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.

The decision to integrate domestic drama into sci-fi and set it in a near-future, close to home, raises real-world questions that might not have occurred had Spielberg kept the action more cohesive and stylized. A race through a super-automated Lexus factory is an advertisement for high-tech car-craft; a stroll around an inter-active store with brands that address each customer by name is a commercial for commercialism itself. So you may be jarred when Anderton runs through seedy alleys for a drug fix, or when jet-packs start zooming in and out of tenement quarters as haphazard and dilapidated as those in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The action scenes may be Tinkertoy stuff, but the juxtapositions of luxury and poverty make you wonder whether Spielberg believes that the haves will have more and the have-nots will have nothing.

Brains not dazzled by the flash will find a puzzler to contemplate at every turn: For example, does Pre-Crime do drug screening? And if eye-prints allow entry to secure areas, why can't the computer that reads them declare one of those eye-prints null and void? Minority Report is full of promising set-ups without follow-through, such as an eye-removal process that's supposed to blind a patient if he doesn't allow for the proper recovery time.

FBI man Witwer views the Pre-Cogs not as tools but as deities. But are they gods who deny us free will? The working-out of this theological question - well, it never does get worked out, only inserted here and there. And the working-out of the mystery results in the hoariest unveil-the-culprit-at-a-party scene. (The filmmakers must have thought that was the Agatha Christie part.)

The second great sequence is lovely. Built on timing and surprise rather than gimmickry and suspense, it suggests that Spielberg has lost none of his wit, his dance-like rhythms and his flair for choreographing the movements of cameras and actors. When Anderton dodges the police in a mall with a Pre-Cog in tow, she begins to play Simon Says with him - ordering him to stand in a certain place or throw change in a certain way. The resulting actions and reactions pay off like the escalating silent punch lines in a Buster Keaton comedy, or the elegant visual tropes of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

The movie could have used more of that exquisite dexterity.

Philosophically, the idea of removing a human being's choice to be moral brings A Clockwork Orange to mind. But except for one eyeball-torture shot, and a variation on Kubrick's use of classical music as background to mayhem, Minority Report mostly resembles Kubrick's movie in its aura of alienation and the wild variability of its performances. Lois Smith pulls off a baroque cameo as the Pre-Cog system's inventor, who's retired to her garden to raise exotic and sometimes bloodthirsty plants. But not even von Sydow and Farrell can bring more than professional conviction to their roles, and Cruise remains both dynamic and inescapably bland.

For all its serious ambitions, what will sell Minority Report are its gewgaws - mechanical sentry spiders like mini-versions of the invaders in War of the Worlds and magnetic-levitating cars coasting on vertical superhighways. A picture that wants to be an upsetting view of the future ends up a weirdly comforting movie. The underlying message is, all you need is family love.

Watch Michael Sragow's movie reviews Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. on ABC2 News, and online at SunSpot.net.

Minority Report

Starring Tom Cruise

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rated PG-13 (Language, violence, suggested sexuality)

Released by 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks

Running time 135 minutes

Sun score: ** 1/2

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