One of the oddest lessons to be learned at the multiplex this summer is that Steven Spielberg does a better job of aping Stanley Kubrick when he isn't working from Kubrick's leftover material. Even at its best, last year's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" seemed like the product of a reverent student trying to impersonate his master's voice while neglecting to still his own, incompatibly sweet tongue.
Spielberg's all-by-my-lonesome stab at future shock, "Minority Report," is still not the equal of a film like "2001: A Space Odyssey," but it easily outperforms A.I. as the most enjoyable film Kubrick never made. As rendered in washed-out tones by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who shot Spielberg's "Amistad," "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" and the aforementioned "A.I."), the movie is a bleak and mostly believable depiction of a mid-21st-century society in which the clamor for law and order has overwhelmed the most basic concepts of privacy.
In the Washington, D.C., of 2054, murder has become impossible to premeditate. All such crimes are anticipated by the "precogs," a trio of gifted sensitives whose visions are monitored and acted upon by a special team of law-enforcement operatives. The intended felons can thus be arrested before the slayings occur. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the chief of the Pre-Crime unit and a firm believer in the initiative ... until the precogs finger him as the perpetrator of an upcoming killing, and he has to go on the run to prove his innocence while determining how the system failed.
The exciting tale was adapted by screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen from a short story by Philip K. Dick (whose writings were also the impetus for "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Impostor"). Sometimes, the film's pace undermines its clarity, with characters rushing through important dialogue or sacrificing diction to breathlessness. (The pervasive influence of VHS and DVD has clouded the fact that a movie is supposed to be completely comprehensible on first pass.) But words are secondary to the visual treats the movie has in store for us. In this future, cars zoom up the exteriors of buildings, interactive billboards call out to consumers by name and animated critters cavort incessantly atop cereal boxes. One repeated image appears destined to show up in best-of-cinema compilation clips for years to come. It's a shot of a gloved Anderton sifting through images culled from the precogs' visions, his hands manipulating the holographic "pages" the way a conductor works an orchestra. Classical music plays on the soundtrack, both as homage to Kubrick and a logical scoring choice in its own right.
Anderton's flight from so-called justice exposes him to a panoply of colorful supporting characters, including the eccentric inventor of the Pre-Crime process (a wonderful Lois Smith). Unfortunately, Spielberg's theme-park instincts keep asserting themselves: His chase scenes are populated by innocent bystanders who can always be counted on to respond to the action with low-comic double takes. But what keeps "Minority Report" on the plane of mere master craftsmanship -- and below the level of classic visual literature -- is its deficiency as social commentary. Though Pre-Crime's trampling of individual rights is a perfect parable for the age of Ashcroft, the theme of surrendered freedom is ultimately subsumed to the garden-variety gambit of a fugitive trying to clear his name. What begins as stellar science fiction ends up far too close to a Perry Mason mystery decked out with high-tech sight gags.
Presented with the opportunity to achieve true greatness, Spielberg once again cops out. He enjoys unlimited access to creative machinery the full potential of which he is unwilling (or perhaps unable) to exploit. He has parlayed his market instincts into unprecedented popularity, and his latest film is among his best attempts ever to justify that success. But this "Report" doesn't silence the minority opinion that we have a right to expect even more.