This joint venture between two of the biggest names in the business today, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, is a science-fiction flick predicated on an absurd premise concocted by Philip K. Dick that, if recent events are any indication, would make John Ashcroft positively salivate. A half-century hence, a government-funded trio of psychics (no, neither Madame Cleo nor Dionne Warwick is among them) is employed to foresee who’s going to commit murder, so that they can be arrested and incarcerated before the fact, as it were. One can only imagine how our current attorney general, with his general disdain for established legal niceties, would embrace the idea of punishing crimes without actually having to wait for an offense to be perpetrated or conducting a trial to establish guilt.

Of course, in the script fabricated from Dick’s short story by Scott Frank, the system doesn’t function as advertised. Chief John Anderton (Cruise), chief honcho of the Washington, D.C. pilot Precrime unit that’s about to be taken national, is himself accused by the psychic network of the imminent murder of a man he doesn’t even know named Leo Crow (Mike Binder). He goes on the lam determined to prove that the program he’s spent years being confident about is in fact highly fallible. Many perils and close calls ensue as Anderton strives to prove his innocence-to-be while pursued in futuristic “Fugitive” style by Witwer (Colin Farrell), an arrogant, supercilious Justice Department agent who wants his job. Also involved in the chase at various points are Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow), director of Precrime and John’s avuncular, protective mentor; Lara (Kathryn Morris), Anderton’s ex-wife, who split with him when he couldn’t get over the abduction of their son Sean, for which he blames himself; Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith), the scientist who created the Precrime psychic trio; Gideon (Tim Blake Nelson), the wheelchair-bound custodian of prisoners captured and put into stasis by Precrime; Dr. Solomon Eddie (Peter Stormare), an ex-con doctor who now specializes, along with his Wagnerian nurse Greta (Caroline Lagerfelt), in black-market eye transplants (ocular scanning now being the standard mode of identification); Agatha (Samantha Morton), the strongest of the three seers, whom John rescues from the virtual prison where she and her cohorts are watched over by a strange caretaker named Wally (Daniel London); a super-hacker named Rufus Riley (John Antoon); and an assortment of Anderton’s erstwhile colleagues, including good-natured Jad (Steve Harris, of “The Practice”).

As one would expect from a filmmaker of Spielberg’s flawless craftsmanship, “Minority Report” looks absolutely wonderful, though for the most part not strikingly original. The cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski, who’s been the director’s partner in his last four films, so it’s not surprising that its bleached-out look has much in common with their last futuristic enterprise, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” (The opulent design also owes much to such earlier films as “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix” as well as “A.I.,” although one appreciates its tongue-in-cheek emphasis on what amounts to an ubiquitous, and highly personalized, advertising system–a nice swipe at the rampant capitalism that also fuels the whole Precrime concept.) But it’s not only in physical appearance that “Report” seems a bit derivative: the flamboyant action elements are more than a tad reminiscent of earlier movies, too–for instance, of Cruise’s “Mission Impossible 2.” It’s almost as though, having attempted to make a Kubrick picture the last time around, Spielberg were now doing his version of John Woo.

Of course, Spielberg–as everybody knows from his past efforts, from “Jaws” through “The Lost World”–is an expert cinematic manipulator, at his best the equal of Hitchcock in that respect (see “Duel” as well as “Jaws”). And he pushes the audience’s buttons with his usual aplomb here. Many of the action episodes are pulled off with impressive elan, even if (as in a long fight sequence in a robotic auto-assembly plant–not unlike the similar episode in “Attack of the Clones”) the topography of the battlefield isn’t always made sufficiently clear. Particularly clever and skillfully staged is a scene set in a mall, where Anderton makes use of psychic suggestions from Agatha to avoid being caught by an army of pursuers. One also has to wonder whether the director didn’t stage the flashback of the abduction of Sean, under John’s supposedly watchful gaze, at a swimming pool as a self-homage to the famous beach sequence in “Jaws” in which Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro), the distraught mother, searches for her young son Alex (Jeffrey Voorhees), who’s been swallowed by the shark in its initial public attack; whether intentional or not, the reminiscence is there.

All of Spielberg’s skill, however, doesn’t raise “Minority Report” much beyond the level of cool efficiency. Certainly it never manages to touch the heart or send shivers down the spine in the way that real classics of the genre do. Nor does it work as a cerebral exercise. The narrative wants to say something about free will and human choice, but the scenario is so muddled–with a labyrinthine murder-and-coverup plot, lots of unanswered questions in the feverish final act and an unfortunate inclination to change the rules whenever the plot requires–that the message is never successfully delivered and gaping narrative holes remain. Even more problematical are the sequences involving Stormare, Smith and Antoon, which are pitched at a level of bizarre perversity that’s apparently meant to be queasily funny but comes across as merely unpleasant: all three performers chew the scenery with such gusto that one can only hope they relish the result more than we do. (Ditto a brief moment in which Anderton drops his old eyeballs and must chase them as they roll down an incline.) One can imagine what his idol Kubrick–with his penchant for the macabre–could have done with these moments, but as Spielberg demonstrated all too clearly with “A.I.,” he’s really not entirely comfortable with Kubrickian material.

The actors, too, seem dutiful rather than inspired. As in “Mission Impossible,” Cruise runs around well but is more stolid than exciting, and though Farrell might one day get a part that catapults him into leading-man status, this isn’t it. Von Sydow seems to be merely going through the motions with a stock part, the surprise of which will be obvious to anybody long before it’s revealed, and Morris does little more than wear her wardrobe well. And when people like Morton and Nelson are reduced pretty much to anonymity, you know that the surroundings have been allowed to overwhelm characterization.

Still, the special effects are good, and the picture evinces a sleek expertise that may be enough for afficionados. Most viewers, however, will probably feel that although “Minority Report” is visually striking and slickly staged, it’s also cold, grey, antiseptic and emotionally desiccated.