where a cluster of helium balloons will cover them when the Precrime unit looks their way. Or stealing an umbrella because once they get out it'll rain and they can hide under it.
Anderton finds the right building and threatens the concierge to let him check the register. He finds an L. F. Crow in room 1006.
In the room he finds tons of photos of his lost son, indicating that Crow was the one who stole his child all those years ago.
Crow shows up and Anderton goes ballistic, throwing Crow around, screaming about his son.
– Do you know who I am?
– You're somebody's father.
– His name is Sean! Sean!
– I told him I was a policeman. I told him I needed his help. It wasn't so bad. I sang him a song. I bought him a pretzel. I bought him a pretzel! He was happy. He was happy.
– Is he alive? He's alive! Where have you got him? Is he alright? Tell me, you fuck! Where is he?
– I put him in a barrel. I sunk him in the bay.
Anderton pulls his gun on Crow, just like in the prevision. Agatha goes frantic, trying to tell him he can still choose. The seconds until when the murder is to take place tick down.
Anderton backs off, shaking. He reads Crow his rights. Crow reacts with desperation, saying his family will get nothing unless he is killed. He pulls Anderton's gun into his own body and pulls the trigger.
I like Agatha's in-the-moment foretelling of the future which helps Anderton flee. But it doesn't line up with the previous explanation that precogs only foresee murders. Maybe it's Agatha's superior talent that shines through?
The people who are setting Anderton up are betting hard on him shooting crow. That seems like a very risky bet. But here's the thing – they may have hatched several plans to frame Anderton and used the lack of precog report as evidence that those plans weren't good enough. They just had to keep coming up with new plans until the precogs told them they had hit jackpot.
Such a search for a working plan is an interesting example of finding a path by looking at the output. Hackers do this far more randomly in what's called fuzzing. They randomize input to a piece of software and sees how it reacts. If the software crashes or hangs, they've found a bug, and that bug may be exploitable.
The scene with Crow is obviously very tense and emotional. Some great acting there by Cruise and Morton. The camera angles are great too.
Hacking of Precrime
Anderton and Agatha go on the run again. Witwer and Precrime show up and Witwer calls the photos an "orgy of evidence." He doesn't buy it and calls Burgess to discuss.
In his investigation, Witwer has come across both the original precog report on Anne Lively's murder and the minority report Rufus Riley helped Anderton download from Agatha. He shows them to Burgess who says it's the same prevision.
– Not quite. Look at the surface wind across the water. Watch the ripples moving away from shore. Now the second image. (…) Watch the water. The wind has changed. The ripples are moving the other way. This murder is taking place at two different times.
– Danny, listen, tell me what you're thinking.
– I'm thinking someone got away with murder.
– But how?
– Well, Jad told me that sometimes the precogs see the same murder more than once.
– It's called an echo. (…) We teach the techs to identify them and disregard.
– Yeah, but what if a technician only thought he was looking at an echo? What if what he was looking at was a completely different murder altogether?
– I don't understand.
– All you'd have to do is hire someone to kill Anne Lively. Someone like a drifter, a neuroin addict, someone with nothing to lose. Precrime stops the murder from taking place, haloes the killer, takes him away. But then, right then, someone else, having reviewed the prevision and dressed in the same clothes, commits the murder in exactly the same way. Technician takes a look, thinks he's looking at an echo. Erases it. Of course, it would have to be someone with access to the previsions in the first place.
The look on Burgess's face changes. He tells Witwer that he doesn't hear a Precrime unit closing in because Precrime is currently not working. A shot is heard. Burgess has killed Witwer.
This is the main hack and main plot point of the movie. There was no minority report for Anne Lively, at least not in its original sense. Instead there were two premeditated murders of her, one foiled by Precrime, the other performed to look like an echo of the first.
The bug was to disregard echoes and the exploit was to make something look like an echo. Recall how the bug in the short story was that the first and third precog reports were assumed to reflect the same future, thus creating a majority report, but in reality, all three precogs predicted different futures in sequence.
This plot point in the movie is quite masterful in that there's been so much foreshadowing of Anne Lively and Agatha's report on Lively's murder, but we still didn't see where it was going. And there's one twist left regarding Anne Lively …
Anne Lively and Precrime
Anderton and Agatha drive to the countryside, to Anderton's estranged wife Lara Anderton (Kathryn Morris). As soon as Lara hears they're coming, she calls Burgess to get his help.
Anderton explains to Lara how he was set up. She asks why anyone would do that and he realizes the connection to Anne Lively – him finding that stuff out made someone want him put away.
Agatha talks about how Anne Lively just wanted her little girl back. Anderton realizes that Anne Lively was Agatha's mother.
Precrime arrives at Lara's house. This time they don't fail. They "halo" Anderton and take him to Containment. Agatha is returned to the pool and the precogs are once again working for Precrime.
Lara talks to Burgess right before he's about attend a press conference on the national rollout of Precrime. She brings up Anne Lively. Burgess says he doesn't know who that is. Lara explains and Burgess offers to look into it.
– I'll have Gideon run the Containment files. See if anyone drowned a woman by the name of … what did you say her name was?
– Anne Lively. But I never said she drowned.
Burgess becomes threatening but has to leave for the press conference. Lara manages to free her husband using one of his previous eyes to get access and a gun to threaten the containment guard.
Anderton calls Burgess at the evening party where they celebrate national Precrime.
–Hello, Lamar. I just wanted to congratulate you. You did it. You created a world without murder. And all you had to do was kill someone to do it.
– I don't know what you're talking about.
– I'm talking about Agatha's mother, Anne Lively. Just a junkie who had a kid once and had to give her up. But surprise, she cleaned herself up. She wanted her daughter back. She wanted Agatha. And the problem was that without Agatha, there was no Precrime.
Lamar leaves the celebration. The precogs deliver a ball with John Anderton as victim. Then another ball with Lamar Burgess as perpetrator.
The two end up on a balcony overseeing central Washington DC. Anderton explains the dilemma. Either Burgess kills him and is put away, or he doesn't which proves the fallibility of Precrime.
Faced with this, and the reveal of the murder of Anne Lively, Burgess takes his own life.
Anderton's name is cleared and Precrime is abandoned.
The ending dilemma is similar to the one in the short story but the choices made are in stark contrast. The short story has Anderton face the dilemma and it ends with him going through with murder to make sure Precrime survives. The movie has Precrime's flaws exposed, the program abolished, and Burgess not willing to live with what he has done and created.
I wonder if these two endings reflect a change in our views of morals, society, and law enforcement? Or if it's more of what was expected of fiction in the 1950s versus now.
(The fact that Lara is able to free a convicted would-be murderer with a gun and an eye ball is ridiculous. I try not to think too much about that.)
I think this movie does a wonderful job of modernizing and expanding Philip K. Dick's short story into a two-hour movie. Rufus Riley is the only "traditional" hacker in there but the plot has several hacks in it.
The movie features futuristic user interfaces and dystopian surveillance through computerized systems. But none of it feels very far out today, rather plausible. Part of it has already come true twenty years later even though the movie depicts year 2054. There's a whole Wikipedia article on the technologies in Spielberg's movie. The coolest part is that he ran a three-day workshop to properly envision the future together with architects, computer scientists, a biomedical researcher, and a journalist.
The ultimate questions both Dick and Spielberg ask are 1) should we be free until proven guilty?, and 2) do we have a choice as in free will? The movie does a better job of giving an answer to those but I don't blame Dick for not fitting all of that into his few pages.
Minority Report is a modern classic.
This text was originally published in the May 2022 issue of the Hacker Chronicles newsletter. Subscribe below!
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