This is not a movie review. It is an analysis of the metaphysical symbolism in the movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise and Max von Sydow. I’m going to assume that you have seen it, but if you haven’t, you might want to see it before reading this, because I’m going to give away the ending.
What is a metaphysical symbol? I’m using the adjective metaphysical because the symbols we’re going to be talking about have to do with universal archetypes of the self. An example of a metaphysical symbol, or should I say an every day word that also has a metaphysical meaning, is blood. Blood symbolizes the life of a living being. It was used in the movie Terminator II, Judgement Day to distinguish the good robot from the bad robot. The good robot was sent to protect; the bad robot was sent to kill. The good robot had “heart”, the bad robot only cold intellect, which is symbolized by another metaphysical symbol mercury or “quicksilver”. This was portrayed as the “liquid metal” that composed the body of the bad robot. Mercury is liquid metal. Remember the box of roses in which the Schwarzenegger character hid his shotgun? Roses are another metaphysical symbol related to both the heart and the life force in its love aspect. His love was to protect the boy, yet another metaphysical symbol, as we shall see in Minority Report.
I’m giving examples of the symbolism in Terminator so that you will know what to expect as we examine Minority Report.
The first step in this kind of analysis is to identify the symbolic characters, actions, objects, and ideas. This is relatively easy, because screenwriters go out of their way to make them obvious. Just as your ordinary screenwriter will drop clues about what to look for later in the plot, a metaphysical screenwriter will exaggerate a symbol by repeatedly putting it in front of the audience. One such symbol in Minority Report is water.
Water is a constant theme throughout this movie. We see it first in the opening credits – a soft ripple effect, like sun reflecting off the surface of a pool of water. Next, it shows up in the form of tears when the wife of the first would-be murderer tells him not to cry. We see it again when we watch Agatha’s mother drown. Later it shows up as rain.
John Anderton, the hero of the story, loses his son to a kidnapper while he is holding his breath underwater at a swimming pool. The pre-cognitives live in a tank filled with water. Water is everywhere in this movie, and it is used as a specific symbol. What does water symbolize? It is an ancient symbol for Universal Mind, what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”
Deep water is mysterious, holding life forms and powerful, unseen currents. Astrologically, it refers to death and rebirth, the imagination, and the cyclic powers of the moon as they relate to the subconscious. Early Christians used the symbolism of water extensively, as in Jesus’ many references to fish and fishing, calling his disciples “fishers of men.” The fishhook symbolizes meditation, because it is the tool for drawing life from the waters of the mind. The baptism of John was a rebirth from a second womb, cleansing his disipcles’ eyes for the beatific vision of Christ.
Tears are perhaps the most powerful symbolic use of water inMinority Report, because they represent the sorrow of letting go in the face of truth. The husband who catches his wife and her lover lets go to the truth of the situation he has just witnessed. John Anderton cries when he finally accepts that his son is dead. Both incidents immediately precede the would-be act of murder, the point at which the two characters are called upon to change their “destiny,” to choose an alternate future by taking control of their passions. In the Bible, the first man, Adam, fails this test, whereas the “second Adam,” Christ, does not. The crazed husband, and the victorious Anderton echo this archetypal event.
Anderton told his drug dealer that he was looking for clarity. Letting go is the key to clarity. It is only when we cleanse our heart of the desire to make the world conform to our cherished illusions that we truly find peace. Or, as Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
In Minority Report, crying represents not only mourning the loss of loved ones, but the deeper loss of these illusions that sustain us in our flight from the truth (“Everyone runs.”). Anderton doesn’t want to permanently lose his son by admitting that he is, in fact, dead. The betrayed husband is forced to look at the true state of his marriage, instead of continuing to live the lie. The clarity we say we are looking for is the last thing we accept, because to accept it is to accept the death of the illusions that hold our “life” together. We will go to great lengths to avoid seeing the impermanance of our “self” and our relationship to other “selves.”
The Single Eye
The next symbol we encounter is the eye and its function of vision. The same would-be murderer at the beginning of the movie says about his glasses, “You know I’m blind without them.” He suspects that his wife is having an affair, but he can’t quite “see” it.
The eyeless drug dealer tells Anderton that in a world where everyone is blind, the one-eyed man is king, suggesting that it’s the inner vision that provides real clarity, the ability to free oneself from the domination of his or her own illusions. Anderton uses drugs ostensibly as a means to escape feeling the sorrow over the loss of his son, which if he allowed himself to feel would bring the clarity he says he’s looking for.
Later, John has his eyes replaced to conceal his identity from the retinal scanners that are everywhere. He plans to use his old eyeballs to fool the security systems, but he loses one of them when it rolls down a drain. Even one of his new eyes is blinded when a “spider” lifts his bandage before it has completely healed from the replacement operation. Another reference to the single eye comes subtly when Lamar says, “The eye…” (coughs) “…the eyes of the nation are on us right now.”
It is the pairing of eyes and ears in human physiology that enables us to gauge the distance and location of things in our external world, the world of the senses. This is accomplished through the stereoscopic and sonar effects of the eyes and ears respectively. By combining the images from each eye—viewed from slightly different angles due to the distance between them—the brain can interpolate depth in the field of vision. And by calculating the slight difference between the exact moments that a sound wave hits one eardrum before the other, the brain can tell the direction of the sound.
