Grade: C-

Paranoid thrillers have a long and sporadically distinguished history, and in the age of “The X-Files,” when society seems especially receptive to suggestions of conspiracy and hidden malevolence, they’re especially appropriate. They’re hard to pull off convincingly, though, and this tepid example (the title, of course, refers to both predatory business practices and the notion that, as Mulder’s famous poster warns, you shouldn’t have confidence in anyone when you’re up against a wicked cabal) doesn’t manage much more than a few clever moments.

The premise of “Antitrust” is the familiar, but still serviceable one about a brainy, ambitious but esssentially honest young man who takes a job with a company that turns out to be a nefarious enterprise, and who becomes a target when he decides to attack it from within. It’s a scenario that Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves both played out as budding attorneys in “The Firm” (1993) and “Devil’s Advocate” (1997), for instance. The twist in this case is that the business isn’t a law firm, but an equally powerful and (to most people) recondite operation, a computer software giant. Ryan Philippe plays Milo Hoffman, a programming genius just graduated from Stanford who’s lured from a start-up venture with classmate Teddy Chin (Yee Jee Tso) into working for Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), the legendary, fabulously wealthy and much-despised (by freedom-loving hackers) head of the behemoth N.U.R.V. Corporation. At first Milo and his long-time girlfriend Alice (Claire Forlani) are happy in the high-tech enclave Winston’s built in the Pacific Northwest, but before long Teddy’s killed while on the brink of a breakthrough, and Hoffman suspects that his boss’ plans, and the means he uses to promote them, decidedly cross the line of what’s acceptable even in the dog-eat-dog world of contemporary capitalism.

As this paraphrase should make clear, “Antitrust” shamelessly plays off concerns about the machinations of Bill Gates and Microsoft, with more than a wink and nod toward the firm’s current legal troubles. That’s a perfectly fair subject for cinematic invention, of course, but unfortunately Howard Franklin hasn’t found a way to make it work. He’s constructed the plot around the search for a system of digital conversion which will link all the world’s communications devices through a collection of privately-owned satellites, thus giving its creator/owner a virtual monopoly over the digital age, as well as mammoth profits to go along with it. (The whole thing doesn’t seem much more plausible than the computer-based tracking devices that made up the Hitchcockian MacGuffin in the recent “Charlie’s Angels,” but that was a comedy.) Winston hires Milo as a key member of the team putting the final touches to his version of such a scheme, a much-ballyhooed project called Synapse, which is scheduled to go on-line in a matter of weeks if the last bugs can be worked out. But in constructing a script around this premise, the synapses in Franklin’s own brain seem to have malfunctioned. The writer makes a cardinal error by revealing the Dark Secret of N.U.R.V. entirely too early (about 45 minutes in), dissipating any sense of mystery or suspense that the narrative’s managed to generate until then. This leaves him little choice but to fill up the rest of the running-time with genre conventions–chases and abrupt shifts of loyalty, mostly, but also a series of stock sequences in which the hero is engaged in some hurried effort to get information about the dangers around him while intercuts show the approach of a character who might catch him in the act. Even the most gifted director and editor would have trouble building much tension from the third or fourth reprise of such a hoary old device, and Peter Howitt and Zach Staenberg hardly fall into that category. (The curse of the computer movie also dooms these episodes. Despite innumerable efforts over the past decade, nobody has been able to make scenes of somebody sitting with face bathed in a monitor’s glow, tapping away at a keyboard, interesting or exciting. Even when the camera switches to show us the computer screen, which might be filled–as it often is here–with dandy graphics or videos, there’s a sense of detachment which saps whatever energy the scene might possess.) For his denouement, moreover, Franklin falls back on the close of “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), with some garage-based start-up geeks standing in for the New York Times. How things have changed!

The cast doesn’t compensate for the screenplay’s lapses. Philippe is mostly sullen and dispirited–understandable in view of the circumstances, perhaps, but hardly very invigorating. (He wears glasses in a vain attempt to give him a geeky appearance, but his beach-boy good looks keep shining through.) Robbins initially has some fun with his Bill Gates impersonation–it’s a hoot to see him with the same hair and grin–but soon he degenerates into a fairly stock bad-guy. The two leads don’t play off one another particularly well, either: Hoffman and Winston are supposed to be engaged in a sort of cat-and-mouse chess match in the final reels, thinking themselves into one another’s shoes, but a climactic scene in which they try to outwit one another by predicting what the other fellow will do is so poorly scripted and acted that it draws derisive snorts from the audience. Forlani and Rachel Leigh Cook are surprisingly nondescript as Milo’s squeeze and a fellow programmer whom he takes into his confidence. The lesser figures are even less impressive; there’s a fairly faceless collection of slacker types to play high-tech nerds (in comparison to whom Philippe looks all the more wrong), and none of the nasty dudes who do N.U.R.V.’s dirty work are at all memorable. (It might have assisted things if the villains had proven especially clever or resourceful, but they come across as a singularly inept group, despite all the technological wizardry and surveillance capability they’re supposed to have at their command.) The picture doesn’t look especially good, either: it has a curiously faded, washed-out appearance, and even the equipment on display seems dated. (The sole exception is a series of digital paintings that regularly change to suit the mood of whoever enters a room. They’re cool, and are effectively used in one scene when Winston comes upon Hoffman sitting at a laptop, unaware of his approach.)

As paranoid fantasies go, “Antitrust” can’t hold a candle to the real classics of the genre–Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976), both of which really get under a viewer’s skin while Howitt’s movie just glides over the surface. It lacks the cerebral intensity of those pictures, opting for easy thriller chases and cliches rather than making its points through mood and suggestion. Nor does it match Robbins’ last foray into this territory, 1998’s “Arlington Road,” to which Mark Pellington brought a bit of Pakula’s savvy, despite some problems in the final act. It even pales besides John Badham’s “WarGames” (1983), in which the young Matthew Broderick proved a far more engaging protagonist that Philippe does here. By comparison this new effort is pretty pallid stuff. It might, however, perform a public service by making people think twice about the wisdom of reconsidering the plan to break up Microsoft.