Myth, Shadow Politics, and Perennial Philosophy in Minority Report

Minority Report is Steven Spielberg¹s second cinematic journey and investigation into interior darkness and (after his portrayal of the dark psyche in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) into the future of humankind. It comes in the form of the atmospheric neo-noir/sci-fi/futuristic thriller which stars an intense Tom Cruise....

Myth, Shadow Politics, and Perennial Philosophy in Minority Report

(Writers: Jon Cohen and Frank Scott; Director: Steven Spielberg. 20th Century Fox and Dream Works Pictures, 2002)

A Film Analysis by Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D.c

While watching the drama,
the spectators become identified with
the mythical happening being portrayed, which allow[s] them to
participate briefly in the archetypal level of reality.
-- The Eternal Drama, Edward F. Edinger

The shadow personifies everything that
the subject refuses to acknowledge
about himself . . . --for instance, inferior
traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.
-- The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, C.G. Jung

The illegal we can do now; the
unconstitutional will take a little
-- Henry Kissinger, as quoted in The Trial of Henry Kissinger,
Christopher Hitchens

Minority Report is Steven Spielberg¹s second cinematic journey and investigation into interior darkness and (after his portrayal of the dark psyche in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) into the future of humankind. It comes in the form of the atmospheric neo-noir/sci-fi/futuristic thriller which stars an intense Tom Cruise (who--at last--foregoes his boyish charm and artificial smile). This is the third Cruise film, in as many years, to deal with eyes and seeing and vision. First there was Stanley Kubrick¹s Eyes Wide Shut, in which Cruise could not see beyond his privileged upper-middle-class existence; then there was Cameron Crowe¹s Vanilla Sky in which Cruise¹s character, David Ames, could not distinguish between realities of the present, past and future, and the virtual. The metaphor of the necessity for inner sight is again present in Minority Report. Indeed, the film is obsessed with eyes and seeing. Cruise portrays a Pre-Crime fighter who is so blinded by his righteous, one-sided perspective that he eventually has his own pair of eyes exchanged on the blackmarket for a different pair, which has the unanticipated affect of enabling him to ³see² more clearly.

For a mythologist, the plucking out of one¹s own eyes by a movie character leads inexorably to a reference of the Oedipus archetype. Jung wrote that Freud ³discovered the first archetype, the Oedipus complex.² The Oedipus complex, he says, ³is a mythological and a psychological motif simultaneously.² And Minority Report is as rife with mythology and psychology, as it is with philosophy, politics, archetypes, and cinematic citations; all of which I will address herein.


But, first, a brief synopsis of the story-line in Minority Report. (Note: this analysis assumes that the reader has already viewed the film and, thus, reveals the plot and resolutions.)

In the cold, glossy national capitol of Washington, D.C., circa 2054, the Justice Department has found a seemingly perfect means to prevent homicide in the D.C. area: a prophylactic pre-detection of criminals. The system uses three mutant psychics (or scientifically engineered prophets)--known as Pre-Cogs--connected to a computer, by which the agents of the Pre-Crime unit can see murders before they take place and arrest the would-be perpetrators. The Pre-Cogs--a holy trinity of precognition--float in a sort of sacred amniotic fluid of vitamins and life-sustaining nutrients that also controls their levels of seretonin--a liquid Prozac, as it were. Considered a 21st-century-style Oracle at Delphi, they are Agatha (Christie?), Dashiell (Hammett?), and Arthur (C. Clark?). Chief John Anderton (Cruise) supervises the unit and reports to its director (and his mentor/father-figure) Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow). Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is sent in by the FBI, which is considering nationalizing the system, to observe the process in action and to detect any flaws (³They¹re always human,² Witwer taunts as he watches Anderton).

