Code 46
dir. Winterbottom
Opens Fri Aug 20
Fox Tower

Code 46 begins with that standard of sci-fi films: a lengthy text prologue. I'm not sure what Code 46's dense prologue says, but it does establish something about the future, and something else about genetics.

Following that vague lead, Code 46 establishes some more almost-understandable plot points. In the future, the only safe places from the scorching sun are the sterile cities, and in order to travel between cities, you need "papelles"--tickets granted by the Sphinx (which is either a snappily renamed world government or a snappily named corporation that might as well be the government).

William (Tim Robbins) is a man who investigates papelle fraud. On one of his investigations, William spots the culprit--a young woman named Maria (Samantha Morton)--but instead of turning her in, he inexplicably decides to get it on with her. Predictably enough, they fall madly in love, which makes things pretty tricky when William returns to his city, because the Sphinx discovers William's indiscretions and Maria's forgeries, and it's revealed that there's been a Code 46 violation--meaning something genetics-wise wasn't legit when William and Maria spent the night together. Throw in some off-putting bondage play and a disconcerting Oedipal revelation, and you've got something that could have been a decent sci-fi setup, but flounders instead.

Director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce can't nail down the film's futuristic setting, and both William (despite Robbins' best efforts) and Maria (perhaps because of an apparent lack of any effort whatsoever from Morton) are profoundly boring--Code 46's characterization only goes as far as making the audience try to figure out the symbolism of Maria's dreams (yawn) or William's obscure motivations (ehh...). Not every sci-fi flick needs to be as bombastic as Star Wars or as tech-heavy as Star Trek, but Code 46's middling refusal to commit to either sci-fi or drama makes it the cinematic equivalent of the film's sprawling deserts: thoroughly dreary and ultimately emotionless.