Dir: Michael Winterbottom. UK. 2003. 92 mins.

The latest product to leave the non-stop assembly line of Michael Winterbottom and Revolution Films is that rarest of creatures, the all-British sci-fi movie. Code 46 is set in 'the near future', and its evocation of this desertified world, where genetic engineering and constant ID screening is part of everyday life, and where people talk in a kind of Anglo-Esperanto, is the most convincing thing about the film. Alas, visual and linguistic inventiveness is not enough. Code 46 is let down by what should have been the easiest thing to get right: the casting of the two main leads. The production notes stress the importance of chemistry, but the lab assistant seems has slipped up big-time in the pairing of Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, who never reach out to each other, let alone the audience. Still, the intriguing, choppy look of the film, and the ambient rock soundtrack by sample-meister David Holmes and The Free Association, at least have the merit of allowing Code 46 to slip back into music video mode when it doesn't hack it as a drama. But overall, this is a disappointing use of over £1.5m in lottery money. We can expect a low-to-middling three to four week run in most of the major territories to be followed by slightly more vigorous home entertainment revenues.

How do you paint the future on a budget of $7.5m'. The answer is to use those bits of the present that already look like tomorrow. Aerial shots of Middle Eastern sand-scapes stand in for the desertification of more fertile areas; the Lloyds building in London, or Canary Wharf tube station, are taken as the architectural norm, rather than the exception; while the world's fastest-growing metropolis, Shanghai - where many of the outdoor scenes were shot - is used as a ready-made Blade Runner set. In this future world, which ventures into the same political mind-control territory as Minority Report, one's social condition is determined by whether or not one has the right papelles - an all in-one passport, visa and insurance cover. Those who do live in overcrowded cities, which are tightly cordoned off from the shanty towns of those who don't. William Geld (Tim Robbins) is a detective investing a papelle forging scam; Maria (Samantha Morton, still with her Minority Report suede-head cut) is the culprit he uncovers thanks to his mind-reading powers, which come courtesy of an empathy virus. But the investigator finds himself falling in love with the gamine scamp; so he nails someone else instead.

The course of true love never did run smooth, at least not in this business; and sure enough, the rather gelid Robbins-Morton romance receives a setback when William discovers that Maria is a clone of his dead mother. Every boy's dream, if Freud is to be believed; and the two lovers finally consummate their relationship in a seedy hotel. The sweaty hump is rendered more piquant by the fact that Maria has been given a virus that makes her recoil in disgust from her partner's body - not far from the truth, if rumours of the on-set animosity between the two leads are to be believed.

The globalese spoken by the characters is fitfully amusing, though it will provide a stiff challenge to dubbers. People say things like 'my video listo is discontinuado'; sentences are larded with phrases like 'n'est-ce pas'' and 'claro'. And the dreamy, fast-paced visual style, which mixes blurred, handheld, close-up shots of faces with more traditional footage, is never less than watchable - especially during the frequent dramatic lulls, which are filled with collages of moving trains, or an arresting scene of Morton dancing under a strobe light. But watching a film for its non-dramatic segues is a bit like watching a porn movie for the moment when the plumber knocks on the door. And the ending is so abrupt that you get the feeling Winterbottom left out a scene in his rush to move onto the next project.

Prod co: Revolution Films
Co prod: United Artists, BBC Films
Int'l sales: The Works
Prod: Andrew Eaton
Scr: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cinematography: Alwin Kuschler, Marcel Zyskind
Prod des: Mark Tildesley
Ed: Peter Christelis
Music: The Free Association
Main cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, Jeanne Balibar.