Minority Report

September 22, 2008

So, I recently saw the movie Minority Report (which, I know, is several years old). It was vaguely interesting – the world it is set in, which is futuristic but still very similar to ours and quite disturbing, was well portrayed. But the movie had a fundamental problem. Its premise was nonsensical.

Now, the movie revolves around a form of crime prevention known as “pre-crime” – they have these three psychics who can predict when a murder will occur before it does, and then they dispatch police officers to prevent the murder from taking place. There hasn’t been a murder for 6 years in Washington, DC (which is where this program is being tried out before it goes nationwide).

Then, one day, one of the pre-crime cops, while monitoring the machine that reports on the psychics’ visions, sees that HE is now predicted to commit a murder! And so he must run away and lead the other police on a wild goose chase all across the city, all the while trying to avoid committing the murder he was predicted to commit, but being apparently drawn inexorably to commit it anyway. (He ends up committing it, though unintentionally [the guy wants to die and grabs his gun-hand and forces him to shoot].) How suspenseful! How like the Greek tragedies in which the protagonist knows his fate and yet cannot avoid it! (And then there’s a half-hour left of the movie in which little of actual interest happens.)

Except… does anyone else see what is terribly wrong with this situation? Let’s think for a second. How pre-crime works is, the psychics see the murder happening in the future, they tell someone about it, and then the murder is prevented. There’s nothing fundamentally different about the situation the protagonist is in – the psychics see the murder happening in the future, and they told someone – the perpetrator – about it. But somehow, instead of him just saying “ok, I’ll just avoid that situation and so not commit murder” (which is philosophically no different from the cops jumping in and preventing the murder at the last second, which they do all the time), it is treated as if he is somehow fated to do it. In fact, he wouldn’t have even wound up in the situation where he could commit murder if the prediction hadn’t been made!

So, basically, the movie is not consistent. Either seeing the future allows you to change it – in which case there’s no reason the protagonist would have been worried at all – or seeing the future does not allow you to change it – in which case pre-crime makes absolutely no sense to begin with, and would only have been good for ensuring that the murderer was always caught after the fact.

Thus Minority Report is, I think, while a somewhat interesting and amusing movie, fundamentally flawed, and so not really worth watching. There are much better philosophically-minded sci-fi movies out there for those so inclined.

The Form of the Bad

June 13, 2008

The three worst movies I have ever seen (and I could not have managed to sit through them without the help of the folks who did Mystery Science Theatre 3000) are Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and The Star Wars Holiday Special. What is amazing is that I can’t decide which is the worst. They are all bad in their own ways.

Manos’s main problem is the total lack of technical ability on the part of the film-makers. Put simply, they didn’t know how to make a movie. The camera-work and lighting are horrible, the dialogue had to be dubbed in afterwards, no scene is longer than 32 seconds beause of a horrible camera… I think that if the makers had actually known what they were doing, they could have managed to make a generic, fairly bad, but not terrible horror movie, but as it is the movie is nearly unwatchable.

The makers of Plan 9 clearly had much more technical skill, though there are still some odd parts where it suddenly switches from day to night even though its all supposed to be at one time, or you see a cardboard piece of scenery get knocked over. They make up for it, though, by having an even worse script – the plot simply makes no sense. Aliens… are coming to earth… to force humans to acknowledge their existence… and they’re going to do it by raising zombies? What the hell?

The Star Wars Holiday Special’s problem is that it has no plot to speak of. It’s just a variety-show-style series of songs, dances, cartoons, etc, none of which are any good, with a really stupid premise trying to hold it all together. This was by far the most boring of the three, because the other two at least had a plot that you could try to make sense out of (even if most of the time it was a futile endeavor).

Anyway, when reflecting on these movies, I am reminded of the first like of Anna Karenina; “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I wouldn’t say that every good movie is alike, but these bad movies certainly do find many different ways of being bad.

It seems to me also that if there was such thing as simply “badness”, these bad movies would all be alike. That they are so diverse suggests that they are not somehow actively bad, they simply all lack qualities that would make a movie good. They lack different qualities, thus they are “bad” in different ways.

I know this is not an actual argument against the existence of bad, but it does suggest to me that bad is just a lack of good.


April 26, 2008

I recently watched the movie Se7en. It was… well, a decent movie, but I have a serious problem with it.

The basic premise of the movie is that there is a serial killer trying to send a message of repentance. He killed one man for gluttony, another for greed, another for sloth, another for lust, etc. The seven deadly sins. And so in an attempt to learn more about his psychology, the cops themselves read Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Aquinas, some medieval morality plays, and so on. They even eventually catch him by scanning the public library records and seeing who had checked out all those books and books on serial killers. Makes sense, right?

Well… no. The thing is, the concept of the seven deadly sins is damned simple – there’s seven of them, namely lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, in ascending order of seriousness. You don’t need any research to learn that. What the killer would have found from those books was what exactly those sins mean. But there seems to be no evidence that he did – the person he punishes for pride isn’t guilty of pride at all, but rather vanity – a sin most people see as the same as pride, but which according to the seven-deadly-sins system is not at all the same.

The one thing he did seem to get from them was the concept of contrapasso – punishing them with their own sins. But even this he didn’t really follow very well. The punishments of the gluttonous, lustful, and wrathful made sense, kind of – the glutton is forced to eat until his stomach burst, the prostitute was raped until dead, the wrathful main character was made angry enough to kill someone and then get punished for it. I didn’t really understand the punishment of the greedy lawyer, so I won’t comment on that. The supposedly slothful drug dealer was tied in his bed and allowed to atrophy – I don’t see how it punishes sloth to force someone to be slothful. There’s no evidence he was slothful before that was done to him. The envious had no contrapasso whatsoever – he just got himself shot. And the vain model who supposedly was prideful was forced to choose between disfigurement and death, and chose death – a sin, sure, but that’s not what pride is, I don’t think. She didn’t die in an act of pride, she died in an act of envy, I would say…

Anyway, the point is, there’s no reason the killer would have had to read all those books to get the idea of killing one person for each of the seven deadly sins. He didn’t seem particularly erudite to me.

So why was that element inserted into the plot? My suspicion is that it is because many people don’t even know that much about the seven deadly sins in the first place. To them, what he was doing did seem to require a great deal of education. At UD, we read Dante, we read Milton, we read Aquinas, and we were kind of laughing at the movie and how the murderer didn’t really seem to be using the source material at all. (We also tried to draw connections between the actual punishments of sinners in the movie and Dante, but alas, there were none to be found. If there were, it would have made the movie much more interesting, in my opinion.) But most people don’t, and so it probably would have seemed mysterious and intellectual.

I suppose this is more of a problem with our culture in general than the movie itself – we no longer can write a book or movie and expect the audience coming in to have already read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. That’s probably an unfortunate side-effect of books and movies no longer being written for the upper classes, for people who could afford to get an actual education and had the time to read those things, but rather geared towards a general audience…


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