Review: ‘Pre-Crime’

Hot Docs 2017

4 mins read

(Germany, 90 min.)
Dir. Matthias Heeder, Monika Hielscher
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)


Billed as a “chilling and explosive in-depth examination into the modern age of policing,” Pre-Crime looks at the increasing use of big data and proprietary algorithms by police agencies around the world to flag and monitor those who are statistically more likely to commit crimes. While the subject (digital privacy) and its implications (demographic profiling) are both highly relevant and definitely fascinating, the execution of the film falls short in a number of ways.

Structurally, it feels cyclical and lacks an arc. One could reasonably tune in at any point in the film; perhaps that’s a selling point for Television. Aesthetically, the use of title cards and soundscapes mimic “the digital” in a painfully obvious manner, which is compounded by the bleeps and bloops of computers and the use of stylized fonts that recall code blocks. This may accentuate the sense of “digital-ness” for viewers not well versed in all things Internet, but for others it can come off as kitschy. Similarly, one wonders what was behind the choice to project talking heads onto the sides of skyscrapers.

Co-director Heeder appears in the film sporadically, sitting on an ocean-side cliff surrounded by crashing waves as he sketches CCTV cameras, Facebook logos, and word like “no fly” and “smart home” in his notebook while vocally meditating on the nature of our brave new world. It all feels a little like the now-tired formulation that (digital) Big Brother is nefarious and humanity is helpless against the autonomous consciousness of the Internet—definitely a one-sided and dated perspective.

A number of interviewees offer useful information and insight, including academics, policing industry stakeholders, and man-on-the-street victims of digital profiling. Due to his association with known criminals, for example, the police subject a Chicago man to Kafka-esque harassment. He’s given the designation of being 215 times more likely than the average person to commit a violent crime, even though he was never arrested or convicted of anything other than minor non-violent offenses like possession of marijuana. But stories like this and the sporadic factual information in the film doesn’t make up for its shortcomings.

Pre-Crime takes on a big and highly relevant topic, but never delves very deeply into the specifics of technologies used to digitally profile populations. Nor does it attempt to complicate its own arguments by tempering the alarmist “computers are scary” rhetoric on which it trades. Perhaps, in this case, the topic could have been more soberly and intricately explored without such heavy-handed editorializing, including the very obvious “nature vs. technology” dichotomy set up by Heeder’s seaside paper-and-pen sketch sessions. Also slightly jarring is a William Gibson quote (the sky is “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”) carelessly attributed to “a friend” near the film’s end.

For the uninitiated, Pre-Crime might function as an adequate introduction to the topics of big data, police profiling, and contemporary digital citizenship, but most of us already know what the stakes are and the film doesn’t delve beyond the most basic questions.

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