Nostalgia Driven: Revisiting the Vertical Highway and the Self-Driving Lexus From ‘Minority Report’
The following information may make you wish to curl up into a ball and scream about the passage of time, so fair warning — but, here we go: Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg-directed, Philip K. Dick-originated, Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell-starring sci-fi action film, turns 20 years old in 2022.
Yes, the movie that seemed so futuristic at the time of its release in the summer of 2002 with its gesture-controlled computer interfaces, eye-scanning advertisements and holographic home movies — is now older than your average TikTok-loving Zoomer (Gen Z).
But, upon rewatching it, I can say that it holds up. More than that: it’s one of my favorite films of all time, full stop.
As a lifelong sci-fi geek, I’ve seen hundreds of movies in the genre, and I struggle to name a better exemplar of all the elements I adore than Minority Report: disruptive new technology, thrilling action sequences, and believably human characters who struggle to make sense of their rapidly changing world and their roles in it.
Oh, and, importantly for this publication — it has super cool, futuristic, self-driving vehicles. A whole self-driving superhighway, in fact! But we’ll explore those aspects more in a bit.
The Cops and Criminals of the Future
Let’s begin quickly with the premise: Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a Washington, D.C. officer in the year 2054, who is in charge of managing a cutting-edge new policing division called the “Department of Pre-Crime.”
As the name suggests, the division is focused on preventing crime before it happens — something that police departments in real life have actually been trying to do in the years since the film was released, using artificial intelligence and big data., under the broad umbrella term “predictive policing.”
However, in the film Minority Report, a technological breakthrough is not really at the heart of the Pre-Crime division: instead, the cops rely on a trio of randomly mutated psychic human beings known as the “Pre-Cogs,” short for “pre-cognitives,” who are gifted with a kind of mental foresight into imminent homicides, which is possible because these crimes are so disruptive to the fabric of society and our collective psyches.
It’s fantastical and very Jungian. And of course, things go awry as they tend to do in dramatic fiction: Anderton’s own name comes up as a future perpetrator, and it seems that his sins of the past may somehow lead him to murder someone he thinks is responsible for his child’s disappearance.
The other D.C. cops and the U.S. Justice Department move to arrest Anderton but he flees and spends much of the rest of the movie on the lamb, noting that “everybody runs” in the face of the Pre-Crime division.
In a sense, then, Minority Report is largely an extended chase sequence. And as any even casual filmgoer would likely attest, some of the best chase sequences in cinema history have been car chases. Minority Report one-ups this tradition in several ways with its vehicle design and roadway infrastructure.
The Self-Driving Lexus
Shortly after Anderton is named as a future perpetrator, he escapes the Pre-Crime facility in a sleek, self-driving Lexus passenger car that drives along a crowded superhighway through the city of D.C.
This autonomous vehicle is initially shown driving in a relatively traditional way, with Anderton facing forward and the car’s body parallel to the road.
We see almost immediately that the car is self-driving as Anderton does not appear to be manually controlling it. In fact, there’s no obvious steering wheel or control yolk. And, he quickly starts a video call with his boss, Director of Pre-crime Lamar Burgess, played by Max Von Syndow, without paying attention to the road at all.
Remote Lockdown Feature
But during the course of the call, as Anderton argues for his innocence, the car’s onboard computer speaks to him, telling him “security lockdown enabled, revised destination: office.” Anderton realizes the car has been remotely commanded by the authorities to bring him back for arrest, overriding his own chosen destination.
Connected Cars, For Better and Worse
As this happens, the car automatically exits the highway and joins another traveling in the opposite direction, in reverse. It does so smoothly and safely, without coming to a complete stop and yet maintaining a safe distance from the other fast-moving cars on the road, suggesting some sort of “connected car” ecosystem wherein all the vehicles are wirelessly transmitting information about their locations, speed, and intentions to one another.
In real life, this kind of connected car system might not actually be desirable in all situations — as individual car owners and passengers might not wish to connect their vehicles to others out of privacy concerns, or simply might want to maintain their independence and autonomy when it comes to their driving choices.
No Emergency Stop?
Burgess asks Anderton if there’s any way to override the car’s lockdown and Anderton says no, showing an obvious flaw in the car’s programming: if the vehicle can be remotely controlled by an external party, rather than the car’s own onboard computer and the instructions of its passenger, can anyone really trust it? It doesn’t appear it can even be stopped by the passenger once it’s been “locked down.”
The Sideways Sedan
Interestingly, the car also slides 90 degrees lengthwise as it moves down the road, becoming more like the cabin of a ferris wheel or cable car. Apparently in the future of auto travel depicted in the film, it is quite normal, as Anderton’s car joins another highway filled with others moving in the same direction.
The Vertical Highway
With seemingly no way to assume manual control of the vehicle or even make it come to a stop, Anderton kicks out the car’s window glass while it’s moving and climbs atop it — just before it plunges over the side of a sharp, nearly vertical embankment in the road, a concrete “waterfall” of cars.
Again, this abrupt change in motion would be frightening in today’s world, but in the fictional world of 2054 Washington, D.C., this is apparently an expected and trusted part of roadway infrastructure: cars that switch from horizontal travel as we are used to, to moving vertically almost like an exterior elevator or roller coaster.
