Michael Winterbottom's second festival outing this year, "Code 46" is an intriguing but only partly successful co-mingling of film noir and sci-fi. The main difficulty is a lack of chemistry between lead actors Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. Resulting business looks to be soft initially, with ancillary more robust.

The prolific Michael Winterbottom’s second festival outing this year, after “In This World” nabbed Berlin’s Golden Bear in February, “Code 46″ is an intriguing but only partly successful co-mingling of film noir and sci-fi. No “Blade Runner,” director and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce’s concerns are far more cerebral. The main difficulty is a lack of chemistry between lead actors Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. It’s a failing offset by the director’s consummate craftsmanship, which could garner a level of critical support despite pic’s shortcomings. Resulting business looks to be soft initially, with ancillary more robust.

Pic adds a sci-fi tweak to such hot subjects as cloning and DNA testing; Boyce’s screenplay asks how future generations can be certain they are not committing incest with people who have been cloned from their ancestors.

Some time in the not-too-distant future, the Earth’s cities have become so overcrowded they lock out outsiders. To live in a city, or to enter one, people need a “cover,” consisting of a “papelle,” a combination of passport, visa and insurance policy. Without a “cover,” no entry into the cities is possible, and the uncovered are left to rot in vast deserts that appear to be the result of global warming.

William Geld (Robbins) is a top investigator who lives in Seattle with his wife (Jeanne Balibar in a nothing role) and son. Armed with an “empathy virus,” which allows him to read the minds of the people he encounters, he is sent to Shanghai to investigate a rash of fraudulent papelles emanating from the Sphinx agency.

He soon realizes the source of the forgeries is Marie (Morton), a strange girl who lives alone and is haunted by mysterious dreams about a fateful meeting with a stranger. However, William is attracted to Maria, so he points to another Sphinx employee as the source of the illegal passes. He then takes Maria out to dinner, and later, they spend the night together.

Although William returns home to Seattle, he is sent to Shanghai again since the real supplier of the forged passes is still at large. But things have changed, and William, himself, becomes a fugitive.

The basic plot of the film is classic noir — the P.I. who falls in love with the femme fatale he’s supposed to be apprehending. And the futuristic twists that Winterbottom brings to the story are all interesting.

The budget-conscious director doesn’t need vast sets for his future world; modern Shanghai easily passes for a city of the future.

But, although the film has an intriguing theme and beautiful packaging, the central relationship fails to spark. Morton, who was very effective as a woman of the future in “Minority Report,” isn’t believable as the beautiful seductress. Robbins brings a certain detachment to his character, but he, like Morton, seems uncomfortable with his role.

Winterbottom’s habitual fondness for the Scope screen serves him well in this beautifully conceived future world, with the work of two d.p.s, Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind, perfectly meshing, and there’s appropriately teasing music from the Free Association.

The print that unspooled in Venice lacked end credits, and ran some seven minutes shorter than the advertised running time of 92 minutes.

Code 46

U.K.

Production

A United Artists release of a U.K. Film Council, BBC Films presentation, in association with United Artists, of a Revolution Films production. Produced by Andrew Eaton. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Robert Jones. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay, Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color, widescreen), Alwin Kuchler, Marcel Zyskind; editor, Peter Christelis; music, the Free Association; production designer, Mark Tildesley; art director, Denis Schnegg; costume designer, Natalie Ward; sound (Dolby Digital), Joachim Sundstrom; line producer, Rosa Romero; assistant director, Mike Elliott; casting, Wendy Brazington. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice 60, competing), Sept. 3, 2003. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 85 MIN. (without end credits).

With

William Geld - Tim Robbins Maria - Samantha Morton Sylvie Geld - Jeanne Balibar Backland - Om Puri Doctor - Essie Davis William's boss - Shelley King Damian Alekan - David Fahm Driver - Togo Igawa
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