Privately, the divorced Anderton lives a shadowed existence by taking the illegal drugs he buys from a mysterious homeless man in an urban Hades and incessantly watching holographic home movies of his son Sean, who was abducted, while under his father¹s supervision, from a public swimming pool, six years ago--only one year before the Pre-Crime unit was developed. One day the sole female Pre-Cog, Agatha, reveals a vision of a woman named Anne Lively being murdered, a seeming ³echo² of an earlier solved crime. Later, the Pre-Cogs name Anderton himself as the next perpetrator who will kill a man--as yet--unknown to him named Leo Crow. Anderton becomes a fugitive hunted by his own organization.

He seeks out geneticist Dr. Iris Hineman, one of the developers of Pre-Crime, who tells him that occasionally one of the Pre-Cogs, usually Agatha, will have a ³minority report,² which provides a different perspective of a crime from the other two. This report allows for the possibility that the identified murderer may have an alternative, innocent future. If Anderton¹s foretold murder has a minority report he will only be able to recover it by accessing Agatha¹s mind. In order to do this he must have a new transplanted pair of eyes so as to evade the ubiquitous retinal scanners planted throughout the city. After successfully abducting Agatha (³Can you see?² she repeatedly asks him), he establishes that there is no minority report for his murder.

Anderton and Agatha find their way to the building where Agatha¹s vision has shown the murder will take place and frequently she reminds him that because he has the ability to choose, he has the power to change his fate. Leo Crow has been set-up to appear to be Sean¹s abductor. As it turns out, Crow wants to die in order to claim insurance benefits for his family and, in a struggle, he forces Anderton to accidently kill him. Witwer realizes that Anderton has been framed. He also examines Agatha¹s vision of Anne Lively¹s murder, and realizes the man they arrested as her killer was innocent. When he explains this to Burgess, Burgess kills him.

At Anderton¹s ex-wife, Lara¹s, house (as a photographer, Lara symbolically has the ability to ³see²), Anderton is arrested by the Pre-Crime unit he had previously worked with and placed in the Hall of Containment, a type of cryogenic suspended animation in a series of tubular cells that seem to go on forever and in which, like the nine levels of Dante¹s Inferno, the prisoners relive their crimes for the duration of their sentence. Naïve to the truth of the actual situation, Lara visits Lamar, but soon realizes that he was actually the murderer of Anne Lively. Anne, a reformed drug addict, was Agatha¹s mother, and had tried to recover her daughter from the Pre-Crime system after her release from the rehab clinic. Lara rescues Anderton from the Hall of Containment and, looking like a shadow figure in his hooded sweatshirt, he exposes Burgess, who then kills himself. The Pre-Crime system is dismantled, the Pre-Cogs retire to a secret island where they can speed read all day, and, in an ending that feels too pat (or shall I say Spielbergian?), Anderton reunites with his wife, who is now pregnant.


In developing his psychoanalytic theories, Freud looked to Greek myths and tragedies and found a resonant theme in Oedipus. The derivation of the ³Oedipus Complex² became one of Freud¹s most lasting contributions to the field of depth psychology. By it¹s nature, the cinema acts out myths in simple, dramatic ways. A number of analogies can be drawn between Minority Report and the story of Oedipus.

Of course, the Pre-Cogs themselves are representative of the Oracle at Delphi and, in fact, their inner sanctum is referred to as ³the temple.²

³Mend the city, make her safe,² the Oracle tells Oedipus. (line 37. Oedipus the King, in The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles, trans. Paul Roche. New York: Penguin, 1991.) And it is Anderton, the Pre-Crime savior who, like a postmodern Leonard Bernstein (while listening to refrains of Bach, Haydn, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky), orchestrates the safety of the city by virtually ³conducting² the future through hologram-projectors built into his gloves that project images onto a blank video screen.

Anderton unknowingly consults his unconscious. It is as if the first emerging awareness of the shadow leads to its projection. ³In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,² says the homeless drug dealer who lives in a futuristic version of Hades and supplies Anderton with his illegal narcotic Neuroine. In a horrific scene, the man is revealed to have concave hollows where his eyes should be and he becomes a stand-in for Tiresias, the blind ³seer² of Thebes, whom Oedipus called upon for information and advice. It is Tiresias who tells Oedipus, ³I say you see and still are blind--appallingly² (line 412).