How do they stay attached to the side of the embankment, even while moving vertically? They must have some sort of electromagnetic field, like a high-speed or Mag-Lev train — combining the benefits of personal transportation we’re all familiar with in terms of having your own distinct vehicle, with some of the more communal benefits of rail travel.
The fact that Anderton’s car and others around it all switch from horizontal to vertical travel so smoothly, maintaining their speed and distance and without colliding, further lends support to the idea that the Minority Report cars are wirelessly connected to one another.
Solid Body Construction
Defying injury and death, Anderton manages to hang onto the outside of his vehicle while it’s moving vertically and then attempts an even more extraordinary stunt: he jumps from the top of it onto several other vehicles moving up and down the side of the embankment at varying speeds.
Fortunately for Anderton, the vehicles appear strong enough to handle him bounding across their tops without denting or shattering — which is more than can be said for the wooden window screen of a nearby high-rise apartment that he ultimately jumps off the highway and collides into.
No Pedestrian Avoidance?
But the fact that Anderton is able to move across the cars without them stopping or even swerving to avoid his presence suggests another major flaw in their programming in this film: why don’t they have pedestrian detection and avoidance abilities that cause them to move out of his way?
If these were real self-driving vehicles, we would expect them to look out for pedestrians and take the safest possible actions to avoid colliding with them or harming them, including stopping or at least slowing down to give them a wide berth, which the cars in Minority Report do not do for Anderton as he jumps on them.
These real-world concerns aside, this chase sequence is an incredibly exciting and fun one to witness, and is one of the most memorable in this or any film for me, showing the promise of how self-driving vehicles could move in concert and enable more daring, dramatic roadway infrastructure like a vertical highway.
The Autonomous Assembly Line of 2054
The movie also stages an entire fight sequence in an automotive manufacturing plant. Colin Farrell plays Daniel Witwer, an investigator with the Justice Department assigned to look for flaws in the Pre-Crime division, who ends up in fisticuffs against Anderton on an automated assembly line. The two of them must dodge heavy robotic arms, car parts, and spray paint while exchanging blows and shots of some kind of futuristic concussion rifle or sonic weapon.
Anderton eventually leaves Witwer and other DOJ officers in the dust and escapes the plant in a newly assembled futuristic car — a Lexus 2054, a two-seater fuel cell sports car. It’s distinctly different from the passenger ones depicted in the highway chase, which can change its body color to match the mood of its driver and/or passengers.
It also can switch between autonomous and manual driving modes, as when Anderton first escapes, the car peels out of the factory by itself, but he’s later shown behind the wheel. And, in an important note — it does not appear to be subject to the same remote lockdown commands as Anderton’s earlier passenger Lexus. Perhaps because it just rolled off the factory floor?
Why Lexus Was Spielberg’s Car of the Future
The careful reader and viewer will note the plethora of Lexus cars in this film. This is not just a pie-in-the-sky brand chosen randomly as product placement (though product placement is rife throughout the whole film, including prominent displays of Gap, Inc., Aquafina water, and Nokia phones — deliberately so, reflecting the logical advancement of ouradvancement our hyper capitalist society).
Spielberg actually specifically selected Lexus as the auto brand he wanted represented in the film because he owned one himself and appreciated driving it so much, and wanted their help in projecting how a car from the year 2054 might look and operate.
“I’ve been driving a Lexus SUV,” Spielberg said around the time of the film’s release, according to Canadian Driver magazine. “And I thought Lexus might be interested in holding hands with us and going into a speculative future to see what the transportation systems and cars would look like on our highways in fifty years. The result of that exploration is something that elevates and transforms driving into an environmental experience.”
Designing Future Automobiles
The filmmakers brought aboard Harald Belker, a German production designer who also recreated the Batmobile for Val Kilmer to drive in 1997’s Batman Forever, to lead the creative development of the Lexus cars on the superhighway and the Lexus 2054 sports car, which was later shown at real auto shows in 2002. Belker worked with design studio Calty, owned by Lexus and its parent Toyota, and the actual car was constructed by a California industrial design firm called CTEK.
Belker told the New York Times in a 2002 article ahead of the film’s release that he “tried to get into the car all the things little boys dream of: a really cool geometry, big wheels. I searched for the biggest wheels and tires possible.”
Smarter, Cleaner Cars
And as Spielberg elaborated to film critic Roger Ebert ahead of the film’s release, it was critically important that the cars be depicted as having zero emissions: “I wanted all the toys to come true someday. I want there to be a transportation system that doesn’t emit toxins into the atmosphere.”
Speilberg and Belker’s combined talents, along with that of production designer Alex McDowell, who created the overall world and set guidance for the film, helped to make Minority Report such a riveting, immersive and thrilling film — one that continues to inspire our visions of future transportation even 20 years after its release.
The tag-line for Minority Report was “everybody runs,” but as we see in this film and our own world, people still rely on cars to get around. We are eager for that experience to get better, safer, and more relaxing through smarter technology — though ideally, while still preserving our own control over where the cars take us.