Michael Winterbottom's "Code 46" commits a Code 1 violation: It's boring.
Do not be boring! Be rude, loud, vulgar, stupid, ignorant, grim, macabre, dirty, but do not be boring. That should be any filmmaker's credo.
It's as if Winterbottom -- the gifted and versatile director of films such as "In This World," "24-Hour Party People," "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "Jude" -- became so taken with the technical challenge of creating a future world a la "Blade Runner" that he forgot (also a la "Blade Runner," come to think of it) to provide a stirring dramatic structure.
Winterbottom's view of What's Next is quietly chilling and insidious. It appears that some eco-disaster has bled the world of ozone so that it's a pole-to-pole desert. The only exceptions are the few major cities where civilization and technology continue under the seemingly benign but oppressive control of a mega-corporation, which has divided the world into the urban privileged and the expendable peasants of the countryside. In this tidy Epcot Center of a world, force seems unnecessary; crime is nonexistent; therefore conflict is all but obsolete. So quietly controlled are the cities that to travel between them requires bureaucratic justification in the form of documents called "papelles," which are manufactured in a Shanghai high-tech company. But someone is stealing the raw materials and issuing forgeries.
Thus an investigator is sent to Shanghai -- which, by the way, is no longer particularly Asian. The races seem to have merged into a single gene pool, just as language has become globalized English with smidgens of Spanish tossed in.
This is a lot to set up, and Winterbottom does it slowly; the movie has the funereal pace of a queen's procession. I should mention also that it is physically impressive and convincing, but not built on exotic or beautiful sets, as was "Blade Runner." Rather, much as did Jean-Luc Godard in "Alphaville" and Francois Truffaut in "Fahrenheit 451," he has found the future in the present, locating particularly modernism-gone-samurai cityscapes and clusters of buildings and endless, endless escalators. In fact, he envisions the future as a kind of global airline terminal, and how scary is that: Tomorrow is -- gack! -- Reagan National Airport!
As I say, he has to huff and puff to get all this in, and the story that fits into the elaborate conceptual structure seems hardly worth the effort. An investigator named William (Tim Robbins, whom they forgot to wake up when he arrived on the set) is a specialist in empathy connections: Via chemically enhanced ESP, he can spot the guilty party. He figures out quite quickly that the thief and forger is a moonfaced young woman named Maria, played by critics' favorite Samantha Morton. But -- ah, at last, a wrinkle, an actual wrinkle! -- he doesn't turn her in. He has feelings for her. They spend the night together.
Well, it turns out -- more exposition coming, people -- they've committed a crime. The world's population, devastated by that eco-disaster, has been enhanced by cloning; thus much DNA has been replicated and passed on as the clones mingle and are absorbed into the general population, and many people have genetic connections of which they are unaware. Inadvertently, William and Maria have committed a form of incest.
How dull is that? Incest, after all, is not much of a dramatic event, particularly when both partners are consenting adults and don't know of their secret genetic relationship. The act itself is not remarkable and to ascribe to it major plot meaning is somehow anti-dramatic. Worse, it turns out that the ascetic in Winterbottom is in full control of the film. He won't get low and dirty, he won't play for cheap thrills, he won't go to the edge, he won't have any fun at all.
The film never really speeds up. It grinds onward, scene by slow scene, confident that its ideas and its designs are enough to win the hearts and minds of viewers. It will almost certainly attract a cult audience -- it has the kind of self-serious grandiosity that swindles the young and feckless into believing it's significant -- but it could have used a few ray guns and mind melds.
Code 46 (92 minutes, at the AFI Silver Theatre and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for one scene of surprisingly graphic nudity.