Crime watch

Philip Kerr finds some philosophical inconsistencies at the heart of <em>Minority Report</em>

By my reckoning, there were 1,002 people, including Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, involved in making Minority Report, and so I do not criticise this picture lightly. There are good things in it, not least Spielberg's future cityscape - which owes much to Fritz Lang - an intermittently witty script and a delightful cameo from Lois Smith. American audiences seem to like the film, so it might be that I am the kind of person that L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, would have described, in his book Dianetics: the modern science of mental health, as "picky".

Recognising that this might be the case, I took an online personality test for the Church of Scientology, of which Tom Cruise is a well-known member, and discovered many undesirable character traits that mark me out as someone most qualified to be a film critic. In my 300-question test, a great deal of attention was paid to finding out if I am ever irritated by children (answer: yes, I have three) and if I had ever noticed myself having muscle twitches or spasms. And I recalled that, sitting through 144 minutes of Minority Report, I'd had quite a few spasms as my mind tried to wrestle down the fundamental philosophical flaw that lies at the infarcted heart of this picture.

Minority Report, based on a sci-fi story by Philip K Dick (you have to hand it to Cruise: unlike his fellow scientologist John Travolta, he was smart enough not to base his sci-fi movie on a story by L Ron Hubbard), is set in the year 2054. In the American state of Maryland, the future is seen by three "pre-cogs" - psychic beings who, for some reason, are tuned in to murders that are about to happen. Their collective Pythian pictures (which make no obvious sense, kind of like the average video on MTV) are scanned and forensically interpreted by John Anderson (Cruise), whose Pre-Crime Unit then hurries to the identified pre-crime scene and stops the murder from happening.

I have never read any stories by Philip K Dick, but I suspect that this one worked better on paper. When Tom discovers that he is about to commit a murder himself, he does a lot of Mission Impossible-style buzzing around - as you do - like an aphid in a black T-shirt. With his whole life collapsing around his ears, he is forced to go on the run - which, as always, Tom does very well. With the possible exception of the dog in Snatch, nobody in pictures does running around better than Tom Cruise. And if you like the sight of an unshaven Tom flinging himself from the roof of one speeding car to another, then this film is for you. Only, it's a little like one of those Arnold movies, such as Total Recall, but with a smaller-looking Arnold.

Now for the philosophical bit, so look away if this kind of stuff bores you, as I think it must have bored Tom and Steven. I believe it was Confucius who said that prophecy is a dangerous business, especially when you're trying to prophesy the future. Nearly all the way through this picture, I was thinking that if the pre-cogs really could see the future, then surely they would see not the actual commission of a murder, but the Pre-Crime Unit dropping through the roof at the last minute, SAS-style, to prevent a murder. Equally, every time Tom pulled a gun - surely a much better way of eliminating murder in America would be simply to ban guns (since John Lennon's death, 500,000 Americans have been killed with firearms) - and pressed it up against someone's head, I told myself that the person being threatened would surely feel quite relaxed that Tom was not going to use it, or else the Pre-Crime Unit would be dropping in on them. You begin to see the difficulties.

The fact that, before the Pre-Crime Unit was created, the pre-cogs foresaw murders that actually took place is simply to infer the ability to foretell the future from a mathematically improbable, but still theoretically possible, number of accurate event forecasts. It is what Wittgenstein would have called a "category mistake". As he himself says, in his axiomatic Tractatus: "There is no possible way of making an inference from the existence of one situation to another, entirely different situation. There is no causal nexus to justify such an inference. We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present. Superstition is nothing but belief in the causal nexus."

What a pity that the works of Wittgenstein were not made the basis of a new church, instead of L Ron Humbug's nonsense. Wittgenstein might have repudiated his Tractatus, but just think how much more intelligent Hollywood actors would sound if they were living their lives by this little book instead of Dianetics. And how much more we would respect movie stars such as Cruise, instead of finding them just a little ridiculous. The Tractatus, with all that stuff about pictures, might easily have been written for people in Hollywood; for example: "Every picture is at the same time a logical one." Sadly, Minority Report is not such a picture.

Minority Report (12) is on general release