Winterbottom's Imaginative Look Ahead, "Code 46"

by Peter Brunette


Perhaps the best thing about science-fiction movies is that, by definition, they stem from a matrix of ideas. The latest offering by the indefatigable, workaholic British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (he has two films here at the Toronto festival, not just one like a normal person), the very powerful if flawed "Code 46," in fact has so many ideas jammed into it that most viewers will constantly feel, from the beginning to the end of the film, that they're missing something. It doesn't matter. The ideas that Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce do successfully convey are so imaginatively, sociopolitically, and -- above all -- cinematically rich that you leave the theater overwhelmed with new thoughts and heady sense of fresh visceral sensation. The movie's sharp intelligence also makes up for the narrative slack that occasionally threatens to engulf it.

In a near, ambivalently dystopic future, William (Tim Robbins), an insurance detective, is sent from his home in Seattle to Shanghai (for a single day!) to investigate a case of fake "papelles," the passport-visa-insurance set of papers that are necessary to travel in this brave new world. During his investigation he meets Maria (Samantha Morton), and though he knows that she is the culprit, he bizarrely falls instantly in love with her. Having disguised her involvement in the forgeries, he returns to his loving wife and cute little boy in Seattle, but can't get Maria out of his mind. When some irregularities in his report turn up, his superior orders him back to Shanghai to rectify things. He's more than eager to see Maria again, of course, but everything, inevitably, ends up getting much more complicated than he ever imagined they would.

Boyce, one of the most talented scriptwriters working in films today ("Hilary and Jackie," "Pandemonium," and four previous films with Winterbottom), lards his script with all kind of high-tech-based narrative goodies, as well as with an ersatz language that signifies the racial and ethnic hybrid the world has become (the English dialogue everyone speaks is amusingly sprinkled with words from French, Spanish, and a bunch of other languages). Wisely, Winterbottom has chosen to represent the future with a bunch of low-cost gizmos whose imaginative flair delights while never threatening to break the budget.

Morton and Robbins, especially the former, give excellent performances, but they are never totally convincing as a couple, especially during the otherwise freshly conceived sex scenes. Maria's voiceover, offering her after-the-fact narration and her interpretation of William's motivations, sometimes seems superfluous. In addition, while the film noir generic devices usually provide the story with plenty of forward movement, there are occasions when the narrative impetus flags. Happily, these faults drift away in the relentlessly forward movement of the film's ideas. Just when you might otherwise start to lose interest, Winterbottom and Boyce come up with yet another clever twist that derives not so much from the plot as from the film's philosophical and thematic base. For example, one idea is that William has been purposely infected with an "empathy virus" that enables him to read other people's minds in order to aid his investigation. Another central, particularly juicy conceit -- whose details I won't reveal --involves an Oedipal component that threatens to hinder their lovemaking in an especially interesting way. Cool ideas like this are produced on such a regular basis, that you don't mind too much that some are completely impenetrable.

Technically, the film is often breathtaking. The music, which erects a huge wall of sound, affects the viewer in surprisingly deep ways. It is never merely descriptive, or obnoxiously meant to lead the audience emotionally in one direction or another, but is, rather, always profoundly visceral. The editing is perky and involving without being mannered. The general look of the film is also superb, with night shots of the ultra-high-tech, glass and stainless-steel built environment predominant, when the contrasts are starkest, following the film's conceit that no one goes outside during the day since the ozone layer has disappeared. (There's a great moment when, without prior explanation, the couple throw William's raincoat over their heads when they have to cross a street in broad daylight.)

On the run in classic genre style near the end of the film, William and Maria enter the "afuera," the outside, the desert world beyond the cities where those without papelles are forced to scratch out their ultra-low-tech living. Significantly, the afuera strongly resembles the third-world countries we've most recently been bombing, and the visual contrast between the inner privileged world of the cities and the outer world of the dead and dessicated is stunning and, dare I say it, politically courageous as well.

Some critics will find even more to fault this film with than I have, but its errors must finally be forgiven. For it's the responsibility of science-fiction, above all, to make us rethink the future (and, in the process, of course, the present), and "Code 46" carries out this task in a grand and often immensely powerful way.