I was inspired to write about this movie after I re-watched it and noticed some themes, and then discovered that these themes we're not mentioned on the Wikipedia page about themes in Minority Report.
I was intending to turn this into a video essay, but I kind of felt like I didn't have enough of a conclusion or point to make.
Here's what I had written for the essay so far (it is unfinished, as you can see), as well as some other stuff that I cut out.
The "seeing" theme
the very first words in the 2002 movie Minority Report are about glasses [show image, text]: "you know how blind I am without them"
these words are not said by any major character, and they really didn't need to be in the movie at all, it's not crucial to the plot. Yet this piece of dialogue isn't totally random or superfluous.
It's been placed here, right at the beginning, to set up one of the major themes of the movie. A theme which, after re-watching the movie a while ago and discovering all of this, I found wasn't even listed on the Wikipedia page of Minority Report themes.
That theme is what I'll call "seeing". And it goes far beyond all the obvious references to eyes in the movie.
Before I go into too much detail, you might want to experience it for yourself by watching or re-watching the movie.
If you want a hint, here you go: think about the relationship between what characters see, and what they think
So, go watch it now if you'd like, then come back.
"Seeing", and interpreting what is seen.
Let's talk a bit more about that first scene. In it, the husband and wife both say he is blind without his glasses. The wife said this in order to hide the truth, and he says it ironically when he confronts her about the truth.
I'm familiar with "lenses" and such being commonly used as metaphors for people's interpretations of the facts the world, etc. It's similar to other more common metaphors, like point of view, or perspective.
In this opening sequence, over at precrime, John Anderton also has to interpret what he sees: he sees the jumbled premonitions provided by the procogs. He has to take these visions and interpret them in order to find where and when the murder will take place, so they can stop it.
For example, they figure out that the murder takes place near a park with a merry go round. They *don't* see the merry-go-round, it has to be interpreted, inferred from what they do see, [evidence?], a kid moving around in the background of the vision.
Another example here is the identical houses. They arrive and all the houses look the same, so how do they determine which one is the right one? They need some evidence to distinguish between more than one possibility. In this case, the correct one is distinguished because the killer left the front door open. [there are also eight people in the district with the exact same name as the killer]
So, right at the start, there is a lot of thematic connection to Epistemology, interpretation, inference, figuring out what's true, etc.
Next, there's many examples in the movie of mistaken interpretation, being misled by evidence. Seeing one thing and believing it is another thing.
First, I'll list a lot of the smaller examples. Again, some of them didn't even need to be in the movie, they aren't crucial to the plot, they are just there for thematic purposes.
- ---in an early scene, the computer literally *sees* a handshake, but interprets it as a command to the computer (it doesn't properly distinguish these)
- ---sunglasses guy on billboard is mistaken for another person in the room
- ---The room number *looks like the other room number*, because the last digit is rotated
- ---one person wants a virtual reality simulation that looks like his boss, so he can play out killing him. [he WANTS his eyes to be fooled]
- ---Anderton also enjoys simulated interactions: of his son and wife.
- ---when he's blind, Anderton grabs the WRONG stuff from fridge, rotten food. His HANDS are fooled, his eyes would NOT have been
- ---and there's a moment where Agatha uses her power to INTERFERE with "seeing". This moment is similar to a René Magritte's painting, The Son of Man, when the balloons block the view so that the police don't see John and Agatha.
- ---Then there's when Agatha tells Anderton to drop money on the ground for the (homeless?) man, who thanks them saying "may the lord bless you". Shortly after, in a darkly comedic moment, this prayer "LOOKS" like it is answered, doesn't it? They ARE "blessed": by having their pursuers trip over the man and fall, slowing them down.
- ---Anderton changes his eyes so he is seen as being someone else. He later has to do the opposite (disguise his FACE, while ironically using his old/real eyes so that the scanner *recognizes him as Anderton*). [when Anderton disguises his face, a guy is telling propaganda to children. A kid says I want to see them for real]
So that's quite a lot of small examples throughout the film. [A lot of them didn't need to be put in the movie. I think they were clearly included for thematic purposes.]
Now to work our way up through more major examples.
The resolution of the Spider Bot scene. In this sequence, Anderton fools the technological detectors twice: First by submerging in cold water to fool the heat sensors, second by getting his replacement eye scanned. Being in the cold water leads to two moments of investigation. First, it works to make him dissapear from the cop's heat sensors, but that's suspicious, so the cops go to check what's up. Second, a tiny air bubble rises from the bath tub, and this is enough noise for the spider bots to hear and go back to investigate.
So this is all very suspicious, there's plenty of clues that something is wrong, and the cops are just about to bust in to see what could be going on.
But when the eye-scan is finally done by the spider bots, they stop their investigation immediately and just accept the results of the scan at surface-level, they don't verify by other means. They don't go see for themselves.
Sometimes it's not just the characters, but the audience who is also misled or comes to the wrong conclusions, misinterprets: 1) the belief that the guy there killed Anderton's son, the "orgy of evidence", and the guy "acted" like he was the killer 2) the belief that Witwer set up Anderton
In any other movie, these might be mere "twists". But in this case, I'd say they are thematically relevant.
