A futuristic film noir-love story with an Oedipal twist. That sounds like a devilish cocktail and it might’ve made for just such a movie. But “Code 46” by director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce is a muddy, strangely unintoxicating mix. A noir with no moral desperation, no clear-cut point-of-view and a love story whose eroticism feels about as urgent as yardwork.
This is not to say that “Code 46” lacks merit. Mark Tildesley’s production design and Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind’s photography ingeniously render a future-world that has ingredients of “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max” among other futuristic noir antecedents. Its soaring neon-lit towers and its smog- and dust-enshrouded landscapes are striking, but equally so is how the movie’s design—out of a need for economy and narrative expediency—is kept within the bounds of a recognizable reality. Those gleaming and ominous settings are modern-day Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong tricked out merely with lighting, filters and minimal art design.
Winterbottom and Cottrell Boyce postulate an endpoint to our age of rapid urbanizing and globalizing. Theirs is a George Orwell-meets- Phillip K. Dick dystopia where people’s mobility and behavior are heavily regulated and where overpopulated cities are separated by vast stretches of wasteland. “Code 46” itself refers to a reproductive law in which partners who share common genes are prohibited from mating—a way to keep genetically identical humans and clones from getting it on.
There’s the rub for William (Tim Robbins), a detective who arrives in Shanghai to track down who’s been manufacturing and selling counterfeit “papelles”— special permits needed to transit from one city to another. The culprit, he discovers, is Maria (Samantha Morton), a waifish, dreamy-eyed loner. He promptly falls in love and into bed with her. Soon after returning to his married life, William is alerted to a murder that leads him back to Maria. But her memory of William, their shared sexual history, has since been wiped clean by doctors, owing to a Code 46 violation. William learns that Maria was cloned from his own mother’s genes. Logically, I wondered why, if sex with such a clone were possible, aren’t there measures—identity cards, retinal scans, whatever—to preempt such an act. Why? Because logic would’ve overstepped “Code 46’s” entire second half when William, too smitten with Maria to care about their genetic relatedness, flies off with her for another illicit jaunt in the desert. Their cavorting, of course, comes to the lovelorn end we expect from this genre, but which registers none of its emotional payoff.
Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, two intelligent actors, are fatally unconvincing as lovers. As William proceeds to woo Maria, we continually wonder what he sees in her and vice versa. Sporting her close-cropped “In America” haircut, Morton pitches her performance somewhere between the crime-predicting humanoid of “Minority Report” and the mute wallflower of “Sweet and Lowdown”—not exactly a combination to get a man’s pulse racing. The foundation for all noirs is how it reveals a wounded world through the dark but ever-hopeful gaze of its detective-protagonists. “Code 46,” which poises itself as noir, fails utterly to lock us into William’s world-view; Winterbottom, instead, lingers on Maria’s pseudo-poetic interior monologues, conjuring dreamy moments that narratively amount to nothing. Below William’s cocksure surface, Robbins’ characterization is a milky mess, absent of any motive for his infidelity, let alone a personal desire to solve this or any crime.
“Code 46” is an ambitious but miscalculated affair, owing entirely to Cottrell Boyce’s unengaging script. It prompts more questions of logic and motivation than it bargained for, losing its actors and audience along the way. Winterbottom is a competent filmmaker known also for his prolific output. Were it not for his flair for mood and texture, “Code 46” might sink entirely. Nevertheless, he might better serve his stories—especially those as conceptually complex as this one—by slowing down and taking the time to tell them clearly and well.
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri