Murder On The Spielberg Express

Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" doesn't look or feel like anything he's done before, yet no one but Spielberg could have made it. Ferociously intense, furiously kinetic, it's expressionist film noir science fiction that, like all good sci-fi, peers into the future to shed light on the present. The director couldn't have known, when he and writers Scott Frank and Jon Cohen set about adapting Philip K. Dick's short story, how uncannily their tale of 2054 Washington, D.C., would resonate in the current political climate, where our jails fill up with suspects who've been arrested for crimes they haven't yet committed.

The "Pre-Crime" unit in this future D.C. boasts that it has reduced the murder rate to zero. Its system depends on three psychic "Pre-Cogs" who can project images of crimes just before they happen. Chief Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the first to see these images. It's his job to decode the information as quickly as possible, locate the site of the crime and rush with his armed team to prevent the murder. Just how this works is illustrated in the spectacular opening sequence, in which a jealous husband threatens his unfaithful wife with scissors.

With an initiative on the ballot to take the Pre-Crime system national, and an arrogant Justice Department investigator (Colin Farrell) snooping around for flaws, Anderton is under pressure to demonstrate the Pre-Cogs' infallibility. His passionate belief in what he does is fueled by personal tragedy: the kidnapping of his son, which destroyed his marriage and still drives him, secretly, to illicit drugs. But he's not hallucinating when the Pre-Cogs finger him as a future killer. Anderton doesn't even know the man he's supposedly going to kill. Suddenly he's on the run, hunted by his own team, with 36 hours to figure out if he's been framed. Could the Pre-Cogs be wrong? Or, if he is a murderer, does he have the power to reverse his fate? "Minority Report" is a thriller confident and complex enough to mix mayhem with meditations on predestination and free will.

The world "Minority Report" evokes is a remarkable fusion of futurism and funk: vertical highways that look like waterfalls spilling magnetized cars; billboard ads that give passing consumers a personal pitch (WELCOME TO THE GAP, MR. YAMAMOTO). But the mean streets are as forbidding as anything in a '40s film noir. The grisly sequence in which Cruise visits a sinister underworld surgeon (Peter Stormare) to get a new set of eyes--shot and lit like something from Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil"-- is as dark as anything Spielberg has done. Janusz Kaminski's gritty cinematography bleaches out the colors, enveloping the characters in a milky aura of cold light. "Minority Report" is an object lesson in the use of computer-generated special effects: they dazzle without ever distracting you from the story.

Spielberg uses Cruise well, too, exploiting his coiled athleticism while reining in his urge toward overexplicit angst. It's Cruise's most potent action performance. Samantha Morton is haunting as the nightmare-ridden Pre-Cog Agatha, who holds the clue to the riddle our hero must solve. The ageless Max von Sydow is in fine form as Anderton's avuncular boss and, in a sharp cameo as the creator of the Pre-Crime system, Lois Smith manages to be both maternal and menacing.

The movie is long (144 minutes), but it never loses its tension. The last act throws twist after twist at you. These are clever, yet the more "Minority Report" focuses on mere plot the more conventional it feels. As with many mysteries, the solution seems mundane compared with the riddle. But if the greatness promised in the first hour isn't sustained, it's unlikely you'll see a thriller as exciting and provocative this year.