Tim Robbins as William
Samantha Morton as Maria
Om Puri as Backland
Jeanne Balibar as Sylvie
Nabil Elouhabi as Vendor
Togo Igawa as Driver
In the near future, an insurance investigator (Robbins) is sent to Shanghai to investigate a case of counterfeit passports. While there, he has a twenty-four affair with the primary suspect, Maria (Morton), and then covers up for her crimes. When he returns to Asia to follow-up on the case, he finds that Maria is missing and once located, he learns that her memory has been wiped. As he tries to remind her of the love they shared, he discovers a jarring secret about her.
Director Michael Winterbottom’s latest film opens with a clause from the government regulation of the movie’s title about how the government deals with clones and their relations. This leads one to expect a movie about clones and cloning, but when it takes over an hour before that code is mentioned again, it is something quickly forgotten.
Instead, the viewer is pulled into the world of William, an insurance investigator looking into the case of counterfeit “papelles”, combination passport/visas needed to travel between countries, which puts him in contact with Maria. Their world isn’t that different than ours except that big cities like Shanghai are surrounded by miles of wasteland and refugees unable to get in or out. Various languages are mixed together fluidly, and William’s greatest asset is his ability to use “empathy viruses” to get information out of those he interrogates. Oh, and Mick Jones has resorted to singing old Clash tunes in Shanghai karaoke bars, so the differences with the world as we know it are pretty subtle.
Code 46 recreates the future noir of Phillip K. Dick’s Blade Runner mixed with the hyperrealism of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, and then throws in a romantic element more like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, only without the humor. Combined, these elements make Code 46 quite the radical departure from Winterbottom’s previous works–24 Hour Party People and The Claim-but it show his talents at pulling together a lot of different elements without losing sight of the story or characters.
The story is told in three sections, each with a slightly different look and tone, but some people may not even get past the languid pacing of the first hour. Code 46 is an intellectual sci-fi story, so like Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris, it requires more brain power than most may want to expend, especially trying to get past the invented language and technology used during William’s investigation. It’s the type of movie that fans of Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson will eat up, but with no special effects, it requires the viewer’s imagination to really accept that this is the future. That said, the genius of Code 46 lies in the ways that a number of controversial ideas are examined, and those who feel strongly about subjects like cloning, abortion and self-beautification will certainly have something to talk about after seeing the movie.
The futuristic setting is the only thing that classifies Code 46 as science fiction, because it’s really a love story between two people who would usually never have gotten involved if not for circumstance. In most cases, it would be hard to make that sort of relationship work, but Winterbottom has the luxury of two fantastic actors. Neither Robbins nor Morton give performances as strong as their Oscar nominated roles from 2003, but they provide an chemistry to the romance that makes them perfectly suited to try to show the strength of their attraction. Their romance definitely owes more to Greek tragedy than normal onscreen romances, as the unexpected third act twist offers a disturbing revelation that makes it infinitely harder to watch their amorous scenes together. It really forces you to question whether you really want to see them end up together or not.
Despite the story problems, the movie is visually stunning. Winterbottom’s camera sweeps through the streets of Shanghai and the wilderness of Dubai, creating a mesmerizing and hypnotic travelogue not too far removed from Lost in Translation, supplemented by a gorgeous soundtrack by David Holmes and the Free Association, who also provided the music for this week’s Stander.
The Bottom Line:
Winterbottom’s unique vision has produced another memorable and thought-provoking film by mixing elements that, in theory, shouldn’t work together as well as they do. He ends up with a movie that needs to be absorbed rather than watched. Although the pace is exceedingly slow at times, the characters and the concepts gradually pull you into an intelligent and unique love story, which forces you to look at the world around you and think about things a bit differently.
Code 46 opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.