John Anderton (Tom Cruise, pictured) is a high-profile cop in Washington DC. He's supremely confident in his embrace of new technology. He stands before perspex screens, conducting crime data on and off them with the panache of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia.
Anderton is loyal to his elderly boss (Max von Sydow) who is responsible for a revolution in crime-fighting. He brought in the system whereby three uncannily gifted people - "pre-cogs" - can predict the future and enable the police to capture people on the point of committing a murder.
So what if those arrested haven't actually done anything wrong yet? The effectiveness of the "pre-cogs" is such that the murder rate in Anderton's home city of Washington, DC, has dwindled to nothing and stayed there for six years. Anderton has a personal interest in fighting crime efficiently, because of the disappearance of his young son, which has left him a user of drugs to stave off his loneliness.
But there's a catch. Anderton himself is seen by the "pre-cogs", murdering a man he has never met. From then on, it's a race between Anderton, a believer in the harsh new system of law and order yet with a vested interest in proving it fallible, and Witwer (Colin Farrell), an ambitious federal bureaucrat suspicious in principle of the new system but determined to catch a potential murderer.
Minority Report is a work of genius. Steven Spielberg's latest fully justifies the accolade. It's the finest piece of screen science fiction yet - more visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey, more gripping than Blade Runner, more hard-hitting and mature than Spielberg's previous sci-fi masterpiece, ET.
It is also the most stylish film noir thriller since LA Confidential, the most exciting chase movie since The Fugitive, one of the most entertaining action flicks since Spielberg's own Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the most creative use of Tom Cruise's unique mixture of cockiness, vanity and machismo since Jerry Maguire.
And, for horror fans, there is one moment that will make audiences jump higher than they have done since Carrie's hand came out of the grave and grabbed the future Mrs Spielberg, Amy Irving.
Examine the ingeniously twisting plot in retrospect and you may be able to spot some flaws. Why, if Anderton is such a clever cop, does he not deduce the only conceivable reason why he might kill a man he has never met? Why does he have to be set up to commit murder in the first place? And surely someone would have noticed when the victim of a previous crime who was supposedly saved from her murderer, then disappeared?
But such objections are unlikely to bother you while you're watching. You're much more likely to be bowled over by the pace and invention of the story-telling by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick - not to mention some of the most spectacular action sequences since movies began.
The technical daring and humorous detail in the special effects are as extraordinary as anything in George Lucas's Star Wars films. They are used not only to entertain, however, but to create a very credible forecast of how the future really might be. This is not the antiseptic future that has become a cliche, but one in which people's leaking bodily fluids and ability to spread detritus remain unchanged and constitute an act of instinctive rebellion against the optimistic technocrats who hope to "clean up" humanity.
Spielberg's deep distrust of technology - ironic in a director who uses it so cleverly - runs through the whole of his career. Minority Report carries on this theme from ET, Jurassic Park and AI. Where it scores highly compared with all of them is that he never stoops to cuteness or easy sentimentality, and - unlike AI - the film never comes close to collapsing in its final quarter.
Though highly entertaining, Minority Report is unmistakably a work of art. The visual symbolism - mostly involving water and eyesight - is stunning and anything but cliched. It underpins the whole story, ensuring that the imagery lingers in your subconscious long after the final credits.
Spielberg's film doesn't bring to an end the age-old debate of where free will ends and predestination begins, but it is visionary film-making by the world's greatest director at the height of his powers. So dark, stylish and confident is it that it resembles the best work of Stanley Kubrick, raised to a still higher level by Spielberg's greater ability to manipulate his audience's emotions.
Take, for example, the astonishing sequence where Cruise has to hide from mechanical spiders that are being used to hunt him down. You'll experience not only brilliant use of set design and a moving camera but also state-of-the-art special effects that create a wonderfully Hitchcockian blend of suspense and black humour.
Some will distrust the serious credentials of any film that is this entertaining. I've seen it dismissed as emotionally cold and little more than a glorified chase movie. That's because it doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve or indulge in lengthy, soul-searching speeches that express the film-makers' liberal beliefs.
Instead, it wisely allows us to share in the leading characters' hopes and anxieties, and allows us to reach our own conclusions. Though not didactic, it has at least as much seriousness and passion as Spielberg's previously most acclaimed films, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
Many thinking people across the political spectrum have worried since September 11th about the threat to liberty that a crackdown for the sake of security necessarily involves. Minority Report explores and expresses those fears better than any other film.
It's uncannily topical, at a time when the American authorities are imprisoning people without trial for potential crimes they haven't actually committed, and most of the world is eagerly supporting them. Either Spielberg is incredibly lucky, or he's more tuned in to the spirit of our times than his critics. My guess is that he's both, but principally the latter.