Monthly Archives: October 2013

What The−? Minority Report

This is a new segment on the Sector M blog, one where I take a subject matter (usually something to do with sci-fi, movies, comics, etc.) and explore what’s wrong with it. This will usually be something that should have been a slam dunk, but somehow didn’t live up to its own hype or potential.  For our first time out, I’ve chosen the 2002 movie, Minority Report.

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Note: Not “Manos”: The Hands of Fate.

This was a ‘tent pole’ big-budget blockbuster with Tom Cruise playing the lead character and directed by Steven Spielberg. It was (loosely) based off of Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name.  Set in 2054, Cruise’s character, John Anderton, is a cop who specializes in “PreCrime.”  In this future, the crime of murder has all but been eliminated by the presence of “PreCogs,” who are psychics who can see into the future.

When a murder is about to happen, Anderton’s squad receives an image of the crime from the PreCogs before it happens. They have only a short time to find out where the crime takes place based on the vision, get to the scene of the crime, and stop it before it happens.  Everything is going okay until Anderton receives a vision of himself shooting a man in cold blood. Since you are guilty of crimes before you commit them in this world, Anderton is now on the run from the law and out to try and prove his innocence.

Here’s what’s wrong with it:

The Billiard Balls

So, when a PreCrime is reported, the first thing to show up at the police station is not the recorded psychic vision itself, but one laser-cut wooden sphere inscribed with the victim’s name on it and another with the perpetrator’s name. They make a reference that the unique wood grain of each ball makes it virtually impossible to duplicate or fake.

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Plot point, plot point!

The problem with it is not that this seems like a pretty weird way of handling things, but it brings up a question in my mind – how do they get that information? From the initial scene, it seems like the psychic vision is the only information that the cops have to go on. They have to look for landmarks and clues within that vision to find out where the crime will happen, yet the PreCogs apparently also transmit the name of the victim-to-be on a separate channel.  If the PreCogs can know a victim’s name, and the name of the would-be criminal, why don’t they also know where the crime will take place?

The Countdown Timer

This is a cautionary tale of using time-travel elements in sci-fi, and how they can go wrong in a hurry.  So, when a PreCrime vision comes in, there is a timer attached to it, counting down to the time of the murder. Like the name on the sphere, it’s never clear how they get this information, but there it is. The problem is that crimes of passion have a much shorter timespan than a crime that is premeditated.

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Um, say that again?

On the surface that might seem intuitive; someone who decides to kill on the spot gets a smaller window than someone who plans it out. It is, however, utter non-sense. You are looking into the future. Even if it was a seemingly random string of events or emotional states that lead up to the crime, even if it was an on-the-spot decision, the outcome is already part of the time stream. The intentions behind the crime are irrelevant.

The Eye Transplant

Anderton is on the run and realizes that too many places have retinal scanners that could identify him. His solution? Get an eye transplant from a less-than-reputable street doctor. It makes sense − change your eyes so they can’t track you. It also shows off both the seedy underground nature of the world as well as the ease with which such an operation can be accomplished. Yep, we’re in the future, all right.

Once complete, Tom Cruise walks into The Gap and it scans his eyes. The holographic store greeter calls out, “Hello, Mr. Yakamoto! Welcome back to the Gap!” That tells us that the dark eyes that Tom Cruise has from then on were not cloned or grown, but taken from another person who apparently also shops at The Gap.

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War of the Worlds meets Gulliver’s Travels.

Sure, it solves the basic problem of being tracked, but if it comes from another person, who has an existing profile in the system, won’t that be noticed pretty quickly by the Big Brother security systems in place? Tom Cruise may be many things, but he doesn’t look Japanese. Someone’s bound to notice.

Psychic Camera Angles

Towards the end of the film it is revealed that (Spoiler Alert) Max Von Sydow is the bad guy. Not only that, but he has been killing people in his way for some time now. How can he do this given that the PreCogs’ whole job is to report murders before they happen?

Simple, he takes his victims to the site of a previous would-be murder witnessed by the PreCogs and kills them in the very same way. That way it looks like the psychic vision of the murder is merely an echo of one they’ve had in the past. It’s dismissed out of hand and everyone goes about their business.

