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Code 46

Brainy sci-fi take on the classic boy-meets-girl scenario

Code 46 is one of those rare science-fiction films that evoke arresting images of a dystopian future while striving to connect with their audiences through the emotional core that is at the center of their stories instead of through imagined futuristic settings, hardware, and special effects. Combining elements of a classic love story with a film noir plot line while meditating on the significance of time and memory on our genetic makeup and existence, the film quietly follows in the cinematic footprints of such minimalist sci-fi fables as Chris Marker's La Jetée, Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca.

Directed by the talented and eclectic British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and written by his long-time collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, Code 46 evokes a future that is both eerily familiar and alien: climate change has turned once fertile rural areas into deserts, creating a world of privileged urban dwellers and desert outcasts; the ozone layer has been depleted, forcing people to stay out of the sunlight and work and go about their lives at night or cover themselves in daylight; and human cloning is no longer a contested issue but a legislated reality governed by a new law that states that any human being who shares the same nuclear gene set as another human being is deemed genetically identical, and any accidental or deliberate liaison between two people who are genetically-related is a Code 46 violation.

Against this backdrop, Tim Robbins plays William Geld, an insurance agent, who comes to Shanghai to investigate a crime: the forgery of identity papers (called "papelles") that are issued by the omniscient Sphinx insurance agency and permit qualified citizens to live in and travel between controlled urban environments. During his investigation, William meets Maria Gonzales (Samantha Morton), the person who committed the crime. Working under the influence of an empathy virus, which enables him to read other people's minds, William quickly discovers that Maria is the person he is looking for. However, he also senses a strange attraction to her that is working against his better judgment. Instead of turning her in, he names one of Maria's co-workers as the culprit. He then follows Maria on her way home after work. Maria notices William, approaches him, and invites him to celebrate her birthday with her. What began as an inexplicable attraction ends as a brief but passionate love affair in Maria's flat.

The next day, William returns to his wife and son in Seattle, and although happily married, he can't erase Maria from his memory. He soon learns that this act will have dramatic consequences on the rest of their lives.

Code 46 doesn't pretend to engage its audience with an original plot or complicated characters. Winterbottom and Boyce are more interested in exploring moods, emotions, and feelings that make up human relationships and how memory and existence are inextricably intertwined. And in their endeavor, they are ably assisted by Robbins' and Morton's strong performances, a melancholic, techno-tinged soundtrack by The Free Association, and visually haunting images of striking locations in Shanghai, Dubai, and Jaipur, captured by cinematographers Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind.

In case you haven't guessed by now, Code 46 is not a crowd pleaser. If you prefer your sci-fi stories to swoosh by at hyper-speed or cringe at the thought of having to sit through a film that asks not only for some 90 minutes of your time but also for your attention, you might want to pass on Code 46. However, if you've seen and liked Alphaville or Gattaca, you will enjoy Winterbottom's and Boyce's musings on the moral and philosophical dilemmas of living in a heavily regulated, paranoid world, and the dangers of human cloning and its implications for future relationships. Their vision of the future might not be as far-fetched as some science-fiction pundits would have us believe; in fact, if you look close enough, you will catch chilling glimpses of where humanity is today.

Stars: 3 out of 5