What keeps us safe, keeps us free," declares a propagandistic advertisement for the controversial Pre-Crime Division of the Washington D.C. police force, a unit that uses three visionary "Precogs" (short for "precognizant") to apprehend would-be killers before they kill. The inherent contradiction of the "safety is freedom" proverb seems as lost on the leaders of 2002 as it does on the ones in 2054, which is only part of what gives Steven Spielberg's astonishing Minority Report such enormous relevance and power. After collaborating directly with the late Stanley Kubrick for last year's grossly underrated A.I., Spielberg returns to the science-fiction genre for a natural companion piece, framing profound ethical and philosophical questions in the form of dazzling pop entertainment. Expanding on a Philip K. Dick short story, the film could be the mirror image of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, only instead of violent crime being deterred after the fact, the perpetrators are arrested before it happens. Free will is lost in both cases, but the certainty is enough for Tom Cruise, a "future crimes" detective who synthesizes the visions of three Precogs like he's conducting a virtual orchestra. Haunted by the abduction of his young son, which he believes the system might have prevented, Cruise and his team have been so successful (no murders in six years) that the program is readying for a national launch, under the leadership of political operative Max von Sydow. But as Federal Agent Colin Farrell noses around his unit, Cruise's name comes up for the future murder of a man he's never even met, leaving him 36 hours to stave off his destiny and get to the bottom of this supposed frame-up. Few directors are capable of marrying ideas and entertainment—one is often sacrificed for the other—but Spielberg peppers one gripping action setpiece after another with trenchant details about a near-future robbed of the most basic freedoms and privacy. In a world where advertisers can pitch directly to individuals from ubiquitous screens and holographs, human beings are marked like cookies on a web page, so haunted by technology that even a cereal box can recognize them. Seamlessly integrating the special effects into the story without calling too much attention to them, Spielberg and his artisans paint the real D.C. in a virtual glaze, turning the city into a shimmering creature where inanimate objects come alive to the touch. Convenience and safety become paramount virtues, but the film predicts some grim consequences to a future that's currently in the making, not just to civil liberties, but to the very notion of free will. With all these fascinating ideas in the air, plus a couple of beautifully choreographed suspense sequences worthy of Brian DePalma, it's disappointing that the script writes itself into a corner, ending with a run of whodunit clichés. But even when it bends to overweening ambition, Minority Report finds Spielberg in peak form as a craftsman and an artist, boldly advancing the medium with the message.
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