Remember `Kiss of the Spider Woman'? `Body Heat'? James Mottram wonders what an actor like William Hurt - the golden boy of intelligent Eighties film-making - is doing in hokum like `Dark City' and `Lost In Space'
Looking tired, flustered and hot, William Hurt's weathered face, with its piercingly blue bespectacled eyes, has the ability to transfix. And right now, you want to smack it. An actor who truly embodied a generation, just as Nicholson, Fonda and Hoffman once did, is attempting to justify his recent Hollywood showreel. That he played a tabloid hack in Nora Ephron's appalling angel comedy Michael one year ago is forgivable - it gave him the chance to work with John Travolta - until one considers parts two and three of this triptych of sell-outs.

This week sees Hurt take a supporting role in Alex Proyas's Gothic sci- fi (ish) noir, Dark City, a fond reminder of Brazil and Blade Runner. While Rufus Sewell spends most of the film searching for his memory, Hurt plays Inspector Bumstead, assigned to uncover the killer of the corpse that was found next to Sewell when he woke up minus his identity.

By contrast, Lost In Space, which is released next month, is breezy effects hokum, all good intentions but a little self-absorbed in its own importance. Based on the Sixties schlock TV series, Hurt plays the head of the Robinson family, sent into deep space to build a hyperspace gate. Eschewing the tongue-in- cheek, family dysfunction is the theme of the day. With Matt LeBlanc of Friends and Heather Graham - Rollergirl in Boogie Nights - on board, Hurt finds himself doing battle with spiders and Gary Oldman, back once again for a dose of summer psychotics.

With a budget of $80m (pounds 48m), it's the only film likely to rival Godzilla at the box office, boasting the most F/X (nearly 1,000) ever used in a movie. Neither project is typical Hurt (the studio, New Line, wanted Tom Selleck for the role), his performances benign in both. Yet he will argue fervently for doing them, denying that they signify any change in direction.

"It's a family-kiddie drama," he says of Lost In Space, for example. "It's basically a series of serious issues blocked out on a set of cards and handed out to the audience in an entertaining way that does not have them quivering in terror and despair about their future."

As enigmatic as he is ever-troubled by political correctness (he apologises after the interview for swearing, just in case his children read this), Hurt says that he deplores ignorance, be it in his work or in life. "What the film doesn't do - unlike those in its genre that it will be compared to - is important for me," he continues with regard to Lost In Space. "You don't get 10,000 people shot in the first two minutes or reservoirs of red blood flowing in the aisles with brains slapping against the walls."

Such concern for the wellbeing of his children presumably comes naturally for a father of four who always wanted to have children. He moved with his mother and brothers from Washington to Manhattan after his parents split when he was six. His childhood was unusual, lacking a stability that his adulthood has also rarely found. While his father was a US State Department official, allowing him to spend time in Guam, Pakistan, the Sudan and Somalia, his mother remarried the son of one of the founders of Time Inc - moving the young Hurt once more, this time from a four-room apartment to a 22-room duplex. Little wonder that the boy who spoke half in the language of Guam at four and learnt about honour from a Muslim cook at nine, grew up to act out illusions.

His own personal life has been turbulent, a relationship with the bottle the most important factor for him for many years. Accused of physical and verbal abuse by his first wife, ballet dancer Sandra Jennings (who gave him eldest son, 14-year-old Alex), in a palimony suit, Hurt saw the marriage go public. Though his second - to Heidi Henderson - bore him two sons, it ended and a relationship with French actress Sandrine Bonnaire (co-star from The Plague) gave him four-year-old daughter Jeanne.

Hurt made his screen debut as a Jekyll variant in Ken Russell's Altered States. Best remembered for his Oscar- winning performance in Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman, Hurt was the golden boy of the Eighties, working most notably three times with director Lawrence Kasdan (the neo-noir Body Heat, ensemble college piece The Big Chill and quirky comedy The Accidental Tourist). He played a special- school teacher in Children of a Lesser God, a Moscow policeman in Gorky Park and a shallow anchorman in James L Brooks' Broadcast News.

His disappearance from the spotlight in the early Nineties was rapid, though. Leaving his wife, agent and country (he moved to Paris), Hurt experimented with European art-house (Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World) and worked with the likes of Anthony Minghella (who wrote 1991's The Doctor for him and directed him in Mr Wonderful). The films received little screen-time. His return - almost stalled by his appearance as Rochester in the dire Jane Eyre - was with Wayne Wang's Smoke, in which he gave his best performance to date, one full of gentility and humanity, as a troubled writer who frequented Harvey Keitel's cigar store. His refusal to appear in its rag-bag sequel Blue In The Face (put together in just a week) says much about Hurt's working method.

"They said it was improvisation, which it wasn't. Improvisation is a highly structured artistic discipline. I didn't like the end result, it seemed like a lot of people cameoing." Preferring to work alongside those who have "a sense of training", Hurt's performances involve intense preparation, and he certainly takes his job seriously.

"I think what's taking something away from acting is not the inclusion of special effects, but what the studios have done to actors, which is to take away any rehearsal time.

"No time to prepare, so why would you differentiate? Work then ceases to be interesting, because you don't have time to make a different statement in a place you can trust to fall on your face and try some artistic risks. Then they take the endings away by market research, and you can't aim your passions, intentions, thoughts, integrity anywhere.

"And then you hear them say: `Why aren't there any good actors any more?' Well, I'm sorry. I started working in a medium 20 years ago where there was a little more room. Now, they're gonna computer-generate me, and I understand why. Acting has been outmoded - it really doesn't exist."

Hurt's return to a spate of American independent films should give him breathing space. Next up is the Sean Penn co-production, Loved, in which Hurt stars alongside Robin Wright-Penn as a lawyer who is attempting to prosecute men for physical abuse towards women.

He also is set to work on The Big Brass Ring, based on an incomplete Orson Welles script, allowing him to work with Nigel Hawthorne, Irene Jacob and Miranda Richardson.

"Acting is an art," he says. "Not because we make it one but because it's an art. You don't need cinema, you can do it in the street, in the bathroom. Film is not the innate art, theatre is. There are roses and daisies and dancing, theatre and painting, and rocks - that's the way it is. If all the film in the world burnt down today, you'd still have acting."

`Dark City' is released today. `Lost In Space' opens on 31 July