Before I launch into what could read like an unabashedly positive review of the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise sci-fi collaboration "Minority Report," let me get off my chest the two things that ultimately torpedo the movie's excitement and stylistic brilliance. Both problems come toward the end of the film, but I'll be vague so as not to spoil anything.
1) The whole plot resolution hinges on that tired and idiotic cliché of an antagonist giving himself/herself away through a verbal slip-up. ("Wait a minute!" replies a protagonist, "I never said...")
There is just no excuse for this kind of screenwriting shortcut in this day and age. It's an insult to intelligent moviegoers, especially in a film that is so enthralling until such bogus Hollywood gimmickry leaves it with a bad aftertaste.
2) The film is structured as a futuristic film noir whodunit (or who-will-do-it, as the case may be) -- yet as the last pieces of a mystery fall into place for Cruise's character, the audience is left in the dark until the last minute for the sake of a cheap surprise.
Cruise stars a Pre-Crime cop in Washington, D.C., circa 2054. With the aid of unwilling "Pre-Cogs" -- psychics who are kept sedated while tuned in to (and terrified by) their collective visions of impending murders -- Cruise and his crack team of high-tech, jet-pack-wearing cop commandos arrest people for impeding crimes before they happen.
He's a man possessed by the memory of his kidnapped son and, by extension, obsessed with his job. And he's convinced the Pre-Cog system is flawless -- until one of the psychics' typically fuzzy visions shows him murdering a total stranger in less than 36 hours.
Suddenly on the run from his own men, Cruise soon learns that the Pre-Cogs don't always see the same version of future events -- but this information has been concealed to preserve the virtually crime-free world the Pre-Crime system has created. He starts to realize "it's not the future if you stop it" -- and the only way to stop it is to free one of the Pre-Cogs from Pre-Crime headquarters in the hopes of discovering disparity in the prediction that has made him a wanted man.
Stylistically "Minority Report" is unquestionably the first hallmark film of 21st Century science fiction. It's also an undeniable second step in a new, dark (sometimes darkly humorous) and richly atmospheric direction for Spielberg (the first step being "A.I.")
Influenced by the cerebral sci-fi of Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, Spielberg's vision of a sleek but swarthy cityscape future is a dream-like but uncomfortably uncanny utopia. Scratch the surface of its automated convenience -- sporty self-driving pod cars on wall-climbing super-freeways, advertisements that read your retinas for identification then customize their sales pitch -- and you see what Cruise comes to realize: This is a world where it's impossible to hide.
In one of the film's most memorable scenes, the police seize control of Cruise's car as it races at 100 mph down a vertical freeway on the side of a monster skyscraper, forcing him to get away by breaking a window and jumping onto a series of passing vehicles. Another episode sees Cruise getting his eyes replaced in by a back-alley surgeon just before robotic "spiders" invade the slum in which he's hiding, scanning retinas in an attempt to hunt him down. Spielberg employs a tracking shot from within the ceiling to chilling effect as the spiders go from apartment to apartment, pinning residents to walls and beds to get a read of their eyes.
Other times the look is less like creepy sci-fi noir and more like the futuristic B movie that's lurking in the heart of "Minority Report." Huge, transparent computer-screens, for example, are controlled by waving one's arms around like an orchestra conductor. But Spielberg does give the film an exquisite visual signature, employing a development process called bleach bypass to bathe the film in sharp but grainy, underexposed but ethereal imagery.
As Cruise runs for his life with a terrified Pre-Cog (played by the intense Samantha Morton) whose senses are completely overwhelmed by the outside world, he makes discoveries that point to a possible conspiracy against him. But he also finds himself on a seemingly inevitable path toward the murder that's been predicted, and tumultuous twists are in store involving the architect of the Pre-Crime police (Max Von Sydow), his ex-wife (Kathryn Morris) and his most relentless pursuer, a Justice Department official played by Colin Farrell ("Hart's War"), who gives a wonderfully murky film noir performance.
I don't have room here to do justice to the fantastic complexities of the story (written by "Out of Sight's" Scott Frank from a short story by dark sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick), or to the extreme wow factor of the action episodes, or to the completeness with which Spielberg creates the world of "Minority Report." But as spectacular as the film may be on so many levels, its Achilles' heel is the few brief but positively pivotal flaws in the plot.
The movie's ending requires such a contradictory mix of absent-minded characters and absurd convolution that it creates a paradox to the intelligence of the plot that came before it. Without these frustrating problems, "Minority Report" might have been Spielberg's best film since "Raiders of the Lost Ark." With them, it's another case of an almost-great movie being cannibalized by Hollywood convention.