We discover Witwer didn't setup Anderton when Witwer himself figures out that Anderton was set up. He sees the supposed evidence, tons of it, that convinced Anderton that the guy killed his son. Witwer gets suspicious because there's too much evidence, it's too obvious. There's a meta level beyond the evidence itself: how many times has he seen this much evidence for anything? Never. This gets to the idea of probability and likelihood, as well as "expected evidence". Expected evidence is what you expect to see if something is true.
Now for perhaps the biggest and *most plot*-relevant example: the "echo" vision ---the characters are primed to interpret the footage of a particular vision as if it was a mere echo, and so they ignore it, discard it. The audience may also buy this interpretation at the time.
But there's a murder that was intentionally made to look just like another murder, precisely so that it WOULDN'T be "seen". It would be confused for the other murder that was successfully stopped. Just like the houses confused for each other, or the door numbers confused for each other.
Complexity of theme
So, when I first started writing about this, I think I sorta thought that the overall message added up to basically "it's important to know how to figure out what's true". I thought it was basically trying to train the audience to _be critical thinkers_. [not just the "skills", but the values, the importance, the habit, the anticipation. training us to BE critical thinkers, not just training us to know "how to" do critical thinking]
But here's a few examples where it might get more complicated/NEGATIVE or pessimistic:
Anderton's wife left him because seeing him reminded her of their son. In this example, seeing... is just painful.
And don't forget the start of the film: when the husband learns the truth that his wife was hiding, he is _upset_ and ...tries to kill her [show image of his scissors aligning with his glasses]. There's even another part of the film where this seems to be echoed. In the mall, Agatha grabs a stranger and tells her "don't go home, he knows".
we can [we're made to?] sympathize with these people who are hiding the truth.
In fact, the story of the entire movie can be compared to this quote from early on: "If you dig up the past, all you get is dirty" [AKA "curiousity killed the cat".] Anderton digs up the past, and gets in huge trouble.
-And even when Anderton knows there is no Minority Report to vindicate him [which is interesting, it makes that scene almost pointless], he keeps going, and says he "needs to know" what happened to his life. But his need to know _IS_ what happened to his life. Or, at least, how the villain reacted to his "need to know" is what happened to his life. What happened is he was uncovering a secret and someone didn't want him to know.
Put simply: Trying to figure out what is true puts you in conflict with anyone who wants to hide that truth. [and who wins in a fight? powerful][and the power doesn't just fight in any old way. does so in thematically relevant ways. 1st) creates a false appearance with leanne crow acting/lying, then 2nd) false appearance of witwer's death as if anderton did it. the system/police etc. all just automatically functions once these lies are in place, the powerful/orchestrator creator of the lies who knows their falsehood doesn't have to get hands dirty.....except he does kill witwer...][when threatened, power will "take out" BOTH witwer and anderton, and precog's mom][scout vs soldier mindset, anderton is useful/allowed as a true believer, not a truth seeker][noble lie? min report is kept secret, and of course murderous origin is kept secret, all to ensure something that seems kinda noble]
Alright. There's just one more big example that I think is in the movie that I want to cover. The ending.
Many themes are present when Anderton is being put into the prison.
In fact, here's a quick look at all the themes in the movie [list/web], and here's all the themes present in this one short scene [highlight them].
The prison guy's dialogue here definitely touches on the seeing theme. He says: "They say you get visions; that your life flashes before your eyes."
He also continues, and says "That all your dreams come true."
So, that's neat. Then what happens?
Well, it cuts away, stuff happens, and Anderton gets his victory. The truth gets out, the corrupt person is taken down, the precogs are freed, Anderton gets back together with his wife, they even have a new baby.
The question people ask is: Is this happy ending just his "dreams coming true", hallucinated in the prison? Or (as others have supposedly accused) just one of Spielberg's happy endings?
What I want to propose is that this quandary itself is precisely the point. The question of how to interpret this ending ("is it reality or a dream?"), matches the pervasive "seeing" theme that I've documented here.
[cut from later drafts of my script/essay]
The movie is pretty obvious about the religion theme. I'll go through this one quickly (and at the end of the video, I'll connect it to the other theme as well):
Early in the movie, we're explicitly introduced to religious comparisons.
Right after we see the first arrest in the movie, we see an advertisement for precrime. It says that the precogs are a miracle.
We're told that "some people have begun to deify the precogs", the room where they are kept is called the "temple", and one of the cops agrees "we're more like clegy than cops" because they deal with fate, changing destiny.
Also, the device used to arrest people is called a "halo", and at one point the "prison" they get sent to is figuratively referred to as "hell".
Lots of that is pretty basic. Perhaps more interesting is the way the characters Anderton and Witwer relate to this theme.
They disagree with each other. In fact, they disagree about two things related to the religion theme.
First, Witwer talks about the precogs being divine and the system around them being like a religious system. Anderton is very dismissive of those beliefs. [I think Witwer even kisses some kind of lucky charm when they have their direct fistfight with each other] [he also kisses it right before he dies]
Second, is their stance on the precrime institution of justice. On this subject, they have kind of swapped positions. Anderton defends the institution, and in his conversation with his boss, he's basically said to be a true believer in precrime. Witwer, on the other hand, is a skeptic of the institution, questioning it and looking for flaws.
