What Happened to the Future Promised by 'Minority Report'?

The 2002 Tom Cruise vehicle promised more than just virtual touchscreens. So where did the smart sci-fi movie go?
'Minority Report' (2002)

Fifteen years ago, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report was released in theaters, offering a glimpse at what promised to be a darker, more complex era for mainstream science-fiction cinema … one that ended up never arriving. What happened to the futures we were once promised?

When it was released, former The Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt saw the movie as an exciting preview of things to come, noting in his review that it was one of Spielberg's "most compelling and entertaining films ever" and applauding him for pushing "into new fictional terrain that is grittier, creepier and edgier than the warm-and-fuzzy science fiction of his early career."

The film, the review argued, was "the most troubling kind of speculative fiction," probing the "moral underpinnings" of new technology. "Technology is not necessarily the enemy — homes spring to life in helpful, efficient ways — but privacy vanishes," the review warned, presciently.

Minority Report followed Spielberg's own A.I. as well as 1999's The Matrix and other features as a new strain of genre cinema: something deeper than the average popcorn flick that commented on the realities of the world instead of just offering escapism; a revolution akin to the so-called "new wave" of sci-fi prose of the 1960s and '70s. And then, the superheroes came.

That's too simplistic an explanation for why Minority Report wasn't the start of something bigger, of course; if nothing else, it could be argued that the superhero craze didn't really kick into high gear until Marvel's first Iron Man in 2008, but that movie wasn't released until six years after Minority Report. (Those six years saw a lot of relatively subpar superhero movies, including the second two Spider-Man, Blade and X-Men films, as well as Ang Lee's Hulk, Fox's first attempts at the Fantastic Four franchise and, more notably, achievements like The Dark Knight and Hellboy; a lot of movies, sure, but it didn't feel quite as overwhelming as today.)

Instead, it's possible that the audience actually rejected it: Minority Report performed reasonably, but was hardly a runaway hit. Subsequent movies followed in its footprints — which is to say, adapted from Philip K. Dick's prose, featuring a recognizable actor in the lead role — but 2003's Paycheck and 2011's The Adjustment Bureau were less successful, while the star-studded animation A Scanner Darkly (2006) might simply have been too obtuse for most people, despite including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson in its cast.

Alternatively, perhaps the one-two punch of 2003's The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions might have put paid to the dream of a smart sci-fi movie mainstream, considering the response to the (somewhat disappointing) sequels — films that themselves shifted away from the weightier themes in favor of greater spectacle and a punch-'em-out non-conclusion, as if refuting not only the promise of the first movie, but the greater tease of smarter sci-fi as the mainstream norm as a whole.

Of course, even though Spielberg himself moved away from a smarter, darker sci-fi — his next genre movies were War of the Worlds and the fourth Indiana Jones — it's not as if the promise faded entirely. In the last few years alone, we've seen movies like Ex Machina, Interstellar and Arrival, each of which feels as if it could fit into a post-Minority Report subgenre that offers stories using science fiction as a tool to explore complex personal stories while avoiding either easy answers or stories that end in punching, and each of which has been eagerly accepted by critics and audiences alike.

Perhaps things aren't as bad — or, at least, as crushed by Iron Man, Captain America and the X-Men — as it seemed at first. Maybe it's not that the future promised by Minority Report failed to arrive, but that it was just a little further off than expected … something that almost seems fitting for a movie about the flaws in precognition as a concept, really.