The resonance between this story and the current war is so strong that it's almost impossible to watch it for what it is, a good murder mystery conceived well before September 11th retelling a short story that was published long ago in 1956. The movie is half a work of philosophy and half a head-scratching what-if narrative exploring the merger of computers, extra-sensory perception, and genetic research. All of this is painted on the screen in the sad muted browns, sepias, blues and greys of an amateur watercolorist who can't keep the colors from turning to mud.
The conceit is the kind of classic conundrum that made science fiction great: the police in 2054 can tap the minds of three "pre-cogs" who see visions of murders a few hours before they will happen. Tom Cruise plays a cop who flies off in a jet pack to nab the soon-to-be-bad guys and lock them away before they kill. Can we really be sure the crime will be committed just as the pre-cognitives predict? Cruise is an earnest believer in the system's perfection until, it should be obvious, the system implicates him in the pre-murder of someone he's never met.
The yarn unfolds as a long string of chase scenes mixed with some flashbacks and some pre-cognitive dodges. Cruise's character, we're told, is a fast runner and he spends plenty of time running fast. The plot is crisp and layered enough to unfold several times. The hinge points are as good as the philosophical question they serve.
The biggest failure of the movie may be the set design and the look. At one moment, we see computers to inspire the next generation from Apple, in another moment we're in a mall that isn't as fancy or as new as the mall around the corner from my house. The logos for the Gap and Pepsi haven't changed since they were faxed over from the product-placement department. Many of the scenes look contemporary, with minimal set dressing, but then along comes a great car chase tricked out like the wet dream from some 19-year-old in an art school in Southern California. The unity of vision that delivered the oily dystopia of Bladerunner is missing this time. I wouldn't be surprised if someone tightened the budget screws in the middle of the film and sent them scrambling to save money on some scenes.
The tone coming from the actors is also a bit uneven. Spielberg managed to toss in funny moments in the Indiana Jones trilogy and whole schtick came together with the amazing certainty of comic-book escapism. The bits of humor in this movie's chase scenes, though, ruin the nervous paranoia and amped-up tension crackling through the narrative's ganglia. Is this supposed to be summer joy ride or a serious exploration of the meaning of justice?
These errors in execution don't matter too much because the storyline is so strong and central to our current struggle with terrorism. No one probably wants to hear that Dick wrote this story just a few years after the Supreme Court finally decided that it wasn't really legal to lock up Japanese-Americans on the off chance that they might take their orders from Tokyo. The movie theater where I saw the film is only a few miles from the prison that held much of Baltimore's City Council during the Civil War.
Despite the uncomfortable fact that moments like these happen again and again in history, there's no way to escape wondering whether Spielberg is some kind of pre-cog being who gets his version of the zeitgeist delivered early. The timing is just eerie.
Peter Wayner thinks his new book, Translucent Databases is about ten years ahead of its time. His book about steganography, Disappearing Cryptography , may be a few months late."