A computer movie crashes. Naturally

<preform>Antitrust (18) ; Peter Howitt, 108 mins</br>Along Came a Spider (15) ; Lee Tamahori, 103 mins</br>La B&ecirc;te (nc) ; Walerian Borowczyk, 102 mins</preform>
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When a tycoon has more money, more power and fewer scruples than the average medieval monarch, it's easy to fantasise that they'll be caught committing an indictable offence: not just despoiling the environment or paying sweatshop wages, but actually robbing someone at gunpoint. Annoyingly, most plutocrats have moved beyond such petty crimes, so we have to have our wishes fulfilled in the movies. Rupert Murdoch was the model for the Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies and now Bill Gates is the baddie in Antitrust.

Not literally, of course. Tim Robbins may star as a billionaire IT nerd with specs and a side parting, but his name is Gary Winston and his company is NURV. Furthermore, he is not the law-abiding humanitarian we all know Gates to be. Winston is so hellbent on getting his global communication system up-and-running that he steals programmes from computer whizz-kids around the world and then has them murdered. Ryan Phillippe plays Milo, a young NURV employee who discovers just how cut-throat the software business can be.

The film makes several acute observations. For example, every programmer in Winston's predatory mega-corporation is a grungey kid with piercings and bleached hair ­ someone who would consider him or herself to be anti-establishment. Robbins has fun as the Pringle-scoffing, Pepsi-swilling man-boy they look up to. And Naomi Klein would approve of Antitrust's comments on corporate synergy. Milo plans to release his findings to the media, only to be reminded that every broadcasting company in America has some commercial link with NURV.

Peter Howitt, the director of Sliding Doors, could have made a nice docu-satire about the Microserfs' prison-campus lifestyle; it's only when he goes all out to make a thriller that Antitrust crashes. Realising that the sight of the hero sitting in front of a PC is not exactly nail-biting stuff ­ despite the ever-present danger of RSI ­ he over-compensates wildly. Every plot device has a flashing neon sign above it, every set piece is so unsubtle that it might as well be subtitled Feel The Tension!. The most embarrassing instance is when Milo uncovers Winston's crimes and the editing goes absolutely bonkers. There is a cascade of zooms, flashbacks, tilted cameras and fanfares, as if we've just had the biggest shock in motion-picture history, rather than confirmation of what everyone in the cinema had already guessed.

Again, Antitrust's only real thrills have a factual basis. Alluding to Bill Gates's taste for high-tech interior decor, there is an eerie sequence in which the hero sneaks around Winston's modernist mansion and the digitalised pictures on the walls, sensing Milo's presence, morph into his favourite artwork. The portrait with the moving eyes, essential to many a country-house murder-mystery, is updated for the 21st century.

In Along Came a Spider, Morgan Freeman reprises the role of Dr Alex Cross, the police psychologist from 1997's Kiss the Girls. Come to think of it, Freeman reprises the role he plays in every movie: dignified, reserved and calm as an oak tree, with a sagacious adage for every occasion. In one early scene, Cross is granted a wife (or possibly a sister) so as to differentiate him from all of Freeman's other characters. After that the producers shrug their shoulders, forget the wife (or sister), and let wise old Morgan do his thing.

Perfect as an elderly mentor, Freeman isn't dynamic enough to be a leading man. He needs a frightening opponent or a memorable sidekick to help carry a movie, and here he doesn't have either: Monica Potter tags along as one of those peroxide-blonde Julia Roberts-lookalikes that the FBI is so full of. With no protagonists who demand our attention, Along Came a Spider can't be anything more than a pretty effective genre movie. Adapted from a James Patterson novel, it puts Cross on the trail of a maniac who has snatched a senator's daughter from her private school. As luck would have it, he wants his crime to go down in history (somewhat like the villain in Seven) so he's happy to leave a trail of clues behind him.

Along Came a Spider has enough twists and turns to gratify detective-fiction fans, but it lacks the originality or ingenuity that let Seven and Silence of the Lambs cross over to a wider audience. A note to all prospective criminal masterminds out there: if you don't want a detective to get into your computer's hard drive, don't take your password from a momentous personal anecdote you've just told him. Stick to your mum's maiden name like everyone else.

La Bête was trimmed by the censors when it was premiered at the 1975 London Film Festival. Now at last it can be seen in its entirety, which is good news for anyone who likes to watch horses copulate. An amazingly explicit gothic horror porn farce, it's really quite diverting. Debate still rages as to whether Walerian Borowczyk was examining the mechanism of dreams or whether he just fancied cutting together some footage from Carry On Emmannuelle and Carry On Screaming!.