“Can You See?”: Navigating the Murky, Powerful Waters of the Female Psyche in Minority Report

20th Century Fox
Can you see?” a desperate and distraught Agatha (Samantha Morton) asks detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise), clutching his arm from her milky pool inside the Washington D.C. PreCrime unit and motioning for him to look at the images flowing from her head. Anderton shouldn’t be seeing these images at all, let alone having physical contact with the female precognitive—“PreCog” for short—who is typically kept in a near-catatonic state in order to churn out predictions of future murders. As Anderton watches images of a drowned, lifeless woman in Agatha’s stream on the ceiling above, his confusion and discomfort are palpable; PreCogs don’t behave this way. Once the image stops playing, Agatha—like the woman in her premonition—slips underwater, leaving Anderton visibly shaken by her unusual emotional outburst, and kicking off a chain of events that will send them both on a dangerous, life-altering search for answers.

On its surface, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is a dark, slick, sci-fi thriller centered on a man on the run (it’s the second film in his unofficial, early 2000s “Running Man Trilogy”). But Anderton’s destiny, and that of the other men in the film, hinges upon the abilities, memories, and empathy of women. More specifically, the gifted female precognitive at its center, Agatha. While the film explores such heady themes as free will versus predetermination, the ethical boundaries of technology, and fractured parent/child relationships (this is a Spielberg movie, after all), Minority Report also enters the murky waters of the female psyche. And once it goes there, all the men struggle to stay afloat.

Despite its futuristic setting, Minority Report is structured like a classic film noir with all the traditional elements and character types accounted for. There is the corrupt cop, the faithful but spurned wife, the intrepid antagonistic investigator and the hard-boiled detective. Yet Agatha is not a femme fatale, a “disastrous woman,” in the traditional sense. What is seductive about her is not her sex appeal, but rather her abilities, and the knowledge she carries for and about the men around her—like the “minority report,” an alternate record of future crimes, which John believes she contains and will clear his name. Her memories, and thus her own unprocessed emotional trauma, are what make her “disastrous” to men—specifically, to Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), the powerful head of PreCrime who will do anything, including murdering Agatha’s mother and framing Anderton for it, to protect both his own legacy and the future of the program.

Burgess knows Agatha has the power to take everything away from him should she reveal the truth of his past actions, so keeping her quiet becomes his top priority. As long as Agatha is plugged into the PreCog hivemind and doing her job, she’s not a threat. Though disguised as a neo-noir, in many ways Minority Report is really a sci-fi allegory about how corrupt systems thrive through the subjugation of women, the exploitation and dismissal of their pain, and the underestimation of their emotions and abilities. The film shows that when women dare to express their emotions fully, they not only expose the flaws in the system, but threaten its destruction. Any woman who persists in asserting her own humanity is disastrous to men who have spent their entire lives denying it.   

As such, Agatha’s dehumanization is intentional. Though not a traditional femme fatale, men (and the rest of society) still objectify her, turning her into something part machine and part superhuman deity. The area where PreCrime houses her with the other two PreCogs is nicknamed “the Temple.” No one but Wally, a mousy male lab technician obsessively devoted to Agatha, is allowed to touch her, both for fear of legal tampering and of harming her seemingly “holy” abilities. Agatha is seen as a pure, “divine” being. In the real world, they have erected bronze statues of her, literally putting her on a pedestal while schoolchildren walk past hearing larger-than-life stories about her. She is essentially a madonna of premeditated murder. No one sees Agatha as human, which is why her re-humanization poses such a problem to the men around her—including Arthur and Dashiell, her fellow PreCogs—because she is the key to PreCrime. It doesn’t function properly without her, and if she doesn’t totally submit both her mind and body to the powers that be, the whole program will fall apart.

Detective Anderton finds this out for himself when he visits Dr. Iris Hineman (a delightfully kooky Lois Smith), the creator and self-appointed “mother” of PreCrime, to seek advice after he’s been accused of the murder of Leo Crow. Dr. Hineman tells Anderton that occasionally the PreCogs disagree about their previsions, creating a “minority report,” which lab technicians are trained to destroy immediately so as not to create doubts about the system’s credibility. However, a copy of the report exists within the PreCog itself.

“It’s always in the more gifted of the three,” Dr. Hineman tells Anderton.

Confused, he asks, “Which one is that?”

She replies matter-of-factly, “the female.”