The “single eye,” therefore, is the inner vision, the vision that knows what it is seeing. It’s taking the raw data of the sensory world and putting it all together. It is understanding, but not intellectual understanding. It is seeing the world as it is—directly—without cognition and without interpretation. Thinking about what we are seeing and interpreting it by comparing it with what we already know only serves to separate us from the object of our perception. It prevents us from joining with it and thereby truly knowing it. To make our eye single is to look from within, to become one with what we are looking at, so that we can know it from the inside out, and not merely by its appearance. This is what differentiates spiritual understanding from intellectual understanding.
You can choose
Agatha, the pre-cognitive, asks John, “Can you see?” On one level, the truth she is trying to get him to realize is the identity of the man who drowned her mother. But on a higher level, it is the truth of free will. No one has to go down the path that his or her circumstances seem to dictate. In Buddhism, this is called samsara, the continual round of death and rebirth, or the inevitable track of repeating the past in the face of the profound resignation that believing in fate always brings. “Nothing is written,” said Lawrence of Arabia. To believe that our future is beyond our control, that it is somehow pre-determined, is the death of our human potential, the death of possibility.
Free will is the basis of spiritual freedom—freedom from fate. Everyone has the power to choose whether to go down the tracks laid before him or her, or to “choose again,” as A Course In Miracles says. Anderton chooses to go against the future—his fate—by not killing the man he thinks kidnapped his son.
An action symbol
Another major theme of the movie is murder. As an action, it symbolizes what we do to our own divine nature, the Christ within us. As we succumb to the dream of what our physical sight tells us, we murder life. Anderton effectively murders his son when he takes his eyes off of him and looks at the scenery underwater. He leaves the word of light and true identity and immerses himself in samsara.
Jesus said, “Fear not those who kill the body…” There are much worse things than death, namely losing our soul. This is the danger in which the society of Minority Report finds itself—losing the ability to tell the difference between expediency and justice. It prefers to sacrifice the rights of individuals for the sake of social order. From a metaphysical standpoint, it would be better for a society to perish than for it to lose its sense of justice.
Director Steven Spielberg is perhaps drawing our attention to the ever-increasing breaches of our rights of personal liberty, which is taken to its logical extremes in this movie—punishing people for crimes they have not yet committed. It was not that long ago that many of Hollywood’s entertainment leaders were blacklisted solely on the basis of their personal associations and beliefs. Guilt by association is not a democratic ideal. It is immoral and contrary to the legal ethics of a free society.
Ideas as symbols
One idea used as a metaphysical symbol in Minority Report is the sacred. The room that houses the pre-cognitives is nicknamed “the Temple.” The cop sent by the Justice Department is an ex-seminarian, who says that technology has stolen all of our miracles. The Pre-Crime police fall angel-like from the sky, bearing “halos” that send their wearers (the would-be murderers) to a heaven-like prison, complete with pipe organ, where, as the warden (named Gideon) says,”Their every wish will come true.” The agents think of themselves more as clergy than cops, because they change people’s destiny. The public deifies the pre-cogs, who just happen to be three in number, two male and one female—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The movie uses the sacred as a symbol for the superstitious belief that we can replace God with technology. But metaphysically, it symbolizes the mistake of deifying the future that we know is going to happen, to blindly submit to the road that karma lays before us, and to believe that there is no escape from punishment for sin. This is the negation of compassion. Instead of believing that mistakes are lessons from which we learn and grow, we superstitiously believe that every misdeed must be punished.
Characters as symbols
The most poignant part of the movie is when Anderton finally accepts the loss of his son. Metaphysically, male children symbolize the Christ within each person—the Son of God—the innate potential of each human being. This is a direct corollary to the parable of The Prodigal Son, but here the father and son are two aspects of the same person. Anderton loses his son (his own Christ-nature) when he becomes submerged in the field of time, symbolized by him trying to hold his breath in the swimming pool while his son holds a stopwatch. The Prodigal Son thought he had lost his birthright by his obsession with materiality, but as with Anderton, he has it restored when he finally realizes what he has lost. Anderton’s “son”—his birthright— is symbolically returned to him in the form of his wife’s pregnancy at the end of the film. His vision is restored—his “new eyes” allow him to see what’s really going on.
Anderton’s betrayal by the father figure Lamar symbolizes the failure of the patriarchal nature of the intellectual mind to feel compassion for an individual person. The conscious mind only wants expediency. It cares nothing for matters of the heart. Its sole purpose is to fix the world—in the case of the movie, to rid it of the crime of murder. Lamar’s self-sacrifice in the end is analogous to Jesus’ death on the cross. He pierces his own heart with a bullet of gold—the symbol of the sun god, Christ.
Who knows if the screenwriters of Minority Report intended the symbology I have described here. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t, but the symbols—the objects, the people, the actions, and the ideas—are there. Perhaps they flow from the pen unconsciously, or perhaps they are carefully crafted, woven into the plot as a subtle background to stir the archetypes within us. If so, then I say well done! Movies like Minority Report make movie-going a real pleasure.