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A Cryptic 'Code 46'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page WE42

A SCI-FI romance-noir that's all eerie mood, grainy digital images and barren landscapes, "Code 46" has a strange mystique -- like a fever dream you can't dispel. And with the odd pairing of Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton as the central couple, you're even deeper into a reverie of strangeness. The actors are so markedly opposed in size, appearance, acting technique and emotional timbre, they're like two hypnotized subjects who have been subliminally instructed to perform together.

David Lynch, white courtesy phone.

Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins star as Maria and William in "Code 46." (Sarah Lee -- United Artists)

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Actually, the director is Michael Winterbottom, whose movies are always fascinating for the filmmaker's provocative, boldly told stories.

Robbins plays William, a married insurance investigator from Seattle in a future where global warming has reduced much of the world to arid zones, and where people lucky enough to own "papelles" (visa and insurance papers) live in large, barricaded cities around the earth. Those without papelles, on the "outside," live in dusty squalor. Cultural migrations have resulted in a common mixed language of English, French, Spanish and other tongues.

William, who has access to a so-called empathy virus, which gives him the ability to intuit people's thoughts, is dispatched to a corporate investigation in Shanghai. Someone on the inside of the Sphinx organization is issuing false papelles. With the empathy virus, it doesn't take him long to detect the perpetrator. But he can't bring himself to report Maria (Morton), to whom he's strongly attracted.

He runs into her later at a bar (where Clash fans will appreciate Mick Jones performing a post-lounge version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go?") and asks her about her black-market trade. Maria, who knows he could have turned her in, tells him more. They tumble into an affair. But William, who only has 24 hours to complete his task, has to return.

He can't get her out of his mind. He comes back, only to learn she has disappeared. He begins a search and realizes that he has contravened one of this society's most ironclad laws. As he searches more intensely for Maria, he learns exactly what offense he has committed.

A sort of trippy, low-budget "Blade Runner," this movie echoes those futuristic parables (such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") where society messes with the minds of those who dare to love. Its off-the-cuff, digitally shot documentary style also has passing similarities to Winterbottom's "In This World," a film about a refugee's desperate bid to smuggle herself into England. The movie's atmospherics -- the grainy-hazy images, a blighted world, the zoned-out luminosity of Morton's face -- give "Code 46" an impact that transcends the actual story. You may soon forget the specifics of the plot, but you'll always remember the world it came from.

CODE 46 (R, 93 minutes) -- Contains graphic sexual content. At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company