If Steven Spielberg dipped his toe in the dark pool last year with ''A.I. Artificial Intelligence,'' he dives in headfirst with ''Minority Report.''
Despite the film's heavy subject matter -- its lack of faith in the criminal justice system, its Orwellian issues of privacy, its questioning of the nature of free will -- ''Minority Report'' is a thrilling sensory overload, a detailed, fully realized world that's repeatedly and delightfully surprising.
Spielberg doesn't delve these issues too deeply, preferring to revel in his futuristic universe, with its endless urban sprawl, gee-whiz gadgets and sleek sports cars you'll want two of for yourself. The film has an energy that's frightening and addictive.
It weakens substantially toward the end, though, when it tries to shift focus to human beings experiencing a palpable sense of grief. Coming from Spielberg, who's made his name with films that tug at the heart while dazzling the eye, it's unusual that this movie fails to register emotionally.
But we haven't gotten to know John Anderton (Tom Cruise) and his ex-wife, Lara (Kathryn Morris), well enough to care when they struggle with the past and ponder a future.
The year is 2054, and Anderton is chief of the Justice Department's Pre-Crime unit where a trio of ''pre-cogs'' -- humans with psychic powers -- see crimes before they happen in Washington, D.C. Officers swoop down in helicopters and arrest suspects for acts they haven't committed yet.
Ambitious young FBI investigator Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell, who more than holds his own with Cruise) steps in to ask questions about the Pre-Crime unit, just as it's on the verge of going nationwide through the influence of its director, Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow).
Anderton has invested all his time and energy into the unit since the disappearance six years ago of his son, who's presumed dead, and the breakup with his wife. But then the pre-cogs see him commit a murder, forcing him to go on the run with his own team of officers chasing him.
Anderton doesn't even know the man he's supposedly going to kill, and assumes Witwer is trying to frame him. He has 36 hours to prove his innocence with the help of Agatha (a chilling Samantha Morton), the strongest of the pre-cogs. But if he's successful in changing the future, it means the system to which he's devoted his life is flawed.
Written by Scott Frank (who adapted Elmore Leonard's ''Get Shorty'' and ''Out of Sight'') and first-timer Jon Cohen, the film is based on science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's short story ''The Minority Report,'' which first was published nearly 50 years ago. Traces of other movies adapted from Dick's writings are evident: the nightmarish cityscapes of 1982's ''Blade Runner,'' the ubiquitous video monitors of 1990's ''Total Recall.''
But the look is very much that of Spielberg's recent films, thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who also shot ''A.I.'' and won Oscars for ''Saving Private Ryan'' and ''Schindler's List.''
Its idyllic suburban images have an eerie undercurrent, and everything is bathed in a smoky gray light, as if someone left a batch of cookies in the oven too long. And the film wonderfully juxtaposes the old with the new. In Anderton's stainless steel kitchen, equipped with voice-activated appliances, a half-empty wine bottle and leftover food sit on the counter; Pre-Crime officers chase suspects by flying through slums and alleys with jet packs strapped to their backs.
Using his obvious star power, Cruise plays the straight man here. He allows other actors to stand out in wild, memorable supporting performances -- namely Tim Blake Nelson as a boisterous corrections officer, Lois Smith as an eccentric woman who inadvertently created the Pre-Crime system, Peter Stormare as a sleazy underground eye surgeon, and Jason Antoon as a tech geek at a sort of virtual Circuit City.
For its stunning visuals and standout performances, ''Minority Report'' -- or at least the first three-fourths of it -- might just be the best movie so far this year.
A 20th Century Fox release, ''Minority Report,'' is rated PG-13 for violence, brief language, some sexuality and drug content. Running time: 144 minutes. Three and a half stars (out of four).
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.
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