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reviewed by Donald Melanson

February 01, 2005 | Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 has a lot more in common with the science fiction movies of the 1970s than it does with today's standard fare. It is a pensive and deliberately paced film. No, it's not a long movie (just about spot on 90 minutes), but there's not a lot of plot filling up that running time. Code 46, however, is not a film overly concerned with plot. That statement alone may turn a lot of people off this movie, but hopefully it piques the interest of just as many.

Set in the near future, the film revolves around two people. Tim Robbins plays William, a Blade Runner-esque investigator sent to Shanghai to investigate a case of forged "papelles", special permits required for travel. He quickly discovers that a woman named Maria (played by Samantha Morton) is behind the forgeries but, as investigators of his ilk are wont to do, he falls for her and can't turn her in.

Like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, Robbins' character is uniquely adept at his job. He can seemingly read people's minds when given just the slightest bit of information, though we're initially left unsure whether it's an innate ability or an artificial enhancement (although this is a science fiction film, so we have a pretty good idea).

But Code 46 is more of a sci-fi Wings of Desire than a Blade Runner retread. Robbin's character is as detached from Maria as the angels in Wings of Desire are from the life in Berlin. He's part of the future, augmented by technology and able to travel the world at will. Maria is a link to a simpler life. She wants to leave the sprawl of Shanghai for Jebel Ali, a place she sees as a promised city.

Visually, Code 46 belies its low-budget roots. Winterbottom makes full use of found locations, mixing in a few futuristic gadgets here and there for a surprisingly effective vision of the future. It's also one of the best looking movies shot in digital video that I've seen. I don't know how it looked when it was screened in theatres, but on DVD it looks fantastic.

Also worth noting is the largely ambient soundtrack by Free Association (David Holmes and Steve Hilton), which is perfectly suited to the movie. And it has a cameo by Mick Jones of The Clash doing a karaoke version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" Sadly, it doesn't look like it's on the soundtrack CD.

The film is also heavily informed by ideas from cyberpunk literature, such the mixing of languages and the effects of globalization and urban sprawl, although they're not quite as fully explored as they could be. One thing the movie might have been able to do without is the voice-over narration by Samantha Morton's character, which seems somewhat out of place in such an otherwise minimalist film.

Unfortunately, while the DVD transfer of the film is great, it's otherwise light on special features. There are just a few deleted scenes, a short promotional-style featurette, and the original theatrical trailer - no doubt the film's lackluster reception (to put it kindly) shot down any chance of a more extensive special edition.

Nevertheless, any fan of intelligent science fiction will want this in their collection. At the very least, give it a rental. It's rare enough to find an independent science fiction film these days, let alone one executed this well.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack and a freelance writer for hire. He also rants and raves about movies on his film blog.

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