Alien nation

Star Trek: First Contact Jonathan Frakes (12) Two Much Fernando Trueba (18) Steal Big, Steal Little Andrew Davis (12) Acts of Love Bruno Barreto (18)
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The Independent Culture
Star Trek: First Contact is the eighth Star Trek movie, and the first (wisely) to dispense entirely with the original crew. It's got the same old heart, though - it's still all peace, love and understanding in the 24th century. As with all the best episodes of the television series, the picture benefits from a careful balance between spirited humour and a flirtation with darkness. And most of the comedy continues to emanate from the disjunction between humanity and science, once embodied by the brittle exchanges of Kirk and Spock, but now lent a shade more complexity in the lovingly observed relationship maintained by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the evolving android Data (Brent Spiner).

But while the series' idealistic sloganeering continues to ring out in space, there have been other changes. For the first time, a Star Trek movie actually looks like something more ambitious than an extended TV show.

Not everything has changed for the better. The first 30 minutes are, as always, packed with blandly presented exposition - we're talking time- travel back to earth for half the Enterprise's crew, where they must ensure the survival of Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the man who is destined to create warp-speed space travel and thus alert beings from another world of humanity's intelligence, bringing about first contact: that is, the first meeting between humans and extraterrestrials, a union destined to bring peace to the universe.

Got all that? Good, because it's only the sub-plot. The main battle in the film is between Captain Picard and the Borg, the lobotomising collective who eradicate individuality in the name of efficiency and universal dominance - you know, that Invasion of the Body Snatchers thing. But Picard is wrestling some inner, as well as outer, demons which threaten to colour his faultless judgement.

In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture fancied itself an agile competitor to Star Wars, but proved to be nothing of the sort. Since then, lessons have been learnt, and a lot of the early film's pomposity has been jettisoned. But First Contact is the only Star Trek movie to really earn its place on the cinema screen. There are times when you can see the director Jonathan Frakes (who also stars as Commander William Riker) cautiously following in other film-makers' footsteps: the set design recalls Aliens, the opening shot Brazil; the costumes indicate that the crew's enemies, the Borg, may actually be second cousins to the Terminator; and the theme - the impossibility of existing without human emotions - was handled with comparable sentimentality in Terminator 2.

And yet these influences don't render the picture derivative. It has its own distinctive flavour, a mixture of grandeur and intimacy. And another first: it is serious without being sombre. William Shatner, who always had the air of trying to build his own legend rather than play a role, would doubtless be appalled. Which is as good a reason as any for seeing it.

In the silly farce Two Much, Melanie Griffith is so stilted that her performance might have been beamed in from the other side of the world. It seems a lifetime since she sparkled in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. Now her breathless giggles and calculated simpering mark her out as an anachronism.

The film is only slightly less irritating than she is. Antonio Banderas plays the improbably named Art Dodge, a self-absorbed art dealer who supplements his ailing business by turning up on the doorsteps of grieving widows and demanding payment for the paintings supposedly reserved by their late husbands. This unsavoury practice works against attempts to paint him as a lovable rogue, but the film careers into romantic-comedy territory regardless, with the arrival of wealthy divorcee Betty Kerner (Griffith), who earmarks the reluctant Dodge for marriage.

There's no fun in the way director Fernando Trueba wrings every farcical set-up and misunderstanding, or in the sickly Hello! magazine-style tour of real-life couple Banderas and Griffith's relationship. But the brave will find compensation in the supporting cast: as Banderas's assistant, Joan Cusack is as spiky as a cactus, while Danny Aiello bristles as Griffith's ex-husband, a mobster who has taken to seeing a psychiatrist in order to "channel all my anger into positive crap".

You could go insane trying to work out why Steal Big, Steal Little ever got made. It's a painfully long, agonisingly earnest drama about a pair of twins, Ruben and Robby (both played by Andy Garcia), locked in a dispute over land, money and, ultimately, the value of life. "Twin" movies are a great opportunity for an actor to demonstrate subtlety and versatility, but Garcia is closer to Hayley Mills in Disney's The Parent Trap than Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers.

Acts of Love is a backwater Lolita blessed with some delicate, measured playing but crippled by a director, Bruno Barreto, who believes in symbolism heavy enough to concuss an ox. Dennis Hopper plays Joseph, a good-natured teacher whose long-term romance with his colleague (Amy Irving) hits the rocks when a nubile young student (Amy Locane) swans into town. Hopper is touchingly understated in his first real romantic lead, erupting into psychotic mode just once. But the sight of him naked, making love to Locane, is, unintentionally, as terrifying as anything in Blue Velvet, and something you will find hard to shift from your nightmares All films go on release tomorrow Ryan Gilbey

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