Future Imperfect:

The claim Philip Kindred Dick, California nutcase and sci-fi seer, holds on our imagination is a particular one. Dick's signature as a writer is a sort of pre-epileptic hum or aura, an intimation of fast-approaching crisis. Something dislocates, something accelerates, a wire touches another wire and we know -- quiveringly -- that we have to fit ourselves for a lasting ontological derangement. Quality control was never Dick's problem (capable, in his speed-gobbling prime, of writing up to 30 short stories a year, he barely had time to look over his shoulder at the exhaust cloud of output in his wake). But it is ours, and nearly 50 years after it was written, "The Minority Report," Dick's short story, makes for very shaky reading. Soft-boiled, snatching at clichés ("Witwer is making hay, hand over fist," bellows one character unbelievably. "He's got the whole country screaming for your blood!"), it gives off the special low-rent musk of poorly paid hackwork, of a writer selling out for very few readers.

Dick, of course, could sell out a thousand times over and still be original (one of the advantages of lifelong mental instability): No disgrace could quite annul his gift, the long sparks snapping off his bald dome and into the future, and so "The Minority Report" can't help but exceed its modest ambitions. To begin with, there is the Precrime unit, a police department that prevents crimes before they occur. Interesting, but really just a minor Orwellian twist of an idea -- until we meet Precrime's secret weapon, the precognitives or "precogs." Like Jorge Luis Borges' "Funes, the Memorious," the precogs sit in a darkness that is cerebrally charged and brilliant. But unlike Funes -- whose powers of recall are so paralyzingly complete that it takes him a whole day to remember a whole day -- the precogs are at the mercy of the future. They see it all coming, and it's much too much for them.

The precogs are horribly sapient ninnies. Their heads are bulbous, their bodies are wasted and they are strapped into high-backed chairs, wearing helmets of cruel circuitry. As visions assault them, computers coldly sort through their reactive hoots and drivelings to generate information on upcoming crimes. The precogs are unquestionably a model for a certain portion of Dick's own consciousness -- for that part of him that was almost immobilized by an onrush of wacky data, alternate futures, parallel worlds, time-slips, symmetries and cosmic puns. Having introduced the precogs, however, the story hurries away from them and into a numbing whirl of double agents and fights on airplanes and husky-voiced women with "incredibly tiny" pistols. Addicted to complication, Dick blows it this time and buries his insight.

It would be hard to charge Steven Spielberg with an addiction to complication. From the unstoppable truck (Duel) to the man-hungry Great White (Jaws), through the ancient little spaceman with the searching infant face and the illuminated fingertip (E.T.), and even up to Indiana Jones' hat, Spielberg's famous emblems have a basic, authentic power. "Boop-boop," sings the Vegas-like UFO in Close Encounters, descending on cushions of wonder. Spielberg knows awe. His last film, A.I, was actually a little awe-heavy, a little too ready to drop its jaw and resonate with mythic intuitions. (I remember in particular some weeping stone lions, massively significant and primally grand, having no effect on me at all.) So is he the man to make a movie out of "The Minority Report"? Unlike Dick, he has known great success. He has felt important. What happens when these two breeds of fantasy -- the one vindicated and well-fed, the other addled and marginal, one hand in the jar of pills -- collide?

True to form, Spielberg immediately homes in on the precogs. "Murder ... ," breathes a floating face as broken images stretch and flutter around it like the surface of perturbed water -- a pair of scissors, a woman screaming, the line "You know how blind I am without them, " dazedly repeated. No longer belted into their high-backed chairs, Spielberg's precogs (simultaneously more human and more divine than Dick's) are suspended in a radiant pool and tended devotedly by a herbivorous young man in surfer shorts. They have names: Agatha, Dashiell and Arthur (Christie, Hammett and Conan Doyle, I presume). Utterly pale, naked, shaven-headed, deprived even of eyebrows, the precogs are eerie in the extreme. Upstairs in Precrime is Chief John Anderton, no longer a sweating pre-retiree but a superfit, darkly intense man of action played by that thespian steam shovel, Tom Cruise. While the precogs hang uneasily in their soup of omniscience, Anderton reviews with a policeman's eye the psychic matter that comes bubbling up, giving it a name and a place so that the field team can get to work. Anderton is a man possessed -- always a good thing for a Cruise character -- tormented by the abduction and presumed murder of his only son a short time before Precrime was established. Sorting the raw information, Anderton sees his own name come up. According to the precogs, in 36 hours he will murder a man he doesn't even know. He's being set up. He bolts.

As sci-fi buffs know, nothing dates quite like the future: Whole decades have been ironized, comically, by their apprehensions of human destiny. Dick's future, though, was never too far off. It stayed close by and grimily vivid, like a skunk in the backyard. Its citizens still drove cars, lived in crummy apartments and listened to Linda Ronstadt. They had oddly boring names. Spielberg is faithful to this: The urban environment of Minority Report is only a slight exaggeration or amplification of our own. The hyperdeveloped gadgets that surround Cruise -- the singing and dancing cereal box, the advertising billboards that laser-scan your eyes and then hail you by name -- are ominously unastounding, to the point where we might expect to see them in a few short years. And human nature hasn't changed a bit: Anderton, a hollow man since he lost his son, locks the door, does drugs and watches holographic home movies while the rain comes down. (This most Dickian scene is in fact the pure invention of Spielberg's writers.) And as the cereal boxes and billboards grow louder, brighter and more assaultive, as the general din of consumerism is turned up, something drains away -- the colors of Minority Report are rinsed and metallic, its edges woozy with threat. Life has contracted and gone sour.

As a direct parallel, law enforcement enjoys a golden age of abundance and superbity: the wandlike "sick sticks" that induce instant nausea, the scuttling metal spiders that twitter as they read your eyeballs -- this is the security state in excelsis. In the grand old noir style, as cop becomes fugitive, as Anderton becomes a pariah, he experiences the oppressive weight of the very machinery he used to run. Precrime is, of course, a totalitarian notion: We must not think bad thoughts! And yet Minority Report seems to be straining for a subtle differentiation between the second sight of the precogs and the all-seeing eye of the state. Subtle, but crucial -- these are different types of knowledge, with different consequences. The precogs are metaphysically hooked up, part of the fabric of things: The Precrime officers have scanners that reduce humans to pockets of heat ("We got a warm body on the fourth floor!"). The officers do not interpret, only enforce. The precogs -- artificially maintained, splayed before the bad dreams of the universe -- are the state's true victims. The motif of vision, and its loss, recurs. "Can you see?" begs the precog Agatha (an amazing performance by Samantha Morton), rearing from her oracular water to grab the freaked-out Anderton. And Anderton himself, going back into Precrime headquarters to settle the score, will need a new pair of eyes -- literally.

Minority Report fairly tears along, absorbing at every level until its last half-hour, at which point various compacted strata of plot begin to crush the life out of it. Whatever happened to simplicity? To a good idea, directly done? A not-great story remains a not-great story, of course; no amount of wizardry will change that, and Dick's failures become Spielberg's. Max von Sydow, monstrously distinguished, his face like a sun-warmed tombstone, presides over a knotted conspiracy to safeguard the future of Precrime at Anderton's expense. Anderton, in a last-minute fit of Spielbergian sentimentality, reunites with his estranged wife and timidly strokes her burgeoning belly. What survives all this, what follows you out into the street, is the movie's tone -- at once frightened and sardonic, and as grimly aware of the impending dilemma, the awful surfeit of knowing, as it is of its own inability to deal with it. And that is very, very Philip K. Dick.