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Person of Interest and Minority Report

on Tue, 01/01/2013 - 00:00

Of all the crimes that man is capable of committing, murder is by far the most atrocious. The taking of another human life has a finality to it, an act that cannot ever be undone. But what if it could be prevented? That simple question is the premise for two science fiction creations of the Twenty First Century, the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report and the CBS drama Person of Interest. Although the methods enacted in their respective narratives are different in nature, there are many similarities between the two, and each likewise showcases the civil liberties that must be sacrificed in order to achieve a murder-free society, as well as how the concept of free choice dictates whether a potential event may or may not actually occur.

In Minority Report, which is based on the short story by Philip K. Dick, John Anderton is captain of a Washington DC special police force known as PreCrime. Thanks to their efforts, there has not been a murder in the area in over six years. The PreCrime Unit bases their intelligence on three highly precognitive humans, kept in an isolated water basin, who have the ability to predict murders before they take place. It is explained that the precogs—as they are known—“don’t see what you intend to do, only what you will do.” Based on the information provided by the three, Anderton and his team are able to arrive at a murder scene before the murder takes place, and in effect act as judge and jury as they “halo” the suspect, placing them in a state of suspended animation for life.

Person of Interest, meanwhile, follows the attempts of computer genius Harold Finch and former special operative John Reese to prevent violent crimes from occurring in New York City. Their “ally” in this mission is a machine created by Finch on behalf of the US government that sifts through surveillance camera images, cell phones conversations and e-mails exchanges in order to predict criminal activities. Because the machine was initially designed to prevent terrorism, “irrelevant” information is erased at midnight of each day. It is this irrelevant information that Harold Finch is able to secretly obtain and use in both his and John Reese’s personal vendetta to stop acts of murder before they actually take place.

Although Minority Report uses humans for its information while Person of Interest relies on a machine, in both cases the data received is incomplete and must be deciphered. John Anderton, for instance, is simply given the names of both the suspected murderer and their victim, as well as a series of incoherent images captured from the precogs vision. Using this limited information, Anderton then pieces together the location of the predicted crime and inevitably arrives there in the nick of time. Harold Finch, meanwhile, is given even less information on Person of Interest—a solitary social security number of a person who might be either the victim or the perpetrator. Like John Anderton, Finch must take this small amount of data and recreate the person’s life before the actual act occurs.

Both the precogs of Minority Report and the machine of Person of Interest have limits. When it comes to acts of premeditation, both systems have enough time to predict the crime in question. Murders that take place in the “heat of the moment,” however, are not as easy to foresee because of the spontaneity of the actions. On Minority Report, this means that the PreCrime Unit has a smaller window in which to decipher the information provided by the precogs. The machine on Person of Interest, meanwhile, does not have the ability to predict “crimes of passion” at all. “I’m at the scene of a homicide, wondering why the machine can see one and miss another,” John Reese says to Harold Finch, who responds, “Sorry, Mr. Reese, the machine detects acts of premeditation.”

While the concept of a murder-free society is obviously one of great value to society, there is a price to be paid on both Minority Report and Person of Interest in regards to civil liberties. In Minority Report, the thoughts of individual people are in effect “read” by a small trio of precogs—albeit thoughts of criminal activity—and suspects are imprisoned in a state of animation for a crime they have not actually committed without being given the opportunity to defend their potential actions. On Person of Interest, the machine that foresees violent acts of crime relies on the secret surveillance by the government on all citizens of the United States. As Harold Finch explains, “There are exactly eight people in the world that knows this exists. If anyone else found out, there would be such an outcry they’d turn it off.”

The actions of the main characters in each narrative, however, are driven by noble justifications. John Anderton lost his son before the PreCrime Unit was established, and the fact that the precogs could have foreseen and prevented the kidnapping and presumed death of the child drives Anderton to stop future crimes of a similar nature. John Reese of Person of Interest, meanwhile, utilizes New York City homicide detective Jocelyn Carter as an ally in his own fight to prevent violent crimes. Carter is unaware of the machine, and is initially reluctant to assist in the unlawful vigilante nature of Reese’s actions, but is later motivated to cooperate for reasons similar to John Anderton being part of the PreCrime Unit. “He said it was our fault,” a fellow homicide detective explains in regards to the motives of a confessed killer. “He said we weren’t here to stop him.” The words have on obvious effect on Jocelyn Carter, who has witnessed too many murders after the fact.

During the course of Minority Report, a flaw in the system is detected when the precogs predict that the next murder will be at the hands of John Anderton himself. To prove his innocence, Anderton kidnaps one of the precogs—the female Agatha—in order to gain more information about his supposed actions. Although Agatha claims that what she saw was real, she also says that the future is not engraved in stone. “You still have a choice,” she tells Anderton. “The others never saw their future.” The concept of free will is again raised in the final scene when PreCrime creator Lamar Burgess is faced with following through with the foreseen murder of John Anderton. Burgess instead chooses to kill himself, demonstrating that the precogs are fallible in the face of an ever-fluid future that cannot be fully known or understood.

John Reese raises the issue of free choice on Person of Interest as well. During the first season episode “Cura Te Ipsum,” Dr. Megan Tillman is determined to kill the man who raped her sister in college, an event that led to her sibling’s suicide. Reese, however, confronts Tillman before she fully enacts her quest for revenge. “I know all about you, Megan,” he tells her. “I know you’re a damn good doctor. I know that you’ve spent years of your life healing people. And I know if you do this, if you murder this man in cold blood, you will kill you. You don’t have to do this. You can turn around right now.”

Both Person of Interest and Minority Report showcase a world where murder is capable of being prevented. The two narratives likewise demonstrate that no future is fully predictable as free will still plays a role in our actions regardless of what has been foreseen by either man or machine. Person of Interest and Minority Report also raise the question of how far society is willing to sacrifice civil liberties in order to live in a safer world, and whether such a world is worth the loss of basic freedoms.

No one, after all, could disagree with the concept of a murder-free society—but at what price are we willing to pay in order to achieve it?

Anthony Letizia (January 1, 2013)

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