There's a bit more to say on this theme, but I'll save it for the end of the video when I connect everything together.
Now it's time to tie some things together.
There are some parts of the movie that exhibit both themes at the same time.
The precogs themselves fit both of these themes. They are both deified AND pre-scient, seeing the future.
They're also compared to oracles.
So the themes of religion and seeing fit together quite naturally here.
But the movie also sets up a tension, as if the two do not fit together.
When Witwer points out that people have begun to deify the precogs, Anderton retorts that they are pattern recognition filters, that's all.
That exchange is similar to this bit from Witwer (If you interpret "science" as being related to the "seeing" theme). He says:
"Science has stolen most of our
miracles. In a way...
... they [the precogs] give us hope...
the existence of the divine."
Another interesting point in this scene is when Witwer says "The oracle isn't where the power is anyway. The power has always been with the priests". [Almost as though religion takes power away from people who see the truth?]
Precogs, divinity, and seeing are tied together another time when Agatha first asks Anderton "Can you see". Afterwards, when he's telling the others about this experience, I get the impression from the acting, it's like he's experienced something divine. He has a sense of awe or whatever now (that he didn't have before).
Then there's the instance of Agatha's using of her power that is (most??) (subtly?)directly compared to a miracle:
when she tells Anderton to drop money on the ground for the (homeless?) man, who thanks them saying "may the lord bless you". Moments later, in a darkly comedic moment, this prayer "LOOKS" like it is answered, doesn't it? They ARE "blessed": by having their pursuers trip over the man and fall, slowing them down.
[lots of stuff about dreams and sleeping too. Plant lady says the real nightmare was that the kids' dreams were about to come true]
Alright. There's just one more big example that I think is in the movie that I want to cover. The ending.
The themes are definitely both present when Anderton is being put into the prison. And it's a bit more involved than I thought at first, so I'll try to spell it all out in detail.
---the prison is compared to an afterlife
------"go to hell in a halo"
The prison guy's dialogue here definitely touches on seeing: "They
say you get visions; that your life
flashes before your eyes."
Aside from mentioning eyes and seeing visions, this might remind you of how "they" say the same thing in real life (or other works of fiction): having your life flash before your eyes when you die or almost die.
He also continues, and says "That all your dreams come true." Given the other comparisons to religion and the afterlife, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say this could be compared to a more heavenly afterlife.
As an aside: also like Disney/Jimmeny Cricket, the lyrics to "When You Wish Upon A Star", which Speilberg likes, so this line works with both interpretations of the ending.
There's even a pipe! Probably another René Magritte reference.
Older version of this page
For some reason, the list of "themes" on the wikipedia page doesn't include "religion". Also, the main theme that stood out to me the most was epistemology and metaphysics. Basically, "epistemology" is the method used to reach a conclusion, and "metaphysics" is the conclusion. That is: given the data available, what should we believe is true? How should we interpret the data? Since different possibilities could be true (by definition: they are possible), how do we distinguish the true one from the others?
Here's some examples from the movie related to this theme:
- Nearly indistinguishable houses at the start (and the apartments later), they have to look for any evidence to distinguish the right one from the others. "Blind without" the glasses. These things at the start immediately made me suspect what the theme was, especially since "lense" is a common metaphor for people's interpretations of facts/data.
- the computer literally sees a handshake but interprets it as a command to the computer (it doesn't properly distinguish these)
- The guy with no eyes. The New eyes.
- "Can you see?" is a repeated phrase
- 'seeing' the future
- the sunglasses guy picture on a billboard sign is mistaken for a human
- Primed to be unable to tell if the vision was an echo or a new murder, they interpret the murder vision as an "echo", because that is what it looks like. The audience may also buy this interpretation at the time.
- spider bots can't see it's John in the bathtub
- the trust placed on the spider bots measurement method also fools the cops and allows John to evade detection, because they interpret the scan info as reality
- Funny that John has to do the opposite later: disguise his face but use his eyes on a scanner. Also in that scene, there is a "red ball" (his eye), which is rolling and he has to catch, but this is unrelated to the theme we are discussing I think.
- Person wants a virtual reality simulation that looks like his boss.
- Both John and the audience are misled. John misled to think the guy killed his son, the audience misled (along with John) to initially think that the investigator guy is the one who set him up.
- there's something similar to René Magritte's painting, The Son of Man, when the balloons block the view so that the police don't see John and the precog.
- "May The Lord bless you", this prayer looks like it is answered, doesn't it?
- The room number looks like the other room number because the last digit is rotated (6 and 9 are rotations of each other).
- Possibly also the gun given as an award? It's a real gun.
And then there's the viewer's interpretation of the ending: is the ending a dream (because the prison guy says the sleep prison gives you dreams of all your wishes coming true), or just one of Spielberg's happy endings? I propose that this quandary itself is precisely the point, since it matches the theme I've demonstrated here.