The film presents a freaky future indeed. People speak middling English shot through with common Spanish, French and Chinese terms. The ozone layer is so depleted that many fear solar radiation and work mainly at night. Genetic manipulation and cloning are widespread, and advanced cellular communication has replaced most intimate human contact. If you think that sounds pretty much like today, that's definitely the point, but this forecast also includes globally warmed continents ravaged into desert wastelands, stretching seemingly forever between civilized but massively overcrowded cities accessible only to those relative few approved for passage through carefully guarded checkpoints.
One of those who passes through is William (Tim Robbins), an insurance investigator from Seattle on assignment to Shanghai to seek the culprit who's been counterfeiting and circulating fake "papelles," or clearance papers for travel, and "cover," or insurance. Having taken an "empathy virus," William can read minds given only sparse input, and in the midst of his interrogation lineup, he meets our heroine and narrator, Maria (Samantha Morton). There is an immediate attraction. We like Maria, too, partly because Morton is so routinely spacey (this film plays like a cross between Morvern Callar and Minority Report), but also because her post-post-modern girl cultivates intriguing dreams involving an eerie train ride and a mysterious stranger. That she's not the least bit pretentious about this is a major plus.
Unfortunately, married family man William finds Maria just a bit too appealing, and in short order, he has pinned the crime on someone undeserving and taken the girl out for a night on the town. Soon enough, they find themselves back at her funky, futuristic pad, where the inevitable occurs and we begin wondering if, beyond adultery, they have committed some sort of sex crime. You see, the titular ordinance Code 46 concerns the illegality of coupling between people sharing verboten levels of matching DNA. While keeping such carriers apart is always a reasonable practice, in this future it is scientifically enforced.
At this point, rather than create excruciating tension, the filmmakers sustain a moody sense of paranoia and longing. Those genre fans clamoring for sci-fi gunplay, rooftop chases or killer robots will be sorely missing the point, which is that the future will not blast us into hyperspace, but rather wear down our very vulnerable humanity. When Morton intones, "I miss you," it's a universal notion, and utterly heartbreaking.
The film's design adds immensely to the general unsettledness. Working wondrously well with cinematographers Alwin Kuchler (Winterbottom's The Claim) and Marcel Zyskind (Winterbottom's In This World, a major inspiration for this film), the director and production designer Mark Tildesley have created a unique view of a few short years away. Instead of building cumbersome sets, they've gone on location around the world, to Shanghai, London, Dubai and Jaipur, juxtaposing mismatched cityscapes and capturing the dust, smog and squalor just outside their gates. The result, though a little like Brazil, or The Fifth Element, or any number of futuristic films, packs a major wallop by being entirely believable.
It also seems that the ever-industrious Winterbottom has been catching the latest "alternative" cinema during his whirlwind jet-setting. Elements such as the memory wipe of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the mismatched hipster romance (and hipster music) of Lost in Translation are clearly lifted wholesale, but this film feels more like refinement than petty thievery.
Above all, working in a genre riddled with cliches, Winterbottom keeps his bearings and sustains our interest in the humanity of his struggling characters. Much of this is because Robbins and Morton are at the top of their game, but screenwriter Boyce, often a collaborator of Winterbottom's, builds his foundation upon strong characters, then proceeds to plot. Furthermore, the supporting cast, featuring Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things) and Om Puri (East Is East) as reticent authority figures, provide richness around most every turn.
In the midst of all this, there's a wonderful scene involving a karaoke bar. When the Chinese chanteuse singing in Latin tongues steps down, none other than Mick Jones of the Clash approaches the mike, crooning the obvious but utterly welcome "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Approaching fifty, Jones looks great, he sounds great, and apart from perhaps "Stay Free" or "Innocent Child," he couldn't have arrived with a more appropriate song to fit the film's themes. It's a lovely grace note in a marvelous movie, echoing that in a mad, fast-approaching future, there's likely to be trouble, and it may be double, so really: Should we cool it or should we blow?