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The ripples, man…it’s all about the ripples.

Well, it’s a good thing that whatever extra-sensory organ the PreCogs use to see into the future always uses the same camera angles, huh? It would be pretty embarrassing if you went through all that trouble to stage a murder and then the vision showed your face in a close up rather than from fifty feet away.

There is No Minority Report

So, Anderton sets out to prove his innocence.  He seeks out Dr. Iris Hineman, one of the original pioneers of the PreCog program to see if there’s been some mistake. He finds her and she seems like some sort of crazy and weirdly flirtatious Professor Sprout from Harry Potter. She tells him that the strongest of the three PreCogs occasionally sees an alternate outcome of a PreCrime.  These are called “Minority Reports.”

The reports are immediately buried, however. Determinism is what drives this PreCog program in the first place. If it became know that there was a possibility of an outcome other what the PreCogs saw in their visions, it would undermine the entire system. Every person convicted under that law system might have been innocent since they were stopped before they could commit the act. So, Anderton pins his hopes on finding the Minority Report to prove he won’t commit the crime, going even so far as to break into the PreCog facility and kidnapping the lead psychic.

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So…he’s actually guilty, then?

In the end, however, Anderton does actually the kill the guy, in exactly the same circumstances as seen in the original vision. There are extenuating circumstances, of course, but he still pulls the trigger and commits the crime anyway. There was no Minority Report.

Aside from that being the name of the friggin’ movie, doesn’t it strike anyone as odd that Anderton was framed and railroaded to commit this crime? How does one even go about setting someone up to kill a total stranger like that? The cause for him to go on the run, and ultimately kill this stranger, was the vision of him committing the crime in the first place. So, the effect becomes the cause that becomes the effect that becomes the cause. Paradox much?

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Minority Report wasn’t a total loss, however. There were some cool sci-fi and action elements in this movie. It had many of the marks of Steven Spielberg’s skillful direction in it. Unfortunately, much of the good stuff was overshadowed by the underlying flaws in the story.

It always amazes me when an expensive, effects-driven movie like this comes out. So much money was spent making the magnetic cars and holographic interfaces come to life, but it seems that parts of the overall story were not considered much at all. That’s a shame. The script and story are probably the easiest and cheapest things to change in a movie of this scope. When I see such a magnificent failure, all I can say is…what the−?

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Continuity in Sci-Fi

In this author’s opinion, continuity is the glue that holds a sci-fi universe or series together. When I speak of ‘continuity’ in this sense, I’m not talking about whether an actor looks the same from one shot to another, or that the level of someone’s drink doesn’t fluctuate between scenes. No, I’m talking about a storyline that keeps itself internally consistent.  I’m a super stickler for that kind of thing. Why?

Science fiction already requires some help to suspend the reader or viewer’s disbelief. We’ve got aliens, flying cars, faster-than-light travel and all that good stuff we don’t have running around in real life. When the boundaries of that continuity are smooth and seamless, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to swallow the concept of Klingons, lightsabers and giant robots.

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This is one of the largest cranes in the world.
Sometimes even this isn’t enough to suspend my disbelief.

But when the continuity is sloppy or inconsistent, when the established rules of that universe are lazily ignored, the cracks show through in a hurry. It reminds us that we’re not peering off into some other distant time and place, but rather that we’re looking at a bunch of actors standing around on a set made of plastic and wood. Sci-fi movies, novels, TV shows, and comic books all desperately need a solid continuity just as a given. It’s the foundation on which the story is built. Build a house on a faulty foundation, and well, you get the idea.

So, here are three examples from sci-fi where the continuity frayed with varying degrees of consequences. Here we go…

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

First off, I love this movie. James Cameron is my favorite action director, hands down, and I think this movie is some of his finest work. His stories tend to be pretty well thought out, which is why this continuity slip irks me. In the first Terminator movie, Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor that time travel is only possible due to ‘a field generated by a living organism.’ This explains why Kyle arrives in 1984 wearing only his birthday suit and with no futuristic equipment like plasma pulse-rifles, etc.  The Terminator itself is a machine, but its endoskeleton is covered with actual living tissue, so that explains that, right?

