Code 46

(2004) *** R
92 min. MGM/UA. Director: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, Jeanne Balibar, Togo Igawa.

The reliably sedate team of director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce are at it again, this time with an intriguing science-fiction story called Code 46. In an intellectual vein redolent of classics like Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange, Winterbottom and Boyce apply their own understated approach to near-future issues: in particular, governmental control over geographical and ethical borders.

The worst transgressions in this future world are the forgery of travel authorizations called "papelles" and sexual entanglements between people deemed to be genetically identical. Both problems face William (Tim Robbins), an insurance investigator tracking down a papelle forging operation. When William interviews the workers in a Shanghai papelle-manufacturing plant, one suspect arrests him: a woman named Maria. As played—with a typically unearthly quality—by Samantha Morton (Minority Report), Maria has the wary look of a naughty cherub. Despite the investigatory aid of an "empathy virus," William has a hard time deciding whether to haul her in or bed her (regardless of the family waiting for him at home); it's the kind of forbidden, fatale love usually found in noir tales. A break in the case sends William back to Maria, only to discover she has been contained for a violation of Code 46, which lays out criminal threats to genetic purity.

Code 46 benefits from an immersive production design by Mark Tildesley, which utilizes found locations in Shanghai and Dubai. Winterbottom isn't beyond the occasional funky joke (like a cameo which finds Mick Jones singing "Should I Stay or Should I Go" in a dimly lit bar), though the tone tends toward darkness. Exiled out-worlders and the hodge-podge of languages which have infiltrated English expression add to the verisimilitude of this creative yet all-too-plausible future vision. Given the "Big Brother" promise that "the Sphynx knows best," this fusion of our sci-fi noir future and Ancient Greek tragic past looks not unlike our uneasy present.

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