Pre-crime and Policing in ‘Minority Report’


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

The 1950s produced many dystopias in which human behavior is oriented towards conformity rather than creativity. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, too, explores the possibility of social forces overpowering individual free will. It puts forth questions of policing a state without overreaching and asks what the right balance is between freedom and security.

A Robotic futuristic policeman holding a weapon.
The protagonist, John Anderton, heads the Precrime Unit and is a true believer of the use of precogs in policing. (Image: Janthiwa Sutthiboriban/Shutterstock)

The Precogs

Minority Report, written in 1956, provides an elegant thought experiment for considering how we define crime and, especially, criminals. Central to the plot are three humans—called precog mutants. They have this unique ability (a curse to them but an apparent blessing to their society) to see crimes before they happen. The Precrime Unit, a special division developed around these precogs, arrests people even before they commit their crimes. Dick’s short story was made into a blockbuster film of the same name almost 50 years later, in 2002 by Steven Spielberg.

John Anderton, the Protagonist

A crime-free society sounds perfect, but only in an ironic, utopian way, where an inexperienced reader or viewer might briefly think that we’re seeing a better world, but the more jaded among us immediately recognize that what we’re really seeing is a dystopia dressed up to look like a utopia.

Our point-of-view character in Minority Report is John Anderton, the police officer who heads up the Precrime Unit. Anderton is a true believer in the use of precogs in policing. He gets a visit from a federal agency, since there’s consideration of using precrime for policing nationwide. He is also the man with the power of surveillance and has access to the precogs, a view into the future. He is put under the microscope himself, showing his operation to a critical outsider. It provides a lot of tension as well as a logical reason to show the reader how the system actually works.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Red Ball

In Dick’s Minority Report, the precogs reveal the name of future murderers and victims rather undramatically on a duplicated pack of cards, one in Anderton’s office and one in headquarters, to provide a check and balance. In the movie, though, the name’s revealed through a computing equipment using a red ball, a contraption with balls rolling down long glass tubes.

In Minority Report, the name of future murderers is revealed through a red ball. (Image: okeykat/Shutterstock)

In the movie, the audience wait with expectation as John Anderton stands at the bottom of the chute waiting for this red ball to slowly roll down. When it finally arrives, his own name is written on it.

Anderton, the Would-be Murderer

John Anderton, head of the Pre-crime Unit, has been identified as a would-be murderer who will, under the current system, be apprehended before he has a chance to commit the murder.

It’s a great moment in the story and in the film, and it’s obviously a great scenario for exploring the inherent conflicts between security and freedom—conflicts so evident in the McCarthy era, when Dick wrote the story, and also in our own post-9/11 period when Spielberg directed the movie.

The Pre-criminals

The movie version raises the stakes when it provides a chilling vision of the detention facility where the pre-criminals are kept. It has none of the chaos or violence of contemporary prison representations. It’s worse. It is entirely sterile, each criminal preserved—as if through cryogenics of some kind—in a separate upright tube.

It reminds us of a story from 1973, about a sacrifice for the good of society. There’s a way to see the pre-criminals in the detention facility as another version of the child in the basement of Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, while outside, the people live crime-free. Is it worth it? Does the answer to that question change if the pre-criminal is a homeless drug dealer or the chief of police?

Learn more about Ursula Le Guin’s use of sci-fi and utopia to explore LGBTQ issues.

The ‘Minority’

The title Minority Report is also a metaphor that encapsulates the problem Dick and Spielberg—and so many other utopian writers and artists—are grappling with. The minority report within the Pre-crime Unit is a report produced when the three precogs do not agree and when two of them see one vision and the third sees a different one. It’s problematic, of course.

The minority report, understandably, represents a huge challenge to the whole system. It also, quite deliberately, refers back to one of the most famous quotations from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston Smith wonders if he is a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a ‘minority’ of one.

Learn more about the origins of utopia.

A Dystopian Vision

Dick’s vision is clearly a powerful one with all the political energy and momentum of the best of utopian work. Interestingly, Minority Report doesn’t just provide a dystopian vision under the rubric of science fiction, although it certainly does do that. It also blends science fiction tropes with those of detective fiction. Clearly, the pleasure of the story lies in its genre hybridity.

Dick’s Minority Report provides a fresh approach to the questions of free will and criminality in dystopian literature. It also helps us think about the timeliness and, potentially, the timelessness of dystopia. It is awe inspiring to think that, even after almost 50 years since it was penned, a story that so concretely addresses events of that time, could be just as popular, maybe more so, five decades later.

Common Questions about Pre-crime and Policing in Minority Report

Q: Which film is based on Philip K. Dick’s short story Minority Report?

Philip K. Dick’s short story Minority Report was made into a blockbuster film of the same name almost 50 years later, in 2002 by Steven Spielberg.

Q: How do the precogs reveal the name of future murderers in Dick’s Minority Report?

The precogs in Minority Report reveal the name of future murderers on a duplicated pack of cards, one in Anderton’s office and one in headquarters.

Q: Where were the pre-criminals kept in Minority Report?

In Minority Report, the pre-criminals are kept in a separate upright tube, in a detention facility which is entirely sterile.

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