Minority Report (2002) explained: the paradox of precognition

A man's face seems to float in a blue, watery environment. He's wearing a white blindfold.

Metaphors of seeing – and echoes of our AI angst – in sci-fi thriller Minority Report.

Like I, Robot, Minority Report transplants a noir murder mystery to an imagined future society. Here, though, the wonders of science yet-to-come look a lot like faith.

It’s 2054, and in Washington D.C., murder is almost non-existent. How come? The police Precrime department has a miracle up its sleeve: precognition.

From a secret room at police HQ, three barely conscious humans – “precogs” – have disturbing visions of future murders. Armed with the names of killer and victim, plus time of death (though not location), cops scramble to arrest the murderer before they kill.

For chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), this inescapable justice is a bitter pill. His 6-year-old son Sean was kidnapped, and presumably killed, shortly before Precrime launched. All John can do now is save others from the same fate.

Then John learns something that shatters his faith in the law. Secret “minority reports” reveal the flaw in the system: the precogs don’t always have identical visions.

When the precogs predict John will kill someone he’s never even met, only his minority report can save him from the living death of incarceration. But first he has to find it – before Precrime finds him.

Second sight

Agatha’s catchphrase “do you see?” is a kind of spine for story and symbolism in Minority Report.

As an inciting incident – when she first grabs John – it draws attention to a past case, the almost-murder of Anne Lively. Later, it repeatedly demands John look beyond grief-coloured preconceptions (“there was so much love in this place”).

It’s no surprise Agatha (Samatha Morton) makes sense of the world like this. It’s the sole function forced onto her as a precog: to see what other humans can’t.

But for a story so obviously about (fore)sight, metaphors of seeing appear in myriad ways:

  • Eye-scanners are rife in the future. They’re an inescapable form of surveillance (and advertising … )
  • Precrime depends on precognition. Meanwhile, John’s overwhelming grief and guilt comes from losing sight of his son / not foreseeing what could happen
  • John’s a neuroin addict; when he goes to score, his dealer asks if he’s looking for “clarity” (which also means to see things clearly). Notably, John’s dealer has no eyes
  • Those deemed guilty of murder are put into comas and locked in a panopticon, a type of prison which implies constant surveillance (panopticon means ‘all-seeing’)
  • When he’s accused of murder, John has an eye-swap op to evade the scanners. Incidentally, this coincides with him gaining a new perspective about the law
  • Breaking Agatha out of the temple disrupts the precogs’ visions. Without them, the police are effectively blind
  • When John and Agatha escape, clairvoyance and illusion make them invisible, i.e., hidden by balloons or umbrellas. Shortly afterwards, an advertising screen behind police officers reads: “see what others don’t”. Well, quite.

Blade Runner – also based on a story by Philip K. Dick – has a similar preoccupation with enucleation (removing eyes).

Looking without seeing

If Minority Report is rife with metaphors of sight, it’s commentary on forms of invisibility, surveillance and looking without seeing.

Oversight is a common tool of dystopia, i.e., 1984’s Big Brother. In Minority Report, eye scanners are a symbol of surveillance society, and the authoritarian reach of Precrime.

Incidentally, the film’s depiction of dystopia is interesting. It looks like utopia (“imagine a world without murder”), but gradually reveals the horrors of guilt without crime.

Similarly, shopping malls, billboards and the police precinct are glossy and high-tech, but homes – including John’s – are concrete eyesores riddled with clutter and bugs.

So. In a surveillance society, ‘not looking’ is an act of subterfuge. Some even remove their eyes to evade detection – or to be free to look where they want instead of where directed. This is harder than it sounds, because precognition is one more form of surveillance.

Yet not seeing is risky, too – neatly illustrated when, unable to see after his operation, John reaches for a rancid sandwich instead of the fresh supplies.

This all signposts a far bigger illusion. The precogs are deified, locked away in their ‘temple’, and served by high priests (the police). It’s a psuedo-religion; techno pimp Rufus T. Riley even genuflects when he meets Agatha.

Like religion, Precrime demands faith in the unverifiable, and claims to be infallible. The problem is, the precogs don’t always see things the way they are, either.

Other parallels with religion: the containment guard, with his pipe organ and “his flock” of prisoners, is a priestly echo. And Danny Witner trained as a priest before joining the force.

The flaw in the system

Does the future exist? It’s not something we can touch or control; at best, we can anticipate or imagine it. The future is a river of infinite possibilities, but once it arrives it becomes the present, with a single outcome locked in.

It’s fitting the precog predictions resemble lotto balls. Of all the billions of possible permutations, the precogs pick just two: this person kills that one. Sure, it’s no lottery you’d want a ticket for, but the bigger question is, does this imagined future ever arrive?

John and federal agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) spell out the paradox when they talk time.

Danny says if you change the future, that version of the future doesn’t exist. If you stop a murder, it never happens; no crime = no criminal.

John’s response is to roll a ball that Danny catches before it drops to the floor. His point is that if you stop something that was going to happen … it was still going to happen. A crime is a crime, no?

And yet, John’s statement doesn’t always ring true. If a quick-thinking stranger saves you from ‘certain death’, do we feel glad you’re alive but also hold a wake? Usually, no.

This is the paradox of Precrime, where victims are never killed, yet perpetrators are always murderers. Precrime treats the future as both fixed and alterable – and fairly selectively at that.

In fact, by doing so, the cops lock-in a future that serves their expectations (keep in mind there’s no trial or investigation, only capture and incarceration). It may seem to serve the greater good, but Precrime denies something fundamental to freedom: free will.

Felony and free will

In The Day the Earth Stood Still, alien Klaatu learns that sometimes humans need to feel the heat before we do the right thing: “at the precipice, we change”.