This is not to say the male PreCogs, Arthur and Dashiell, are not capable, but the film emphasizes the superiority of Agatha’s abilities. It does so again after Anderton abducts her from PreCrime in order to download his minority report, plunging the department and system into chaos. Federal agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) assumes Arthur and Dashiell will still be able to help him find Anderton and Agatha, but a distraught Wally exclaims, “They’re a hive mind! It takes all three for their predictive abilities to work…Maybe if he’d taken one of the males, but Agatha…she’s the one with the most talent. She takes care of the other two.” Not only does this play into the idea of male mediocrity versus female exceptionalism, it also further highlights the role of women as emotional laborers and caretakers, often forsaking their own emotional needs in favor of the needs of others and/or the group.

For most of her life, Agatha has been immersed in other people’s emotional traumas rather than her own. Wally pumps her veins full of drugs that dull her body and other sensory receptors so she is submissive and machine-like. She is a vessel for other people’s pain, worries, and desires (including Wally’s), even going so far as to physically express them as they happen in her previsions. However, it’s more like emotional sleepwalking; she’s going through the motions but not fully aware of what’s happening to her. Anytime Agatha begins feeling and processing her own trauma, she is immediately put back under the influence before she—or anyone else—realizes she’s not just an emotional avatar, but a human in her own right. It is a striking, if exaggerated, example of the toll forced emotional labor takes on female bodies and psyches. Even in 2054, society minimizes and dismisses women’s pain in favor of the needs and goals of men.

“I’m tired of the future,” Agatha wearily tells Anderton as they drive away from PreCrime during their escape, her body shivering as the drugs wear off. It is clear what is exhausting her is not so much “the future” as other people’s trauma. This becomes clearer as Anderton and Agatha make their way through a crowded shopping mall in the following scene. She literally clings to him for dear life, barely able to walk from years of being submerged in her PreCog pool, subsumed into other people’s feelings. What society perceives as a gift is actually a curse for Agatha, crippling in reality.

Water is a recurring motif throughout the film, acting as both a literal and metaphorical catalyst for much of the action. The drowning deaths of Anderton’s son, Sean, and Agatha’s mother, Anne Lively, have a profound effect on each that is two-fold: these events are what brought them to PreCrime (freely in Anderton’s case, forced in Agatha’s), and what eventually motivate both to leave. However, these deaths are also central to understanding each character’s inner emotional life: both are drowning in their own grief. The film positions Agatha and Anderton as opposites in many ways—John/male is the thinker, Agatha/female the feeler—but their relationship is symbiotic. Their grief and destinies are intertwined. Only when Agatha pulls Anderton into her waters, both the literal pool at PreCrime and her own grief, does he truly begin processing his own. Water, an element long associated with human emotion, then becomes symbolic of things neither of them wants to feel, but ultimately must in order to free themselves.

However, in forcing Anderton into her emotional waters and memories, Agatha also opens his eyes to her humanity. “Can you see?” she asks him many times throughout the film. When Anderton finally sees Agatha as a human being, rather than an object, he’s presented with a moral and ethical conundrum: does he continue to pursue the truth, knowing it may not only conflict with but also dismantle the very systems he once blindly believed in?

“Seeing” and sight play a huge role in the world of Minority Report. In this version of the future, eyes are used like ID, scanned everywhere you go whether it’s getting on the metro or shopping at the Gap (“Hello Mr. Yakamoto…how’d those assorted tank tops work out for you?” a holographic salesperson asks after a quick scan). Once Anderton’s eyes open to Anne Lively’s death, and Burgess frames him for murder, he is forced to get “new” eyes in order to conceal his identity, undergoing a tricky surgery to replace his with someone else’s. Metaphorically, Anderton already got new eyes from Agatha; her persistence in getting someone to see and acknowledge her pain finally waking Anderton up to the flaws in the system. It’s not for nothing the film opens with a shot of Agatha’s eyes—hers are the most important of all. What she sees has consequences far beyond herself.

