'Prediction is very difficult," observed physicist Niels Bohr, "especially about the future." Though Washington, D.C. has sometimes been the national capital for murder, Philip K. Dick, who died in 1982, imagined that by 2054 it would be the safest city in America. Minority Report, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of a story by Dick, begins with the thwarting of a homicide by the District's Department of Precrime. For the past six years, it has been relying on precognitions from three clairvoyants to apprehend and incarcerate perps before they have a chance to perpetrate. "I didn't do anything," says a jealous husband seized on the verge of stabbing his wife and her lover. Failure to commit what, but for the intercession of Captain John Anderton (Cruise) and his zealous squad, was inevitable does not keep him or a thousand others from being shelved in individual jars in the Department of Containment.

Intervention by an outsider, Danny Witwer (Farrell), a hostile federal agent who demands to know how Anderton does his work, provides Spielberg with a pretext for exposition. When Anderton, in turn, quizzes the woman who "invented precrime," a dotty old scientist named Iris Hineman (Smith), we learn how a failed attempt to treat children of drug addicts produced human beings able to see the future. The explanation is neither lucid nor convincing, nor is it clear why the prescient trio — two men and a woman — kept sedated in a pool of chemicals at headquarters foresees only homicides and only within the jurisdiction of Washington, D.C. Can't they envision the winner of the next Preakness or the opening gross for the 20th sequel to Jurassic Park?

But if you accept the premise that the D.C. police are informed exactly when and how each murder will occur, Minority Report becomes an uncommon thriller whose chase scenes are powered by vehicles not driven in our own ancient decade. In Spielberg's vision of 2054 (slightly more cheerful than Orwell's 1984), retinal ID's have replaced fingerprints and the future is a matter of seeing. Optical imagery, including the stabbing of a victim's cornea and an unsightly operation to transplant telltale retinas, dominates the film. The sight of Anderton's spare set of eyeballs rolling down the floor etches itself on the mind's eye. Plotting is complex enough to distract the viewer from the fact that conceptual balls being juggled are not quite round. About 100 minutes into the proceedings, when it seems as if everything is about to be resolved, the movie lurches off into unexpected directions for another 40 fearsome minutes.

Minority Report cooks up its power from the recipe for Greek tragedy: The more desperately a man tries to evade fate the more certainly he fulfills it. When the official precognitioners predict that Anderton himself will commit murder, the detective chief rushes off to try to prove them wrong, a course of action that seems only to ensure slaughter. Mere intentions are not crimes, and members of the Department of Precrime insist that they are not thought police. If someone simply fantasizes about doing damage to a nasty boss or a wayward spouse, the special cops do not spring into operation. The tips they receive are not just inclinations but rather absolutely reliable prophecies. Yet, if the fuzz can act to avert fate, is it really fate? At several points, characters are told they have a choice. If so, that contradicts the claim that the precognitioners are infallible. Minority Report concentrates the mind on the compatibility of free will and fate.

In another twist, emphasized by the title but developed only as a secondary theme, it turns out that the three seers do not always agree about details of a crime and that, after suppression of the dissenting vision, people who would not necessarily have committed murder have been apprehended and incarcerated. This suppression of evidence (parallel to contemporary cases in which innocent inmates languish on death row through failure to test DNA samples) is an obvious injustice, and it dilutes the film's more compelling question: If we could indeed predict the future, would preventive detention be an acceptable price for averting heinous crimes?

Minority Report is itself erratic about predicting the future. It projects personalized advertising and holographic entertainment as commonplaces of 2054, but many of the apartments and streets on screen could pass for 1954. Yet with a Department of Justice that currently treats habeas corpus as Latinate gibberish, this vision of the future is as timely as a watch that was wound on September 11, 2001.

"Tantalizing, timely futuristic, thriller"
Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Scott Frank & Jon Cohen, based on a story by Philip K. Dick; feat. Tom Cruise, Max von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Kathryn Morris, Lois Smith, Jason Antoon (PG-13)