Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Minority Report -- perfection and predeterminism, choices and beliefs

Director: Steven Spielberg, 2002. (PG-13)

The late great Phillip K. Dick wrote over 40 novels and 120 short stories during his lifetime. Though his name might not be well-known, these books have spawned 10 full length feature films, including The Adjustment Bureau and the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Minority Report is another terrific, dark science fiction flick from the Dick stable.

Like Blade Runner, Minority Report is set in the future, this time 2054 Washington DC. Also like Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Minority Report is a gritty neo noir, centered on a conflicted police detective protagonist. But while Blade Runner dealt in theological and psychological issues, this film focuses more on ethical and philosophical dilemmas.

Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible) stars as Chief John Anderton, a man fractured by the loss of his young son Sean 6 years earlier. That tragedy has left him divorced and doing drugs to cope. It also has him leading the “precrime” unit in the capital.

When murder became an epidemic in the nation, Washington DC embarked on a radical crime prevention program utilizing three “precogs” who, living a half-awake/half-asleep semi-conscious existence in a nutrient pool, can see the future. Visualizing murders to be, their prophecies appear on a screen and provide clues to the police of the victim and perpetrator. With this portending information, the police can swoop in before the crime occurs and seize the perp. In this way, the murder rate has dropped to zero in DC.

Now the program, under Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) and Chief Anderton, is poised to go national. But Justice Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is sent to investigate and determine the legitimacy of the program, and he is immediately at odds with Anderton and his fellow cops.

The first part of the film introduces the concept, showing Anderton in action. Standing before a bank of transparent info screens, he is more like a symphony conductor, moving images captured from the precogs brains, shuffling, zooming in, until he has identified the location of the crime. This initial act shows him and his team stopping a nasty murder so we can understand the process.

But when the next perp ball falls with his own name on it and a victim unknown to him, Anderton suddenly finds himself on the run, with his former friends chasing him to arrest him. He has to unravel the mystery of who Leo Crow, the murder victim, is, and why Anderton wants to kill him. If he does kill him, he will prove the precogs right; if he doesn’t the whole system falls apart. Along the way, he takes Agatha (Samantha Morton), the female precog, as he tries to solve the meaning of the minority report and prove himself innocent.

An early scene in the precrime headquarters with Anderton facing off with Witwer introduces the philosophical dilemma. Anderton rolls a ball along a channel that ends with a chute. Before it can fall to the ground, Witwer catches it. “Why’d you catch it?” he asks. Witwer replies, “Because it was going to fall.” Anderton: “You’re certain?” Witwer: “Yeah.” And Anderton responds, “But it didn’t fall. You caught it. The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.” But it didn’t!

If something is going to happen but is prevented, was it preordained to happen or not? Did Witwer’s choice to catch the ball change destiny or was the ball never going to fall?

To move this to an ethical dilemma, when the cops arrive to prevent the murder in the opening act, they arrest the perpetrator for the “future murder” of his wife. Yet they prevented the crime. So, since the crime never occurred, how can they arrest him for murder? At best, shouldn’t this be attempted murder? Surely a prevented crime is only an attempted crime. Moreover, since they prevented the crime, wasn’t it predestined to be prevented?

That moves us to ponder the theological dilemma, in a different dimension. The contrast is between predestination (what will happen) and choice (what can be changed). The Bible seems to present both options. God is depicted as one who has preordained events. Romans 8:29-30 says: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” In Ephesians 1:4-5, the apostle Paul goes even further saying, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” Yet, the New Testament also depicts the freedom of mankind to choose and to be held morally accountable. Jesus’ statement, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God” (Jn. 7:17), implies such choice. This is a conundrum that has puzzled scholars for centuries. The best solution is to seek to hold the two positions in tension without forcing a resolution. God is sovereign and ultimate chooser, while we are free moral agents who can choose even within predetermined outcomes.

Keying off choice, a theme of the film, Burgess comments on Anderton’s passion for the precrime program: “My father once told me, ‘We don’t choose the things we believe in; they choose us.’ “ This, too, has theological parallels. In his final speech to his disciples, hours before his death, Jesus said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn. 15;16). Earlier he pointed out that God had given these disciples (sheep) to him (Jn. 10:29). Here it is the person, rather than the thing, that we believe in. And he chose us!

The whole precog system is built on the premise that the three precogs working together never fail in their predictions. They are never wrong. If they were wrong, even once, the system would collapse because Anderton and his fellow cops could never know with certainty that the crime they are preventing would have happened. It might not. Anderton explains this to Witwer: “There hasn’t been a murder in 6 years. There’s nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.” Witwer concurs: “perfect. I agree. But if there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.”

The point resonates. Humans are not flawless. Batters might hit .900 but never reach 100% or perfection. No one alive today can say she has no flaw, has never been wrong. We are imperfect, flawed. We make mistakes. We are sinners (Rom. 3:23). We sin. We fail.

In contrast, we see God the one perfect being. His ways are perfect (2 Sam. 22:31), his knowledge is perfect (Job. 36:4), his beauty is perfect (Psa. 50:2), his will is perfect (Rom. 12:2), his faithfulness is perfect (Isa. 25:1), the peace he offers is perfect (Isa. 26:3). And his son, Jesus Christ, came and lived a perfect and sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 7:28), the perfect lamb of God without blemish or defect (1 Pet. 1:19). His perfection provides the source of eternal salvation for his imperfect creatures (Heb. 5:9). He is the perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), if we follow him by faith and allow him to change us into his image. But then, if we are allowing what has been predestined, is that choice?

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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