The films of director Michael Winterbottom fall neatly into two categories. There are remarkable successes like last year’s “In This World” and 1996’s “Welcome to Sarajevo,” and interesting failures like “24 Hour Party People” (2002) and “Wonderland” (1999). He’s even managed to accomplish the feat of extending the dichotomy into the rarefied area of Thomas Hardy adaptations, with “Jude” (1996) splendidly effective and “The Claim” (2000), which transposed “The Mayor of Casterbridge” to the American West, intriguing (and visually stunning) but emotionally flat. Unhappily, Winterbottom’s latest effort falls decidedly into the second category: “Code 46” isn’t boring, but its mixture of film noir convention and genetically-based sci-fi plotting proves unstable. It just goes to prove that in this instance at least, “Double Indemnity” and “Gattaca” don’t blend.
Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is set in the reasonably near future, when world society has been divided into two parts–those with “cover,” the necessary ID called a “papelle” that permits them to live in the well-kept cities, and everyone else, who are forced to eke out an existence in the run-down desert settlements outside the urban areas. Because so many people are clones or test-tube babies, moreover, there must be stringent regulations about marriage and sexual intercourse to prevent those with identical or similar genetic makeup to mate. Testing is required of all those who intend to wed, and when an infraction occurs either by accident or design, “Code 46,” which criminalizes such activity and orders the termination of any fetus that might result from it, comes into play.
With this as background, the story kicks in. William Geld (Tim Robbins), an investigator for a corporation that ferrets out forgers of papelles, is sent from his home in Seattle to look into a problem at the Sphinx insurance operation in Shanghai, where a small army of workers produce the documents and where some false ones have turned up. Geld is an intuitive person by nature, but he’s also fortified with an “empathy virus” that will help him discern the wrongdoers merely by having employees talk to him. William senses that the culprit is Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton), an oddly flippant girl who suffers from curious dreams, but for some reason he’s taken with her and accuses another worker instead. He then connects with Maria for the evening and eventually goes to bed with her, despite the fact that she reveals all her illegal conduct to him. After returning home William is sent back to Shanghai after it becomes clear his first visit didn’t solve the problem, only to find that Maria has been spirited away to a clinic for treatment under Code 46 procedures; not only has the abortion been performed, but all memory of her encounter with the man who had been involved with her has been erased (shades of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). The smitten William rescues her from the hospital, and together they go off to her birthplace–a free trade city in the Persian Gulf. But the long arm of the big brother legal system quickly catches up with them, and the ending suggests that the establishment is adept at protecting itself.
It’s difficult to comprehend what the precise point of all this is supposed to be, except to show that Winterbottom and his clever crew–production designer Mark Tildesley, co-cinematographers Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind, and art director Denis Schnegg–can create a plausible future environment simply by astutely choosing real locations in Shanghai, Dubai and Jaipur, India that have an austere, barren or metallic look and shooting them to accentuate their alien characteristics. And in fact, they succeed quite admirably in fashioning an atmospheric “brave new world” on what appears to have been a very modest budget. (Boyce also does a good job of suggesting a language that’s been internationalized by tossing French, Spanish and other linguistic references into the English dialogue, too–they’re not as clever as Anthony Burgess’ constructs in “A Clockwork Orange,” but are still a nice touch.) But they haven’t managed to situate a compelling human story within this environment. As played stoically by Robbins, Geld is a curiously stiff fellow, obviously not at home in his own skin and not entirely comfortable in his domestic or professional life; but his sudden attraction to Maria, played in a rather blase fashion by Morton, seems inexplicable, and his utter surrender to her rebellious point of view never convinces. The crux of the plot is that the two are irresistibly drawn to each other, but since the chemistry between Robbins and Morton is virtually non-existent, the passion seems feigned. And because the picture is essentially a two-hander–all the other roles are little more than cameos–the weakness at the center is fatal. Even worse, any larger point about the individual crushed by an oppressively regimented system or the dangers of scientific interference in natural biological processes doesn’t register with much force as a result of the frailty in the central coupling .
So “Code 46” is another one of Michael Winterbottom’s interesting failures–intriguing to look at but curiously hollow inside. But his next picture may well be masterful, and given the speed at which he works, it probably won’t be long in coming. Watch for it.