For me, Michael Winterbottom is rather hit-and-miss. I usually like the atmosphere of his films, but at the same time they tend to leave me somewhat cold. Intellectually and aesthetically I appreciate them, but I rarely care.
Code 46, his foray into near-future SF (sci-fi, that is, not San Francisco), had exactly the same effect on me. It’s beautifully shot, its digital imagery more evocative than any version of the future I’ve seen since Blade Runner – more so because the futuristic effect is subtle. Winterbottom’s future is our present, just more so.
But this is a film that struggles to be a mood piece, or perhaps video art. I enjoyed looking at it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it. Certainly my difficulty following the plot largely stemmed from the bad mix that left half the lines unintelligible, which wasn’t helped by the fact that in the near future, apparently everyone speaks English mixed with Spanish and other languages. But if the plot is as simple as I think it is (and the reviews I’ve read since watching the film seem to support that theory), then it doesn’t hold up very well, really. Tim Robbins’ investigator falls hard for the once more waif-like Samantha Morton who is suspected of stealing genetic passports that allow people to travel to places that would otherwise be off-limit to them. It turns out that she’s cloned from his mother’s genetic material, so their relationship is a criminal offense. Wacky hijinks ensue.
I usually like elliptic films – I like not being led by the hand, whether by movies or by books. But sometimes ellipticness seems to be a cheap excuse for vague writing, directing and acting. The film intrigues intermittently, but it rarely follows up on the intriguing bits: for instance, William Geld, Robbins’ character, has his memory of Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) erased at the end so he won’t resume the genetically dangerous relationship. He goes home to his child and his wife who knows of the affair but cannot ever tell. There’s an interesting story in that. Unfortunately, the film focuses on William and Maria but never makes their attraction credible. We know that they have feelings for one another because of how they act, yet we never feel the emotions. Their love or passion or horniness or whatever it is, it remains an idea.
And frankly, I am getting somewhat annoyed with Samantha Morton’s acting, or perhaps rather with the characters she’s offered. She has this patented wild-child thing going that makes her come across as slightly funny in the head, or as someone who doesn’t do social conventions at all. But the longer the more it feels like an affectation, like a neo-punk letting us know very clearly how different she is. I could imagine that this is what attracts a number of indie directors to her, but it’s becoming tiring.
Then again, I shouldn’t forget that she was also in this:
P.S.: Code 46 was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote Millions. I guess I may prefer his children’s books to his adult movie writing. The Claim, which he also did with Winterbottom, shares this film’s vagueness and coldness.