Yet, if Agatha’s vision of future events conflicts with her two male counterparts (thus creating a “minority report”), it’s dismissed; the truth is destroyed to protect the system and the man at the top. This makes Agatha something of a “Cassandra,” a classic female archetype based on the Greek myth of a prophetic woman whose visions are not believed. In the myth, Cassandra has a twin brother, Helenus, who gains his own prophetic abilities—his “sight”—from his sister. Though both Cassandra and Helenus can see into the future, only the latter—the male—is believed. Cassandra’s father, the king, keeps her locked away, ordering his servants to report to him about her mad visions much in the way Anderton comes to Burgess early in the film to tell him about Agatha’s vision of Anne Lively’s death. Arthur and Dashiell’s visions of that death remain within the PreCrime archives, tacitly accepted as the one true version of events while Agatha’s—which correctly identifies Burgess as her mother’s murderer—has been erased entirely. Like Cassandra, Agatha’s repeated warnings only strengthen Burgess’ resolve to keep her and the truth locked away. Anderton, caught in the middle of it all, becomes the collateral damage (as does Danny Witwer, after he confronts Burgess with evidence of his involvement in Lively’s death).

Anderton is eventually apprehended at the beach house he once shared with his ex-wife Lara (who currently lives there), but not before Agatha—ever the empath—helps both herself and the pair see one another’s grief over their respective losses, allowing all a moment to finally process it. “I want him back so bad,” Anderton sobs, Lara (Kathryn Morris) crying next to him. “So did she,” Agatha replies tearfully, “can’t you see? She just wanted her little girl back, but it was too late. Her little girl was already gone.” Before Agatha can tell him who killed her mother, both are hauled back to PreCrime and locked away, Anderton in the prisoner vaults downstairs and Agatha back in her pool at the Temple (where Wally creepily kisses her without consent while drugging her). Again, it is a woman who must deal with the emotional consequences. This time, it’s Lara.

While Agatha is the most overt example, all of the women in Minority Report perform emotional labor of some kind for the men in the film. Lara is a far subtler example, acting as a confidant for John when he has nowhere else to go and no one else to trust. She puts her own feelings on hold while he unloads his doubts and fears, along with information about Anne Lively. Despite their divorce, Lara not only still takes care of John’s emotional needs, she often advocates on his behalf, especially when pressed for information by both Witwer and Burgess at various points throughout the film. Though ultimately, this kind of intense emotional labor is what splits them apart, Lara chooses to take it on again out of love for John, whereas Agatha never gets a choice at all.

As a photographer, Lara too has the gift of “sight.” She naturally sees things a bit differently than the men around her; something the film confirms when Witwer presses her on Anderton’s past suicide attempt (“I regret ever saying that…You lose your son, let’s see how well you handle it,” she tells him). Lara’s ability to see beyond the surface, coupled with her attention to detail, become crucial to clearing John’s name. With Agatha plugged back into the hivemind, and Anderton locked up, it’s up to Lara to free them both, her own intuition and empathy bringing her to Burgess’ office at PreCrime.

In one of the earliest scenes of the film, Witwer agrees PreCrime is perfect but tells Anderton, “If there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.” In Minority Report, the flaw is not just male hubris; it’s the underestimation of female abilities and the power of emotion. Burgess never expects drug addict Anne Lively will get clean and return for the daughter she gave away; when she does so out of determined grief, he kills her to save the program and hang onto Agatha. Likewise, he never expects Agatha to persist in her attempts to tell the truth to Anderton. Burgess views these women merely as barriers to his success. Just when he thinks he has his legacy and the future of the program all sewn up with the truth (i.e. Agatha and Anderton) safely locked away, Lara shows up at his office asking questions about Anne Lively. The more he tries to bat them away and play dumb, the more she persists in asking them.

“Listen,” he relents, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. First thing Monday, I’ll look over the Witwer evidence. And I’ll have Gideon run the containment files, see if anyone drowned a woman by the name of—what did you say her name was?”

Lara freezes. “Anne Lively…but I never said she drowned.”

She’s caught Burgess, and they both know it. The admission is all she needs to break Anderton out and end Burgess’ career. Despite Anderton’s final confrontation with him, it’s not a man who brings justice down on Lamar Burgess: it’s three women. Three women united and motivated by grief, underestimated by powerful men. Whether Spielberg and screenwriter Scott Frank meant to or not, beneath its male-focused surface Minority Report posits that when women assert their own humanity and feel their emotions freely and fully, they have the power to disrupt the status quo and dismantle oppressive systems. It’s not Agatha’s ability to see into the future that is her superpower, but rather her ability to feel deeply. Her empathy saves herself and others. Lara’s empathy saves Anderton. Though they were too late to save Anne Lively, it’s because of her emotional tenacity the other two women are able to open everyone else’s eyes to the truth—to the flaws in the system and the corrupt men at the top.

Looking back on the film in 2018, that message feels eerily prophetic.

Can you see?