From the Friday, Aug. 20, 2004 Oregonian....
"Code 46" gets off to a curious start. As a gorgeously photographed desert landscape scrolls beneath us, a pile of text informs us precisely what a "Code 46" is -- a near-future law preventing people with "the same nuclear gene set" from breeding. The verbiage continues over several legalistic subsections, and it all gets a little hard to follow, like you've just been handed a well-photographed subpoena. But the landscape is so bleak and desperate and gorgeous and the soundtrack (by The Free Association) is so ambient and exotic that it all works, somehow.
Just so with the rest of the movie. Set in a near-future world of massive cities and vast sandscapes, "Code 46" is a weird little slice of science fiction, film soleil and Greek tragedy from director Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People"). Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay hinges on some 21st-century complications bizarre enough to lock the viewer out of a real emotional engagement with the story. But it's all wrapped in a package so thoroughly exotic and weird-sexy that it becomes that rarest of cinematic animals: a sci-fi art film.
The story's set in motion by an irrational act. William (Tim Robbins) is a private investigator and family man infected with an "empathy virus" that allows him to read people's minds. He catches Maria (Samantha Morton) forging fake "papelles" -- ID cards that allow people to travel between cities surrounded by vast desert shantytowns. But William's empathy goes haywire for reasons unclear, and he impulsively pins her crime on someone else; soon he's pinning Maria in a more literal sense.
Of course, those "reasons unclear" become a bit clearer down the line, and they are awkward in the awkwardest possible sense. But by the time you've heard Robbins mumble the word "papelle" for the 800th time -- the movie imagines a future where English is peppered with a tongue-twisting multilingual patois -- you're probably not going to find yourself much stirred by the disclosure.
You may, however, find yourself deeply stirred by "Code 46"'s sound, light and texture. It's probably bad critical form to recommend a movie based largely on abstractions like "vibe," but Winterbottom does such a glorious job building his world that a certain breed of filmgoer can get punch-drunk lost in the pure cinema of it all.
Special effects are minimal. Instead, Winterbottom stages the action in a real-life nighttime Shanghai -- it's like a found-item "Blade Runner," with more than a dash of "Gattaca" -- with the real-life deserts of Dubai doubling as the imaginary deserts of the future. It's a world of steel and transit with Middle Eastern flavors, an all-ethnicity puree that tips its hat, by turns, to "Until the End of the World," "THX 1138" and "Lost in Translation." It's also, thankfully, silver-jumpsuit-free, and when the vibe's in full hum, as it is during a nightclub scene, it's almost hypnotically sexy. (Tiny detail alert: Watch for a karaoke cameo by Mick Jones, croaking a martini-sozzled variation on his own rock classic.)
Samantha Morton roots it all firmly to earth as the tiny (she's like half a Robbins tall!), close-cropped criminal. She spends a lot of time starting straight into the camera in "Code 46" -- her sensual, old-young face taking on shades and light seemingly mid-shot. If Robbins represents the franchised class in Winterbottom's world of tomorrow, Morton represents those desperate and abandoned -- in ways that are both high-tech and mythological. She infects the film with an empathy virus of her own, even if her humanity takes a back seat to the milieu.