In T2, however, the T-1000 comes through just fine. Even though it appears to be a man (and still arrives naked), its entire body is actually made of a liquid metal (a mimetic polyalloy if you want to get technical). There’s nothing organic about it, at least nothing that’s ever revealed to the audience. So, how exactly did it travel through time?

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If I can shapechange into anything, why was I naked when I arrived?

Granted, we get all of our information about time travel from Kyle, who admits he doesn’t ‘know tech stuff,’ but it still causes a wrinkle.  Even if it doesn’t destroy the movie for me (and it doesn’t), it still reminds me that someone wasn’t paying attention to their own canon. Sad, really.

Battlestar Galactica “Hero”

This episode of the reimagined Galactica series is from the notoriously wobbly Season 3. I’m not sure what happened to this show. It went from being some of the best sci-fi I have ever seen on television to a show that was almost painful to watch near the end. Season 3 was really where the continuity of the show wore thin, and this episode pretty much sums it up for me.

If you haven’t seen it, let me explain: So, Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) is being awarded a medal for his years of meritorious military service. Adama, however, harbors a secret that’s been tearing him up inside. We get a flashback to when he commanded the Battlestar Valkyrie a year before the 13 Colonies of Cobol were destroyed.  It turns out that he may have been the one who inadvertently touched off the war with the Cylons (or so he suspects), which resulted in billions of deaths. So, being awarded a medal for heroism cuts him like a knife. It is full of angst and regret, moving background music, and it’s exquisitely acted by a veteran cast.

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Wait, where was I again?

So what’s the problem? Well, it had been established previously that Adama had been in command of the Galactica for several years leading up to the outbreak of war. So how could he have been on the mission with the Valkyrie, when he was already firmly stationed on Galactica? Whoops! Someone needed to keep track of their timeline a little better, huh?  It undermined the entire episode, and quite frankly, the show would have been better off as a whole if it had been left out.

Star Trek: Enterprise

My first example was pretty minor.  My second was pretty bad…but the last is one of the worst offenders I can think of – Star Trek: Enterprise.  Not just one episode, nor even one season, but the entire series from start to finish.  It’s one of the most glaring continuity errors in science fiction history.  Why is that?

The series takes place in the timeline well before Kirk and Spock, serving as a prequel to the other Star Treks. The Enterprise in this Star Trek series is touted as the first human-manned ship to leave our solar system. In fact, that’s a major part of the show’s pilot episode.  For its time, she’s supposed to be the most advanced starship ever built by human hands, and is supposed to have started the legend that later starships named Enterprise would build upon.  James T. Kirk, John Harriman, Rachel Garrett and Jean-Luc Picard all stand upon its shoulders, right?

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Nope, not there.

So why is there no mention of it before this series?  Wouldn’t a ship occupying that singular place in human history be mentioned before that somewhere? Well, in the conference room aboard Picard’s Enterprise-D, you can see the outlines of past ships bearing that name. There’s an unbroken string of ships from the aircraft carrier, to Kirk’s original ship, then the A, the B, and up through D.

So where is the Enterprise-NX in all of that? It’s suspiciously absent from the lineup. That’s because the showrunners made her up on the spot without much consideration for what history had already been established for the show. They could have chosen any other name for the ship and been okay. The Valiant, the Constellation, the Good Ship Lollipop, S.S. Minnow – anything, and it would have worked out just fine. But no, they just had to go and name her Enterprise, didn’t they?

And this show ran for 5 seasons.

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Braaaaaaaaggggaaaaaa!

Yeah, that was pretty much what I thought, too.

So, is all of this needless nitpicking by a fan who should really find something else to do with his time? Probably.  I’ll admit that I speculate and ponder things like this quite a bit, and when there’s a mistake, I generally find it.

It’s not for the purpose of harping on it, to point fingers at the creators/authors and say, “Ha Ha!” like Nelson from the Simpsons.  No, it’s because when I want to immerse myself in sci-fi, I want to believe on some level that what I’m reading or seeing could exist out there somewhere in the past, present or future, and share in that discovery or adventure. A consistent continuity allows me to do that; a faulty one reminds me that I’m just some poor schlub with a Netflix account.