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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
This Code Doesn't Work
by Donald Levit

In Code 46, an excess of lined, on-screen surveillance videos with organizational logos tucked in a corner is not very subtle -- and neither are all those dull grainy outside shots. They bode, respectively, the Big Brother state and the destructive pollution of Earth’s atmosphere. And, as is grown way too common, narration substitutes for dramatization, telling instead of showing. Against ruined desertified lands, across Aldous Huxley’s “frontier that separated civilization from savagery,” white print too fast to digest sets forth Code 46, Article 1 -- but it should have explained better the number’s significance, the twenty-three chromosomes of a sperm or egg cell that partner in every other body cell except the red blood or erythrocytes. More, the voice-overs of María González (Samantha Morton) are everywhere except for closing, obvious “I miss you” lyrics.

In its favor, and for reasons of budget, Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 at least does not mistake soulless computer visuals for science-fiction or story substitute. Set in a not-distant future that could be the present, it uses a dry Middle Eastern Arab world as the “outside” to which troublemakers and misfits are banished, contrasted to the supposed preferable comfort of almost indoor Asian cities, beehives of people, neon, karaoke, and checkpoint turnstiles.

William Geld (Tim Robbins) is an investigator on a one-day pass, sent from his Seattle home and family to Shanghai to delve into false “papelles,” an update passport-visa-insurance rolled into one. At the Sphinx Agency, origin of the fraudulent documents, he interviews employees and, injected with an “empathy virus” for reading minds from a single fact, intuits that María is guilty. An inexplicable, immediate attraction to her, however, tempts him from duty. He fingers a male worker, instead, and accompanies the twenty-five-year-old woman on her birthday rounds.

Sensing that William is the longed-for soul mate of her twenty years of subway dreams, she trusts him and reveals the method of smuggling out travel passes, for money, she says, but more to help those good people who need to escape. As if they have known one another forever, they return to her flat, make love, and he flies home in the morning.

This magic of attraction is not convincing, and the stars are mismatched in more than height. With her pixie hairdo, Morton might be a daughter more than a lover to Robbins' slightly shaggy gumshoe, so laid-back that one cannot be sure whether he is awake or asleep. He is soon ordered back to Asia, for there has been a snafu, with the Delhi death from Ward’s disease of a naturalist carrying forged papers. Obliged into a “happiness break,” María has been confined to a clinic where her memory of William has been excised and a pregnancy terminated.

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead.) 

Removing her from Mai Lin under false pretenses, William snips a lock of her hair for marriage-license DNA testing and learns that she had been cloned from his own deceased mother. Told smugly that “we are prisoners of our genes,” he recalls that he himself had been conceived in vitro. Nevertheless, using more forgeries, the two of them flee to Jebal’ali, Dubai, where her exiled father once experienced freedom.

But the woman, it seems, has had yet another virus implanted. Her body rejects his, and, unconsciously, she is programmed to report their whereabouts to the authorities. So they overpay for a car and flee again, to the desert and straight into an ending that Huxley managed better for Lenina Crowne and John The Savage, Orwell for Winston Smith and Julia.

Futurity is not helped along here by a projected miscegenation of language, in which poorly pronounced phrases from Spanish mainly, and French and others, crop up to the point that, spot on, even María remarks, “Lo siento -- you say that too much.” The frequently unintelligible polyglot insertions grow as cloying as the self-conscious photography and loud New Age-y score.

About his screenplay, Frank Cottrell Boyce brings up myth, Oedipus, movies of love thwarted by outside forces or Fate, and particularly the Wordsworths (William and sister Dorothy), but with the current twist of genetics replacing classic Destiny. In the end, it is not stretches of science that doom the project, nor the facile warnings or downside dénouement. Rather, Code 46 fails in the basics of cinema. In conception and acting, the lead characters are not engaging, the many story and cinematography tics are repetitious, and the whole just does not take off. 

(Released by United Artists and rated "R" for a scene of sexuality including brief graphic nudity.)

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