When Anderton is accused by the Pre-Crime system of a future murder, he adamantly refuses to believe he is capable of homicide. (³And I the killer of those I never would,² says Oedipus, line 1191)

The nature of Anderton¹s blindness is paradoxical. (³Visibility is a trap,² writes Michel Foucault, the French philosopher.) And while he has his original eyes, Anderton remains psychologically blind to the truth about the morality of the Pre-Crime department. (They can see into the future, but they fail to recognize the danger of this kind of vision.) But when he consciously risks his eyesight, his inner-sight becomes clear. (Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Anderton¹s character is that he is not a ³superhero.² In fact, he is a true anti-hero, someone who, as a drug addict and the head of a fascist crime unit, is tortured by inner-conflicts and personal defects.)

Dr. Iris Hineman, the reluctant originator of the Pre-Crime scheme, functions as a ³terrible² or ³devouring² Mother. Her greenhouse is full of serpentine hybrid plants that menacingly hiss and lunge at Anderton as he questions her about the origin of the Pre-Cogs. Hineman also can be seen as the Sphinx who assumed a position on a rock outside of Thebes and strangled the inhabitants one by one when they were unable to answer her riddle. When Anderton scales the walls to her private estate in an effort to meet Dr. Hineman (the all-seeing (³Iris²), he is entangled and his skin slashed by lethal rope-like vines. Barely escaping, Anderton needs an antidote for the poisonous serum which Dr. Hineman provides. In a twist on the Oedipal incest theme, the much older Dr. Hineman kisses Anderton full on the lips and then offers a ³riddle² of her own when she tells him about the existence of minority reports (alternate Pre-Cog visions of the future that are swiftly suppressed in order to avoid any questions about the system¹s accuracy of prediction) and that it is only Agatha, ³always the most gifted of the three² (because she is female), who is aware of them. She, therefore, urges Anderton to abduct Agatha--like Persephone to the underworld. And later, as Anderton releases the lever that controls the liquid in the Pre-Cog¹s flotation tank, he and Agatha spiral down together into a swirl of unconsciousness.

And, in the end, Anderton, like Oedipus, is responsible for his ³father²/Lamar¹s death.

Shadow Politics

I am frequently surprised by the eerily prescient nature of movies, particularly blockbusters, and their ability to foreshadow a movement, fear, or fashion before or as it presents itself to the collective culture¹s awareness. Could the box-office opening of Minority Report (which was completed prior to 9/11) in the summer of 2002 have been any more timely than during the worldwide pursuit of terrorists during the months after September 11, 2001? Did George W. Bush and his hawkish entourage have a sneak preview of Minority Report? (Who are their Pre-Cogs?) The film and our current government (which also used the term ³pre-crime²) present us with a classic totalitarian trade-off: Should we surrender our civil liberties for a world free of criminals and terrorists? Philip K. Dick, the author of the eponymous 1956 short story upon which Minority Report was based, thinks not. And he speaks for millions of American citizens in this line from his story, ³If a system can survive only by imprisoning innocent people, then it deserves to be destroyed.² (The Minority Report, 90)

For Anderton, whose own son was kidnapped before Pre-Crime was instated, the system has become a religion and he a fanaticist; a futuristic ³Dirty Harry² who has a vigilante¹s worldview and drive for personal revenge on these ³cyber-criminals.² Or, in the words of our current cowboy President from Texas, they are ³wanted--dead or alive.² So, how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice in order to feel secure at home? Well, in the government¹s claim to the ³right of anticipatory self-defense,² for more than a year the Justice Department has detained hundreds of terrorist suspects on immigration and other charges (a prophylactic detention of criminals) and ignored requests for details on the identities or whereabouts of those in custody. Will Minority Report be viewed as Bush¹s parallel to Clinton¹s Wag the Dog?

