Code 46 (United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Over the years, I have come to expect great things from Michael Winterbottom. I haven't loved everything he has done, but he has made some powerful movies and even his least inspired films have been watchable. So Code 46 broadsided me, provoking an almost physical negative reaction. I left the theater shellshocked, unable to comprehend that Winterbottom could make something so awful.

Code 46 is like Solaris without the psychological depth and strong acting. The movie is flat, boring, pointless, and nonsensical. It features two of the most lifeless performances in recent memory from Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, who seem to be feeding off one another's lethargy. Robbins is admittedly a better director than actor, but Morton has done some fantastic work in the past (Under the Skin, Minority Report). It's hard to figure out where she placed her ability when it came to making this movie.

This is low-budget science fiction. It takes place some time in the future, when couples can only procreate if their DNA is computer matched. Conceive an unapproved child and you are in violation of Code 46. The embryo will be aborted and select areas of your memory erased. Robbins plays a fraud investigator named William who has been sent to Shanghai to investigate the illegal manufacture and sale of travel "papelles" (the paperwork by which someone can travel from one "zone" to another). While there, he meets the perpetrator of the crime, Maria (Morton), and falls in love with her. Rather than turn her in, he has sex with her, leaves her in violation of Code 46, then heads home to his wife and child. Several days later, when he is unable to locate Maria, he goes back to Shanghai, where he ends up trapped after his papelles expire. Now he needs to procure documents off the black market, but Maria's memory of him has been erased.

Solaris has a slow, deliberate pace that creates the proper tone for a meditation on grief. Code 46 is just as lugubrious, but its only theme is that Orwell was right. Even a full cup of coffee is unlikely to keep the average viewer awake or interested. There are some interesting science fiction ideas - such as "viruses" that allow individuals to read the minds of others or learn new languages, a planet where the ozone layer has been shredded, and a single-world society where the accepted language includes bits of its parent tongues (English being the primary one). But there are some oddly contradictory elements, as well. (Along with the lack of special effects, I assume these are the result of budget constraints. Making a science fiction movie without much money can be a challenge. Unfortunately, it's not one that Winterbottom successfully surmounts.) For example, why are cars still the primary method of transportation, and why is no one driving something more futuristic than a 2003 model? Okay, so that's a nitpick, but it bothered me.

The idea that our increasing reliance upon technology is resulting in an erosion of our personal freedom is an idea that has been popular in science fiction since its early days. There's no reason why it couldn't work in this context, even if the story is derivative. But the screenplay (credited to Frank Cottrell Boyce) is lackluster, the characters don't possess even a semblance of multi-dimensionality, and the person-to-person interaction is cold. I didn't for one moment believe that there was anything between William and Maria, and I certainly didn't care whether their love story had a happy ending. And why is there a gratuitous crotch shot of Samantha Morton, when the film is otherwise devoid of nudity? A question for which there is no answer in a movie that should never have been made.

Code 46 (United Kingdom, 2003)

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Togo Igawa, Jeanne Balibar, Om Puri
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cinematography: Alwin H. Kuchler, Marcel Zyskind
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2004-08-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1