A crime before its time

Spielberg is smart and subtle in futuristic 'Minority Report'

Imagine a future where crime and punishment don't always occur in that order. That's what Steven Spielberg does in "Minority Report," based on a story by Philip K. Dick, the late science-fiction guru whose notions inspired such popular movies as "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall."

Spielberg's picture is smarter and subtler than both of those, although its plot may prove too convoluted for fun-seeking summer audiences.

If that happens, it will add to a string of overambitious epics for Tom Cruise, whose superstar aura failed to rescue "Vanilla Sky" or "Eyes Wide Shut" from box-office blues.

The time is 2054 and the place is Washington, D.C., where no murders have occurred in years. Credit goes to a government Precrime Unit that can detect homicides before they happen, send cop squads to prevent them, and incapacitate the potential killers.

The key to this operation is a trio of "precogs," genetically unique people whose nightmares foretell dire events to come. They're kept in a state of restless semisleep, and when a vision of murder enters their collective mind, it's turned into computer images that tip off the police.

Cruise plays John Anderton, a police officer who's devoted his life to the Precrime program ever since the abduction and apparent murder of his little boy six years earlier. He's a troubled man, good at his job but addicted to drugs that numb his grief and bitterness.

His troubles get worse when the precogs peg him as the city's next would-be killer.

This seems crazy to him – he's never heard of the potential victim they name – but instantly his fellow cops are on his trail. His only hope is to evade capture and visit the murder scene at the hour of his predicted crime. He suspects it's all a setup by political forces that want to manipulate the precog program. It turns out to be a plot more sinister and personal than he foresaw.

Spielberg has made most of his fortune with eye-candy hits like the "Indiana Jones" and "Jurassic Park" pictures, but occasionally he acknowledges the serious side of his artistic personality.

"Minority Report" is no "Schindler's List," but its most vivid scenes – a visit with an insane ophthalmologist, a showdown at Anderton's supposed crime scene – have the kind of anything-goes creativity that set "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" apart from the crowd last year.

It also has a political dimension that's way beyond the simplistic civics lesson of the current "Star Wars" installment.

Today's campaign against terrorism has sparked important debates about civil liberties and due process of law, making this an opportune moment for Americans to think about issues like high-tech snooping and preventive detention.

The movie is at its worst when Spielberg delves into the well-developed kiddie side of his talent, cooking up a flashy chase sequence wherein our hero singlehandedly defeats a platoon of cops armed with enough futuristic weapons to conquer a medium-sized country. Only devout video-game nuts will be able to watch this nonsense without wincing.

Cruise capably handles both the dramatic and action-hero aspects of his role, ably supported by Colin Farrell as a politically driven nemesis, Samantha Morton as a precog, and the great Max von Sydow as Anderton's friend and mentor.

Janusz Kaminski did the dreamlike cinematography, bathed in Spielberg's trademarked waves of hazy luminescence, and John Williams composed the humdrum music.

That's my report. We'll see what the mall-and-multiplex majority says this weekend.

• Rated PG-13; contains violence, sexuality, and adult themes.

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