The concept of a ³shadow government² was formally introduced (or was it leaked?) to us post-9/11 by the Bush Administration. Although Jungians were quick to see the depth psychological metaphor inherent in the term, the Republican governance inadvertently admitted its ³dark² side by its eagerness to project ³evil² onto other individuals and regimes. Indeed, with his ³Axis of Evil² speech, the president himself (and the United States by extension) became the personification of the Shadow archetype.

The movie Pre-Crime government created in Minority Report is in many ways equivalent to the current U.S. ³shadow government.² In fact, the archetype of Shadow can be seen as Anderton¹s(/Bush¹s) alter ego. Chief Anderton represents a hero, but, because of his own loss, he has sublimated his hatred and rage by projecting it onto the Other, ³the criminals² who are arrested for merely thinking of committing a crime (or, in the case of Bush, because ³He tried to kill my dad²). The movie¹s citizens have been convinced by the Pre-Crime government that, ³that which keeps us safe also keeps us free²--an eerie reverberation of our own government¹s rhetoric. Henry Kissinger¹s ethos, ³The illegal we can do now; the unconstitutional will take a little longer,² seems perfectly in place in the current administration. What¹s curious is that Dick wrote Minority Report in 1954, the film version was made in 2001, and the story takes place in 2054. We can¹t help but wonder how the movie will further anticipate the future.

The feeling tone of Minority Report is one of psychological claustrophobia and paranoia. The oppression by commerce and the governmental intrusion into psychological space is the ultimate invasion (³Pre-Crime: It Works!!! shout billboards as a form of brainwashing). This is made all the more abhorrent to us as the viewers because we recognize the insidious consumerism and product placement portrayed in the film as a system that currently exists in our everyday life: When returning customers log on to, and other online shopping services, they are addressed by name. Through layers of electronic surveillance, we already live in a form of panopticon (Jeremy Bentham¹s design for a circular prison that allows the centralized warden to see all inmates at all times, which is discussed by Michel Foucault in his 1977 text Discipline and Punish), in which both the governmental agencies and the advertising industry have insinuated themselves into the very infrastructure of politico-economic society.

Film History

Steven Spielberg¹s passion for film history is immediately evident and both obvious and sly references are frequent in Minority Report.

The city that Anderton frequents, the skid row area as well as the skyscrapers, is reminiscent of Fritz Lang¹s 1926 Metropolis. The Big Sleep (1946) and Chinatown (1974) contribute their noir overtones. Blade Runner (1982), an earlier adaptation of another Philip K. Dick short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, contributes a Gothic atmosphere. The presence of Max von Sydow is a nod to Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who relentlessly explored the archeology of the psyche. And perhaps the film¹s most beautifully evocative image shows Anderton and Agatha, heads seemingly attached to the same body in a Janus-like pose--each resting his/her head on the other¹s shoulder as they look in opposite directions, as if looking into two distant and distinct futures. This pose is an exact replica of one of cinema¹s most extraordinary: Bergman¹s 1966 film, Persona, in which Liv Ullman, as an actress recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Bibi Andersson, her nurse, transpose personalities. Perhaps it is at this moment in Minority Report, through a symbiosis with Agatha, that Anderton exchanges his Pre-Crime Behaviorist tendencies for a set of more Humanistic values.

The cameo appearance of Cameron Crowe, who spots the errant Anderton on the subway, can be seen as a reference to the multi-layers of realities in Vanilla Sky, a film directed by Crowe and starring Cruise. In Dark Passage (1947) Humphrey Bogart (who is being pursued by the authorities for a murder he didn¹t commit) undergoes plastic surgery in order to change his identity. In Minority Report Anderton injects himself with a substance that temporarily disfigures his face enabling him to sneak into the Pre-Crime compound unrecognized and abduct Agatha. Of course, Cruise was also disfigured in Vanilla Sky.

