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Tangled in the helix

by Kaori Shoji

Code 46

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 11
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In “Code 46,” the dynamics of boy-meets-girl is explained not as destiny but as a genetic consequence. In the near-future world of this movie, widespread cloning threatens to wreak havoc on the gene pool, so the state controls relationships through monitoring the DNA flow. It recalls the world of George Orwell’s “1984,” but one that’s been sanitized and softened with painkillers. Big Brother (in the form of an omniscient insurance company) is keeping a close watch, but the populace, so used to being surrounded by giant, flat-screen TVs, takes it as a matter of course.

In one telling scene, a young couple is seated in a white booth before a counselor-type person in a lab coat who’s scrutinizing their DNA. If the combination is deemed a no-go, then their relationship must be terminated. There’s no tension here though, just the expectant, cheery atmosphere of people planning their wedding.

“Code 46″ is directed by Michael Winterbottom, who’s famed for not having a predictable, signature style — the one enduring distinction seems to be his consistent brilliance.

Winterbottom’s filmed in Bosnia during the war, he’s adapted “Thomas Hardy,” his camera has dodged bullets and captured moments of acute misery or soaring passion. His range and versatility are astonishing. “Code 46″ was made after both his 2002 releases — “24 Hour Party People,” about the 1980s Manchester music scene, and “In This World,” which traced the plight of young Afghan refugees. Whether he’s working out of a studio in London or shooting in a remote location, he’ll always emerge the following year with a completely new project, look and cast.

However, the analogy about the snake shedding its skin doesn’t apply: In his case, the snake sheds its skin to become a shark, or a bear, or whatever. Apparently, totally reinventing himself as a filmmaker comes as easily to Winterbottom as breathing.

“Code 46″ isn’t a big-budget sci-fi flick on SFX overdrive; its glossy, almost dreamlike sheen has a hypnotic effect. And the production design shows an appropriately dystopian future, full of glassy, see-through buildings where surveillance cameras monitor a seemingly well-behaved citizenry. Orwell’s Newspeak is refashioned here as a kind of potluck Esperanto in which bits of other languages (primarily Spanish and French) are mixed into English. Then again, if you want to speak Mandarin, all you have to do is get injected with a “Mandarin virus.”

Other such genetically doctored viruses include the “empathy virus,” carried by insurance-fraud investigator William Geld (Tim Robbins). With the aid of this, he can pinpoint fragments of other people’s thoughts, which he employs when questioning suspects.

William has been sent to Shanghai to locate a criminal inside Sphinx, the company that manufactures special passports called “papelle.” Papelles enable the bearer to travel from one designated city to another, but someone has been forging them — a grave criminal offense, since only the genetically endowed (in quite what way, we aren’t told) are permitted to travel on the time-limited papelles.

The world has been sectioned off into totally sanitized, secure and controlled city zones, occupied by the biological elite, and the “outside,” where the teeming masses live in tents. When William arrives at the city gates of Shanghai, an Arab hawker sticks his head into his chauffeured car and begs William to give him a papelle. Failing that, he suggests giving him “A sweet! A haircut!” “Sorry,” says William (a little guiltily), and his car drives off, kicking up desert dust as the glittering city looms on the horizon.

William gets to work and quickly sniffs out the culprit: a worker named Maria (Samantha Morton). Instead of turning her in, he frames someone else and lets her know it. For all that, however, he’s shy and kind and Maria invites him to dinner and then to a club where she introduces him to the very person who’s receiving one of the forged papelle. William admits that he is inexplicably drawn to her; she confesses that she has lived “outside” before and can sympathize with people who lust for freedom and movement. They end up at Maria’s apartment and eventually between the sheets.

He leaves in the morning, but weeks later he’s back in Shanghai, to work for Sphinx again, but he’s also desperate to see Maria. It turns out she’s rehabilitating in a clinic with her memory of him erased. William’s papelle eventually expires and he must ask Maria (who’s attracted to him all over again) to acquire a forgery so he can return to his home in Seattle. But at the airport, he can’t bring himself to leave her; by this time he’s well aware that it’s hard genetics and not romantic destiny that’s binding them together.

Critics have complained about the lack of chemistry between Robbins and Morton — and true enough, the sparks never quite seem to fly off this supposedly red-hot couple. But the superficial coldness is probably Winterbottom’s intent: In this sterile and controlled glasshouse society, passion must take on a different guise in order to survive, and the ensuing tragedy is all the more poignant in its subtlety. Of the pair, it’s Morton, with her luminous, otherworldly gaze, who gradually comes to radiate warmth. Robbins never allows himself the extravagance of loosening up, and remains a starchy, fatigued businessman until the last half-hour.

Winterbottom proceeds slowly, lugubriously, keeping the romance at room temperature until the brief, sharp climax when he cranks up the heat. By then, though, William and Maria are doomed.