For Minority Report’s Precrime division, however, free will is a pain in the ointment. Instead, by accepting precognition as a singular truth, they determine the future.

But while zero-murder is a vote winner, precognition is deeply flawed:

  • Not all murders are guaranteed to happen
  • The existence of minority reports shows the precogs can be wrong
  • The system can be gamed.

What it boils down to is whether human existence and morality is determined by destiny or free will. Precrime depends on the former, yet extruding the logic reveals a slippery slope.

Once caught, future murderers are locked into a semi-conscious comatose state. But if we could identify murderers, rapists or genocidal maniacs at birth … would we allow them to live at all? At its extremes, precognition has the potential to cancel out lives altogether.

When John faces the man he believes terrorised his son, he’s 100% primed to kill. He’s dreamed of this moment of years – and according to Precrime, it’s his inescapable destiny.

And yet even Agatha desperately tries to make him to see the future isn’t fixed; he can choose whether to give into rage (see also the end of Se7en).

At the last minute, John steps back from murder … and “Leo Crow” kills himself anyway. He has to: Precrime director Lamar Burgess is paying him to die, to hide the truth about minority reports.

The power of prediction

Ironically, the precogs don’t have free will either. Like guilty prisoners, they’re held in a semi-conscious, vegetative state.

In fact, the precogs are the only survivors of deeply unethical experimentation. But when Anne Lively demands the return of her child (precog Agatha), it threatens the future of Lamar’s baby: Precrime.

So, Lamar games the system. He hires someone to murder Anne, knowing the precogs will stop it. He then recreates the murder exactly, knowing that, this time, the cops will ignore the vision as an echo.

Tragically, Danny Witwer works all this out but, with the precogs on the blink, there’s no one to prevent his murder. As it turns out, this is the other flaw of prediction-as-science – and it mirrors our continuing angst about AI.

The precogs aren’t actually machines, but the story moulds to them in similar ways:

  • John doesn’t see them as human at all, but as pattern identifiers (i.e., computers)
  • It follows that the precogs are permanently wired up. Compare, too, how Wally’s weirdly intimate care of Agatha resembles sex pest Nathan in Ex Machina
  • Like AI, prescience represents knowledge humans want to harness, but may never fully understand or control
  • Hence, when the precogs go offline, so do the cops – and Danny is hopelessly naive about Lamar.

The thread of religion and faith that weaves through Minority Report may seem to contradict these tech parallels.

And yet, in the priestification of Precrime agents we can read the widening gulf between the general population and those who control and code the tech we rely on. From email to AI, privacy and trust, for most of us, tech is the ultimate leap of faith.

Drowning in grief

Minority Report plays games with sight, but is also awash with images of water and drowning:

  • The precogs float in a milky bath
  • The vision / minority report of Anne Lively’s drowning
  • John loses Sean at a swimming pool
  • Leo Crow claims to have sunk Sean’s body in the river.

The swimming pool is quite the symbolic location. Sean doesn’t drown there – but when John goes underwater, he loses him forever. When we first meet John, he’s still drowning in grief, forever stuck in the moment of regret.

Who else is drowning in grief? Well, Agatha. John is metaphorically under water, Agatha floats in a bath. John loses his son; Agatha loses her mother.

You might expect Danny would be John’s story double – and he largely is, for dramatic reasons. John’s a cop, Danny’s a federal agent. John believes in Precrime, Danny is hella dubious.

Yet despite their differences, both men seek the truth about precognition; in fact, Danny gets there first. Then, having revealed Lamar’s deception and motives to the audience, Danny dies so John can live. It’s a plot resolution that moves the story on without jeopardising it.

There are other instances of mirroring, from characters who resemble each other to aspects of foreshadowing.

  • John moves from cop to murder suspect, and from chief of police to prisoner
  • Anne’s John Doe killer foreshadows John’s path in the story: both use eye-swap technology, both end up in prison anyway
  • The subtle mirroring (reversal) of waves in Agatha’s minority report ultimately reveals Lamar’s deception.

Agatha, though, is John’s most significant other. As the film progresses, he even becomes more like her: able to see and understand more of the world. And bald, if we’re getting technical about it.

Moments of clarity

Agatha is the key that unlocks John. She represents aspects of his character (grief, drowning). She also represents truths he can’t see, whether about the past, the future, or the reality of right now.

In the film’s most moving scene, her second sight gives the Andertons closure. She reveals the future that was sketched out for Sean but never arrived:

“He makes love to a pretty girl named Claire. He asks her to be his wife. He calls here and tells Lara, who cries.”

Agatha gives John two gifts. Like a ghost of Christmas past, she uncovers the hidden past and its significance to the present. Sean is dead; John has buried love in place of his son.

Incidentally, this grief is another kind of dystopia, or an extension of it (see also Children of Men). Surveillance may be everywhere, but for those lacking love (or money) there isn’t a great deal to protect. Note how John’s cluttered home only becomes habitable once he lets Lara back in.

Agatha also teaches John the possibility and responsibility of free will – and it saves his life. First when he doesn’t kill Leo Crow, where killing him would bury the truth and see John forever frozen in grief and regret (not to mention in physical stasis).

In a roundabout way, free will also saves John’s life when he finally faces Lamar:

“You see the dilemma, don’t you? If you don’t kill me, the precogs were wrong and Precrime is over. If you do kill me, you go away. But it proves the system works.”

Which way does it fall? Well, Lamar plays the free-will card. He doesn’t kill John – but he also doesn’t go to prison. Instead, he kills himself.

Perhaps it’s not a loophole, but just the way things are. The future is an endless river of possibilities, but all our opportunity begins and ends in the present moment.

Minority Report (2002) directed by Stephen Spielberg

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Picture credit: Manuel bonadeo