Judging from the frequency of its use, the theme of the Lost Boy (Anderton¹s missing son Sean in Minority Report) is a major one for Spielberg and one that he has cannibalized from his own body of work. Throughout his career the Lost Boy has been a primary character: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial, Empire of the Sun, Hook, and the above-mentioned A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Less obviously, a case also could be made for The Sugarland Express, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones, and Saving Private Ryan.

The flight of the probing camera lens (once again, an all-seeing ³eye²) above and into apartment buildings in Minority Report, echoes the voyeuristic perspective in Hitchcock¹s Rear Window (1954) and Wim Wender¹s Wing¹s of Desire (1988). The androgynous Pre-Crime officers remind us of those in Lucas¹s THX-1138. The concept of MR¹s Hall of Containment seems a replica of the Wachowski Brothers¹ infinite pre-birth chambers in The Matrix. There is also the scene in Minority Report when Anderton is in the filthy apartment of the renegade eye surgeon, Dr. Solomon Eddie, who will perform the eye transplant in his makeshift medical setup. This scene again recalls Bogart¹s Dark Passage, in which his doctor was also suspect, and a spooky dream sequence made the viewer queasy. During the operation Anderton¹s eyelids are splayed open by a contraption instantly reminiscent of the one that tortured Alex in Kubrick¹s Clockwork Orange (1971).

Samantha Morton¹s character, Agatha, could be a direct descendant of Renee Marie Falconetti who played the lead character in Carl Dreyer¹s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. Although physically weak from prolonged duration in the Pre-Cog¹s flotation tank, one senses Joan¹s warrior-like quality in Agatha, as well as her martyrdom. Other movie influences include: Terry Gilliam¹s Brazil (1985), (minus the surrealist humor), Volker Schlondorff¹s Handmaiden¹s Tale (1990), Robert Aldrich¹s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Terry Gilliam¹s 12 Monkeys (1995), and the 1974 Warren Beatty vehicle directed by Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View. And, finally, anyone who has seen L.A. Confidential will easily identify the villain.

Perennial Philosophy

The script, written by Jon Cohen and Scott Frank, remains true to the philosophizing nature of Philip K. Dick¹s work (he called himself a ³fictionalizing philosopher²) and his attempt to intuit the influence of a metaphysical realm beyond the sensory world. The perennial question of Fate versus Free Will is one of the most important issues Minority Report addresses. My Roman Catholic up-bringing made me intimately familiar with the question of freedom versus determinism from a very young age. As with many questions, the Church never satisfactorily explained its reasons for fostering both positions, and this truly catholic conundrum has remained for me a lifelong source of exploration and consequence. What is fate or predestination and how do they (or do they) interface with free will? Aristotelian logic stated that the future has been predetermined by the rules of logic; so the question is: can I change the future from what it is going to be, or from what it might have been?

³Is it now?² Agatha repeatedly asks Anderton as they rush to ³catch up to the future² and track down Leo Crow, the man Anderton has been accused of murdering in the future. ³You can choose,² Agatha tells him as he stands, gun in hand, facing his destiny. Would knowing the future provoke us to act any differently than not knowing it? And where do fate and free will intersect? According to what Dick called the ³prophylactic Pre-crime structure,² as soon as precognitive information is obtained, it cancels itself out. It¹s like new physics in which the observer affects/changes the observed. So when a potential murder is ³seen² taking place, interception by the Pre-Crime police prevents it. In Spielberg¹s Minority Report, even as Anderton tries to choose an action different than the one that has been envisioned, he can¹t. And Agatha, like a pleading guardian angel is unable to stop what seems to be destiny: That Leo Crow lies dead (even if accidentally) by the hand of former-Chief John Anderton.

The concepts in Minority Report are both timeless and timely, sacred and profane, complex and forthright, and we could do worse than to read Philip K. Dick and to view Steven Spielberg¹s film looking for clues and possible insights to the many concerns of our current world predicament.

Myth, Shadow Politics, and Perennial Philosophy in Minority Report
© Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D.c 2002

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