by Ben Kenigsberg Minority Report is Steven Spielberg's first foray -- long overdue -- into film noir, and he does a fine job of paying tribute to the genre ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

Minority Report

is Steven Spielberg's first foray -- long overdue -- into film noir, and he does a fine job of paying tribute to the genre while infusing small doses of his usual humanistic style. The film is dark, but not quite so dark that it couldn't receive a PG-13 rating.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a Spielberg regular, takes an unorthodox approach to the material. The colors in

Minority Report

are so washed out and the image is so grainy that it's like watching a fourth- or fifth-generation copy of a color film. It's not black and white like a

Twilight Zone

episode --

The Twilight Zone

being one of the true shining examples of sci-fi noir and a clear inspiration for this movie -- but it's close.

The visuals are jarring at first. Whereas in a '40s noir shadows dominate the imagery, in

Minority Report

, the shadows are replaced with harsh, blinding light. You might go so far as to call it inverse noir. The special effects are fabulous -- my favorite involves a newspaper that updates itself as it is being read -- although a few shots suffer from what can now be called

Attack of the Clones

syndrome; that is, the human characters look like they're walking around digital landscapes.

Like his less overtly dark


from last year, Spielberg's

Minority Report

centers on a moral paradox: if crimes could be predicted, it asks, should the would-be perpetrators be arrested in advance? Would they still be guilty?

Based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick (who wrote the novel that was the source for

Blade Runner

), the film is set in 2054. Three telepathic but otherwise brain-damaged children of drug addicts known as the "Pre-Cogs" (the leader of whom is played by Samantha Morton, of

Sweet and Lowdown

) are indeed able to predict murders before they happen.

John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the head of the "Pre-Crime" unit of Washington, D.C. (Pre-Crime has not yet been introduced in other cities) hunts down the would-be murderers and arrests them, putting them in jail, which in the future means being sent into a coma, without trial. After all, the Pre-Cogs saw the future, and there is no doubt that the murders were going to occur.

The exhilarating opening sequence shows us the investigation process, which takes only a matter of minutes, from start to finish. Anderton succeeds in arresting Howard Marks (Arye Gross) before Marks kills his wife (Ashley Crow) and her lover (Joel Gretsch). We see the cops drag Marks off screaming. And we hear the wife calling to Marks, genuinely upset that he's going to prison, even though he would have stabbed her to death had he not been arrested. She feels responsible for his arrest because she's the one who drove him to such extremes. Should Marks be freed? Could his wife forgive him?

Minority Report's

pulp surface belies the complexity of its human story.

Many people believe the Pre-Crime system is a godsend. Right after the opening sequence, Spielberg shows us a disease-of-the-week-style commercial advertising the Pre-Crime unit, with the actors in the commercial talking about their murdered friends and relatives ("I lost my aunt") as if they had died of cancer. Pre-Crime is chic, and it keeps the streets safe.

Anderton, for his part, likes the system: his son Sean was kidnapped and presumably murdered at a public pool, and Anderton has spent the six years since trying to exact vengeance on people like the ones who killed his son. He wants to do good -- in his room, he has clippings of articles that say things like "Kidnapped Girl Rescued After Two Years in Captivity" -- but like most noir heroes, Anderton is impaired by guilt and regret. He spends his free time getting high and watching virtual reality clips of his son, unable to live in the present.

That is, of course, until the Pre-Cogs name him as a would-be murderer. In 36 hours, they say, he will plan and execute the murder Leo Crow, a man he's never heard of. As the hours go by and Anderton runs from his fellow Pre-Crime cops, we begin to wonder how long Anderton has to premeditate the murder of a man he doesn't know. Could the Pre-Cogs be wrong? Are they ever wrong? Has Anderton arrested innocents before?

The exposition whirrs by faster than 2054's high-speed cars, and there are a few points that get glossed over too quickly, like why the Pre-Cogs can't predict rape and suicide. There's also mention of the fact that some people worship the Pre-Cogs as deities, and indeed, one of Anderton's colleagues remarks, "We're more like clergy than cops." But the movie never explores the cult phenomenon surrounding the Pre-Crime unit; it's too fast-paced to be reflective.

The human story is relegated to the background for some time during Anderton's run from the law. At one point, Anderton obtains a new set of eyes in a back-alley surgical facility run by a depraved doctor (Peter Stormare, the sociopath in


). The ambience owes a little too much to David Cronenberg's ultra-gooey horror film


, but it's still fun. (The scene also contains a nifty homage to

A Clockwork Orange

.) I don't understand why Anderton needs to run through the Gap, or why he needs to run by ads for Lexus and Guinness, but I'm willing to let that sneaky product placement slide.

Anderton's chief nemesis is Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), the Attorney General's right-hand man and a former cop who, we gather, doesn't much like the Pre-Crime system. Old pro Max von Sydow is on hand as Lamar Burgess, the inventor of Pre-Crime, Anderton's mentor, and one of the only people who believes Anderton won't commit murder. But if Burgess lets on that he thinks the system is flawed and confirms Anderton's innocence, Pre-Crime will be shut down. The government is already full of liberal congressman who believe that it's wrong to arrest people before they commit crimes, even if that system has made D.C. murder-free.

The film's ending, while suitably twisty, is still less ambitious than it could have been -- and I'm one of few people who found the ending of


to be depressing, not uplifting.

Minority Report

is ultimately more of a popcorn flick than a debate movie, but it's a spellbinding film nonetheless.