Dir: Hironobu Sakaguchi. US. 2001. 105 mins.

If Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within were a live action film, it would probably suffer the same box office fate as Soldier, Event Horizon, Supernova, Alien: Resurrection, Escape From LA and other gloomy futuristic sci-fi epics of late. It even bears striking tonal similarities to last summer's animated sci-fi movie Titan AE which was one of the year's more ignominious flops. As a genuinely ground-breaking CGI animated curio, however, Final Fantasy stands to make a killing at the box office.

The computer-generated human cast of characters led by sexy Doctor Aki Ross (pictured left) is constantly astounding and keeps the attention - or rather remains fascinating - even when the drama itself is in a slump. It is an unprecedented twist on CGI that will impress the most jaded of teen moviegoers.

Based on the video game Final Fantasy created by the mastermind behind the film Hironobu Sakaguchi, the film is awash with the spiritual, ghostly sensibilities familiar from modern Japanese anime; the set-up - pockets of humans live in enclosed cities while translucent phantoms roam around a barren earth outside - is ambitious and splendidly visualised, although from the start Sakaguchi fails to make these woolly concepts clear.

The film begins in 2065. Dr Aki Ross (well voiced by Ming-Na) lands her space vehicle in the deserted streets of old New York City on a mission to find a lifeform hidden in a ruined old building. Beset by phantoms, she is rescued by her ex-boyfriend Captain Gray Edwards (Baldwin) and his patrol, although not before she has found the lifeform: a plant which turns out to be the sixth of eight 'spirits' which together could generate a wave of energy which will conquer the power of the phantoms.

Back in the safety of the enclosed human 'barrier', we find out that Aki and her colleague and mentor Dr Sid are struggling with the ruling council to prove that the spirits are real. Opposing them is the deranged General Hein who plans to nuke the aliens at source with a new weapon called the Zeus Cannon. The film follows the pursuit of the seventh and the eighth spirits and culminates with a spectacular confrontation at the crater where the phantoms first landed from their planet.

The biggest problem here is the narrative, which - no surprise here - seems to have taken a back seat to the production. It is never quite clear what the various spirits and Gaia (the Earth's spririt) and ghosts are really all about, so that the film does finally become more a compelling exercise in this new technique than a compelling story. Titan AE similarly fell down on its banal story, although it only had two-dimensional cartoon characters to carry it.

Here the CGI cast acquits itself honourably. Coming in somewhere between Sandra Bullock and Bridget Fonda, Dr Aki tosses her bob with aplomb as she faces off against love interest Captain Gray, a rather ordinary looking hunk who could easily spend the rest of his career selling workout equipment on informercials. The kiss between the two - no tongues in evidence - is a startling moment and disturbingly authentic. There's food for thought here for the adult film industry.

Making up Edwards' team are a cliched bunch of supporting characters straight out of the B-movie handbook. There's the big black guy (voiced by Rhames), the wise-cracking little guy (Buscemi) and the hard-nosed woman (Gilpin). James Woods lends his distinctive voice to the crackpot Hein but best of all is Doctor Sid, the wise doctor-cum-therapist who is always stood by Aki in times of trouble. Voiced (of course) by Donald Sutherland, he is the most eerily convincing of the characters and really could find work in films.

The dialogue is laughable and would not be tolerated in a live-action Picture (the phrase "Let's get the hell out of here!", for example, is uttered twice in short succession). Meanwhile a "shit" or two is thrown in and no doubt contributed to the film's PG-13 rating in the US, along with the grotesquely unpleasant phantoms and a general dark intensity which will be too much for smaller children.

Prod cos: Columbia Pictures, Square Pictures
US dist: Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar
Prods: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Jun Aida, Chris Lee.
Co-director: Moto Sakakibara
Scr: Al Reinert & Jeff Vintar, from a story by Sakaguchi
Ed: Christopher S Capp
Mus: Elliot Goldenthal
Main voice cast: Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, James Woods, Jean Simmons