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With: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality, including brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 93
Date: 09/02/2003

Code 46 (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Ordinary Papelle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though I missed most of his early work, I have seen all of the Michael Winterbottom films since 2000, including The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, and In This World. While these earlier films came off as pretentious explorations of a genre, Code 46, on the other hand, is a happy surprise.

Code 46 operates within the sci-fi genre. It still has certain things to say about the human condition, but for once, they are seamlessly enveloped into the fabric of the story. I would have told you that it would be impossible to make a film as stately and atmospheric as Blade Runner in today's film market, but here it is.

In the near future, Tim Robbins stars as William, a kind of telepathic insurance investigator, sent to a Shanghai plant that manufactures "papelles," or travel passes. Someone has been running fake papelles, and with the use of an "empathy virus," William finds her (Maria played by Samantha Morton). He feels an instant connection to her, and instead of arresting her, he has an affair with her.

When he returns home to his wife and son, his mission is considered a failure and he is sent back. He tries to find Maria again, but learns that she has been accused of a code 46 violation: conceiving a child with someone of similar DNA. This time William has stayed longer than his legal papelle will allow, and he is forced to use one of the very fakes that he came to investigate.

Winterbottom tells this story as quietly as possible, with lots of pauses in the conversation, showing these two superb actors as they try to size one another up. He carefully sets out the story's details but doesn't insult us by explaining them. Most of the action takes place in futuristic-looking buildings with plenty of bizarre angles and empty space. A kind of haze hangs in the air, and characters avoid spending time outside during the daylight. People of different nationalities now live all over the world; in Shanghai we see Indians, blacks, and Hispanics, and everyone speaks a kind of mish-mash of world phrases.

Winterbottom sprinkles the film with a wonderful score by the Free Association and moody, ethereal songs by Coldplay and Milla Jovovich. Code 46 is probably too slow to please fans of The Matrix or even more thoughtful films like Donnie Darko, Dark City, or Pi, but I suspect that its wealth of ideas, its beautiful visual and aural design and its thoughtful sadness will catch on with a small cult crowd, much like Blade Runner did in its time.

As of 2016, my prediction failed to come true. I seem to be one of the only ones on the planet that likes this movie. But Olive Films released a Blu-ray edition of the movie; it offers no extras, but it looks terrific, capturing this film's specific look. Maybe now, folks will give it a second chance.

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