- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

“Code 46” simulates an intriguing futuristic environment by contrasting cityscapes from Shanghai and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with desert terrain near the latter. The idea is to suggest a planet of encroaching desert wastes — home to a vast nomadic and undocumented population — and of towering metropolises that provide sustenance and security to urban dwellers with the proper credentials, skills and aspirations.

The British team of director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, last associated on “24-Hour Party People,” depicts Shanghai itself as a new desert capital. This wrinkle gives the movie a distinctive switch on a celebrated pictorial influence, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” in which a teeming, humid, nocturnal Los Angeles of the future had been crossbred with aspects of Tokyo and Mexico City.

Mr. Boyce excels in the early going at a linguistic variation: Characters converse in an English idiom that incorporates numerous foreign words and novel coinages. For example, you “take a virus” in order to change moods or enhance perception.

The plot revolves around travel documents called “papelles,” which confirm that you’re “covered,” insured for specified periods of time when in transit. The difficulty of securing coverage if you’re from the hinterlands has created a thriving black market in forged papelles. This trade obliges the protagonist, Tim Robbins as a Pinkerton agent named William Geld, to fly from Seattle to Shanghai to identify a counterfeiter. In preparation for the assignment, he pops an “empathy virus,” believed to be a great stimulant of intuitive powers.

The filmmakers also draw on the “Gattaca” influence. Cloning has advanced to such an extent that the global society of “Code 46” is loath to permit reproduction in substantial segments of the population, for fear of unwitting incestuous consequences. The title statute forbids any offspring from parents who share a genetic identity.

The filmmakers prove admirably deft at using contemporary settings to envision a functioning dystopia of the near future. What fails them is the need to personalize the ominous shape of things to come through an ill-fated love story.

Geld becomes instantly infatuated with the crooked functionary he’s meant to expose, a clerk named Maria, portrayed by Samantha Morton. Where the backdrops of the movie seem powerfully expressive, the romance has mismatch written all over it.

Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman shared a youthful glamour and ardor in “Gattaca” that isn’t approached by Mr. Robbins belaboring his new speciality, middle-aged weaklings, and Miss Morton. As his coy consort, Miss Morton doesn’t begin to emerge as a potentially forceful character until the movie is almost over.

Ostensibly, Geld is so besotted by Maria that he throws caution to the wind to prolong a fundamentally pathetic tryst. Those empathy pills seem to have unfortunate side effects.

Miss Morton rose to an extraordinary maternal opportunity last year in Jim Sheridan’s “In America.” This fallback to waifhood seems to be selling her short, in part because you suspect that the fable needs Maria rather than Geld as its protagonist.

Nevertheless, the movie has an impressive pictorial aspect and enough creepy intimations of future dehumanization and scientific-social mischief to get under your skin. The filmmakers contrive a promising framework for apprehension, even if they miscalculate with the characters who should exhibit survival instincts at their strongest.

**

TITLE: “Code 46”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, fleeting nudity, and allusions to futuristic drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind. Production design by Mark Tildesley. Costume design by Natalie Ward. Music by the Free Association.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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