What if homicide detection evolved into a private, existential lottery show, with colored balls naming victims and killers and any element of chance eliminated?
That's what happens in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, set in 2054 A.D. ESP predictions from savants dubbed "Pre-Cogs" (for "pre-cognitives"), operating from an experimental Justice Department unit based in Washington, allow cops to stop murders before they're committed. The Pre-Cogs - normal-looking human adults - live in an amniotic fluid that nourishes them, feeds their psychic capacities and channels their visions into jumbled images of incipient fatal attacks. (In one of the movie's slyer touches, they're named Agatha, Dashiell and Arthur - for Christie, Hammett and Conan Doyle.)
Once these fractured pictures coalesce into a crime scene, they trigger two balls that run down Rube Goldberg tubing, with a victim's name on one and the name of his or her killer on the other. It's a triumph for victim's rights. The victim is always the winner. Except, of course, he or she isn't a victim yet.
The virtuoso opening is one of two sequences that suggest how cogent this sprawling smorgasbord of a movie could have become. (I'll note the second one later.) We see the current head of the Pre-Crime unit, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), "scrub the image." In other words, he dissects the Pre-Cogs' vision as it's projected on an enormous curving screen, isolating details with gestures from sparkling interface devices on his fingers.
He's been compared to an orchestra conductor, but the mechanical way Cruise moves makes him look more like a sign-language interpreter addressing a giant audience. Anderton knows the time the murder will occur, but not the exact location. After intense high-speed detective work, he goes after the future murderer in a race against the clock, with only nanoseconds to spare.
So far, so thrilling. But too much of Minority Report is facile, albeit at a very high level.
Taken from a story by Philip K. Dick (who also wrote the source material for, among other films, Blade Runner and Total Recall), it means to be a marriage of eye candy and brain food - an anti-utopian spectacle as well as a fable of civil rights curtailed and restored, joining the kinetic special effects of our era with the emotional kicks of '40s film noir. If it clicked, it would be all those things at once. Instead, it's more like an eclectic anthology held together by Cruise's Eveready energy and persistent glare.
Spielberg, Cruise, and screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen have changed Dick's hero from an aging man, afraid that his wife and his potential successor are setting him up, to a hot-shot in his prime who joined the "Pre-Crime" force because his only child was kidnapped - an atrocity that Pre-Crime would have prevented.
As the movie begins, the Pre-Crime force is on the verge of becoming national. Prior to a country-wide voters' referendum, FBI man Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), who may want to lead the unit himself, has started to audit the department. That's when Anderton finds that his own Pre-Crime system has proclaimed him the assassin of a man he doesn't even know yet. Suspecting a frame-up, Anderton goes on the run.
Obviously, the filmmakers have clocked overtime to fuse family tragedy into the film's vertebrae. The Pre-Cogs themselves are the grown children of drug babies. Their separation from their parents helps determine the actions of Anderton's boss, Burgess (Max von Sydow), and influences the Pre-Cogs' keeper, Wally (Danny London), who assumes a creepy quasi-parental posture toward his charges. Even Witwer had a father who was gunned down a decade earlier on the steps of a Dublin church.
The kidnapping of Anderton's son has fueled his top-notch crime-stopping; maybe the filmmakers were thinking John Anderton equals John Walsh. But in Anderton's case, it's also broken up his marriage and driven him to drug use. This attempt at depth is tissue-thin: Only the most impressionable will get out their hankies. In fact, the woefully inorganic effort to personalize the action with a holiness-of-family theme exposes all the cracks in the thriller framework.