Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Minority Report: Plot Flaw

UPDATE:  My argument below was picked up by Jason Kottke and his readership.


Like many others, I enjoyed Minority Report, but hated the spoon-fed ending.

But the film did make me think, and I'm always happy to see a movie that makes me think. Not quite "Memento-league" thought required, but I'll take what I can get. Unfortunately, after about an hour of ruminating on this one, beyond the few "expected" plot flaws, a major flaw turned up that actually guts the entire structure of the plot. The flaw is so subtle that they either completely missed it in production, or were counting on the audience to miss it. And yet it destroys the logic of the story.

NOTE: If you haven't seen the film, and don't want the plot spoiled for you, please read no further.

If you are reading further, be aware that you may have to turn this mindbender over in your head for a few minutes before you see precisely what I'm driving at, but once you see it, it "clicks," and there's no turning back. I've already bounced it off a few respected minds, who were forced to conclude as I did—but I fear it will be more difficult to explain in print than by talking face to face.

The problem, stated as succinctly as possible, is this:

1. Sydow's character sets up the "fake" child molester/killer in the hotel room with the fake photographs, for Cruise to find.

2. BUT, the ONLY thing that triggers Cruise to go and find the fake killer is the fact that he (Cruise) sees himself on his monitors killing the killer—based on the Precogs' images.

3. In other words, Sydow did absolutely nothing in the story to encourage Cruise to discover, or even cross paths with, that fake killer. Cruise's ONLY link to the fake killer is the Precog images of him killing the fake killer.

4. So here's the real heart of the flaw: From Sydow's character's point of view, upon establishing the fake killer, there was no way whatsoever to know that Cruise would actually ever stumble across that fake killer. Or if so, when? (Ten years hence? Twenty?)

5. And yet, for the plot to work, we must believe that Sydow established the fake killer in order to get Cruise out of the way in time for Precrime to go nationwide (because Cruise had stumbled across the Ann Lively secret).

6. So, to restate, the entire major storyline of the film, whereby Cruise is set up to kill, and therefore take a fall, depends on Sydow getting Cruise to find the fake killer. But Cruise only finds the fake killer based on the Precogs' subsequent images of Cruise killing that fake killer, WHICH SYDOW COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE KNOWN FOR SURE WOULD BE SHOWN TO CRUISE, EVER. AND EVEN IF SYDOW COULD SOMEHOW HAVE BEEN SURE THOSE PRECOG IMAGES WOULD ARISE (WHICH HE COULD NOT HAVE), HE COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE KNOWN WHEN THOSE PRECOG IMAGES WOULD ARISE.

7. The only way for the plot line to work, as written, is to assume that Sydow was intending to send Cruise a postcard saying "you'll find your son's killer at . . . ," or by some other device alert Cruise to where the fake killer could be found. But for that "postcard scenario" to have set in motion the Precogs' visions, IT WOULD NOT ONLY HAVE HAD TO HAVE BEEN INTENDED BY SYDOW, IT WOULD HAVE ACTUALLY HAD TO HAVE BEEN UNDERTAKEN. The "planned postcard" (or whatever) necessarily would have had to have been sent, and received, because its delivery and receipt necessarily would have had to have been part of the foretold future that was unfolding. And yet, repeatedly, up to the encounter, Cruise lets the audience know that he has no idea who the man in the hotel room is supposed to be, or what connection he might have to him. (Indeed, if he did know why he was heading to the hotel room, it would likewise ruin the plot.) Therefore, logic dictates that Sydow did not alert Cruise, and did not intend to alert him.

8. Which leaves us with what actually occurs in the movie: namely, that Sydow very clearly intends the Precog system alone to do the alerting for him. After all, he knows Cruise will see his own future felony—and he's counting on it. But, as demonstrated above, there's no logical way for Sydow to know if or when this plan will ever work.

To illustrate the problem from another angle: The way the movie is written, Sydow could just as easily have left 20 stooges waiting with fake photos in 20 different hotel rooms. There is nothing in the movie to preclude this. Accepting this as a premise, in the movie, Cruise finds one of the fake killers, but never finds the other 19. Easy to understand, because there was nothing from Sydow to lead him to the other 19. Problem is, there was also nothing from Sydow (and indeed nothing, outside Cruise's own Precog loop) to lead him to the one.

Bottom Line: Sydow simply can't depend on Cruise's own time loop to do the alerting. It makes no sense. And even if Sydow crosses his fingers and "hopes" a loop will arise, and his wish miraculously comes true, there's no way for Sydow to make sure the loop arises in the nick of time to save Precrime from political demise. That would require two miracles.

I find it hard to believe a movie in which so much was obviously invested, in terms of story, research, realism, and effects, could overlook such a fundamental logical error. It's my understanding that a think tank of scientists and futurists worked on developing this film for at least a couple of years (not to mention the screenwriters). And yet, the film goes by so quickly, with such twists and turns, it is an admittedly difficult error to notice.

If you don't yet follow or believe my interpretation, I guarantee it will hit you in a day or so. It's an extremely subtle problem, but it will "click" for you.