Code 46

The law referred to by the title of “Code 46” is the one that prohibits genetically matched people from conceiving, or even mating. It became necessary after years of cloning and other artificial means of creating life made it impossible to tell whether you were committing incest without running DNA tests first.

Oh, it’s the future, obviously. The future of Michael Winterbottom’s cold, somber film is one where everyone in the world speaks English, but it’s a version of English that has quite a few words from other languages, mostly Spanish, sprinkled in. (No one says “papers,” for examples, but “papeles,” or the slightly less grammatical “papels.”) I don’t know where that fits thematically, but it’s an interesting twist, and one that receives no explanation within the film — typical of the sci-fi genre, where you create an imaginary world and let it just BE, rather than explaining how everything got to be that way. (Of course, this isn’t really a sci-fi film. But we’ll get to that later.)

Tim Robbins plays William, an insurance investigator with a gift for reading people’s feelings, enhanced by something he takes called an “empathy virus.” (You can also take viruses that enable you to speak Chinese, or play the piano, or whatever.) His current assignment is in Shanghai, where someone at the Sphinx Corporation, which issues visa-like “papeles,” has been making counterfeit ones and selling them on the black market. As a result, people are getting to places they shouldn’t be allowed to get to, and there’s been trouble because of it. (“If you can’t get clearance, there’s usually a good reason for it,” someone says, showing remarkable — but in this case well-placed — trust in Big Brother.)

William interviews all the employees, able to discern intimate details simply by hearing them recite one minor fact about themselves. The papel-faker, it is soon apparently to him, is Maria (Samantha Morton). But he feels a connection to her, so he tells the boss that the perpetrator is someone else.

Maria and William fall in love, slowly, despite William having a dull wife and son back home. Code 46 comes into play, though I won’t reveal how, and we learn of some powerful tools possessed by the government, particularly in the area of memory-manipulation.

Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, a frequent collaborator, seem determined NOT to let “Code 46” be a science-fiction movie. Their focus is on the romance between the protagonists, but I hesitate to use that word because the proceedings are so muted and morose as to be entirely unromantic. Winterbottom exacerbates this by shooting stark, bleak landscapes and bare rooms a lot, and by indicating that in this future, sunlight is dangerous. So a lot of things happen at night, or indoors under depressing fluorescent lights.

There is too much stoicism and not enough vulnerability here. That would be OK if this were simply a futuristic film about a dystopian society, but it doesn’t work at all when you’re supposed to feel the emotions of the main characters. What we need, really, is an empathy virus. Winterbottom forgot to inject us with it.

C (1 hr., 32 min.; R, one scene of strong sexuality and nudity.)