The month is drawing to a close, and that means several films are leaving Netflix as the streaming service rotates its selection. Ahead of the changing lineup, science fiction fans will have until June 30 to experience one of the most prescient science fiction movies in modern times: the 2002 Steve Spielberg and Tom Cruise thriller Minority Report.
Without giving too much away, the movie is a whirlwind tour de force through questions of fate, the future, law enforcement, and emerging technologies. Cruise stars as John Anderton, a cop who works with Washington, D.C.'s PreCrime division. Aided by three submerged and spooky fortune-tellers known as "pre-cogs," Cruise is tasked with arresting people for murder before they've committed them.
The imaginative premise is based around a short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, also known for classics like The Man In the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but Spielberg's film is not just a rehash of a classic. Most of the film doesn't appear in Dick's original for starters, acting more as a jumping-off point to tell an original story.
Minority Report's most prescient moments, in fact, show up in the otherwise-overlooked background technology. Cruise is seen wearing gloves to manipulate a giant touchscreen, whizzing through the "pre-cogs"' visions to try and piece together the crime. It's a race against time to find out whodunnit – or, perhaps more accurately, who will do it – and where. Cruise effortlessly slides through a video timeline to find clues and spot the suspect, a bit like he's using Final Cut Pro to solve murders.
The interface may induce some yawns today, 10 years after the iPad brought touch-based video-whizzing to the masses, but it's important to remember that back in 2002 this sort of stuff seemed incredibly futuristic. It's no coincidence that Cruise's cool computer came to life: Spielberg brought on John Underkoffler, from the MIT Media Lab, to develop a user interface that was futuristic yet grounded in reality.
"They felt they wanted to get the direction for how computers might be operated in 50 years’ time," Underkoffler told The Guardian in 2015. "I was responsible for making sure all the technology in the film was coherent. It was a simplification of the MIT work."
At a time when Windows XP was bringing computing to the masses and the iMac G4 was making Apple cool again, Underkoffler's work was focused on shaking up user interfaces that he saw as decidedly stale. While personal computers were still new to many at the dawn of the millennium, Underkoffler saw interfaces that he felt hadn't really changed since the original Mac in 1984.
In tech circles, the movie became something of a byword for "cool new user interface." Jeff Han's 2006 demo of a multi-touch interface, one of the most groundbreaking TED talks of all time, was frequently compared to Minority Report. The original iPhone that debuted the following year was recognized for using similar pinch-to-zoom gestures and a swipeable interface. It's hard to imagine now, but that was science fiction at one stage.
Some of the interface elements didn't quite make the cut in reality. The Microsoft Kinect, which promised hands-off gestures with a 3D camera, was ultimately unbundled from the Xbox One video game console after its shaky launch in 2013. While augmented reality headsets could revive these gestures for the general public at a later date, they remain firmly in the "emerging technology" category.
But even beyond the user interfaces, Minority Report is notable for its wealth of ideas that are starting to show shoots of life in the world. As The Guardian noted in 2010, self-driving cars and personalized ads – complete with creepy references to shopping habits – no longer seem so unbelievable.
Rather than demonstrating an unrealistic fantasy, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Minority Report is how so many ideas resemble present-day life. But in the case of some concepts, like ultra-targeted ads, it would've been perhaps better left in the realms of Spielberg's imagination.