A lot can happen in three years. Steven Spielberg's last movie, AI, was set in 2051, in a bipolar world: sleek surfaces and a carnival-carnivore underbelly. Now, in Minority Report, it's 2054, and the future is more recognizable: tomorrow, only more so. Copies of USA Today flash instant headlines as readers hold them. Cars race down vertical freeways on the facades of mile-high office buildings. On a Washington skid row, eyeless bums peddle the newest nose candy.
Part of the high-IQ fun of Minority Report--Spielberg's sharpest, brawniest, most bustling entertainment since Raiders of the Lost Ark and the finest of the season's action epics--is its mix of future and retro. Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow), who might be a more benign John Ashcroft, and his protege John Anderton (Tom Cruise) run a system that prevents murders by arresting people before they commit them. Yet the Precrime apparatus is so goofily anach-ronistic--three young mind readers floating in a tank and billiard balls rolling through plastic tubes--that your brilliant, mad old uncle could have concocted it in his basement. This two-edged look fits with Spielberg's idea of marrying science fiction with film noir; this is a 50-years-ago detective story set 50 years from now.
Last time out, Spielberg tried humanizing Kubrick. This time (working from a Philip K. Dick story and an excellent script by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen), he borrows Hitchcock's Catholic belief that we are not all criminals, but we are all guilty; our humanity is our original sin. Anderton--on the run for a murder he hasn't thought of committing of a man he doesn't know--is oppressed by guilt because his young son was kidnapped while they were at a public swimming pool. Indeed, water, as both symbol and character, is everywhere in this film: in its Christian sense of baptism and absolution, in its dramatic function as either a hiding place (that terrific bathtub rendezvous with the cyberspiders) or a scene of tragedy (an abduction and two murderous drownings).
O.K., so every action film seems to require that a member of the hero's family die to set the revenge machinery in motion, but Cruise gives some emotional heft to this low trick. Every action film needs its weird characters, but no recent one has been so dense with fine, small roles : Lois Smith as the godmother of Precrime, Tim Blake Nelson as the keeper of Precrime perps, Peter Stormare as a shady doctor with a penchant for setting his patients on fire.
The genre also demands chases, to which Spielberg brings his inexhaustible ingenuity: Anderton literally car hopping on the skyscraper highway, dragging his favorite precog (spooky Samantha Morton) through a mall, eluding his nemesis Witwer (inevitable star-to-be Colin Farrell) in a car factory, where a vehicle is assembled with our hero inside. But Spielberg is also keen to distinguish movie spectacle from moral dilemmas. Faced with irresistible impulse, he says, we can choose to resist it. Try to think of the last film in which the hero has the chance to kill a man he believes abducted and murdered his child and then, with an exertion of iron will, says no.