STARRING: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, Essie Davis, Emil Marwa

2004, 90 Minutes, Directed by: Michael Winterbottom

That a sci-fi movie not centered on special effects or action sequences even exists is almost miraculous. There’s a totalitarian government, but no one tries to topple it, and there’s not a single explosion, although at one point a car flips over. Instead of a revved-up adventure, Code 46 chooses the tone of a bleak, lonely anecdote of little people suffering at the hands of big machines in a future world.

It’s nice to see not-too-distant future worlds getting updated every now and again. In this case, it’s a shiny, brightly-lit, distinctly multicultural, and thoroughly globalized world, in which English has taken on a lot of Spanish and French, and the industrial hubs are along the Pacific Rim and India. Some of the tallest buildings in the world right now have just sprung up in the last few years in places you wouldn’t think could afford them. Code 46 exploits our relative ignorance of them by shooting these gleaming new giants and calling it the future. Another of the film’s nice touches is how the cadences of all the dialogue seem a little off, a prediction of how speech patterns will change in the next few decades.

Despite these updates, Code 46 uses the classical structure of SF short stories: a man, a woman, and a state (or is it a corporation? Instead of “show me your papers” the line is “show me your cover,” referring to insurance coverage). The code of the title refers to a law preventing genetically similar strangers — a by-product of excessive cloning — from marrying or having children. We follow a fraud investigator (Tim Robbins, low and precise) who’s been chemically enhanced almost to the point of being a mind reader and the special connection he feels to a suspect (Samantha Morton) in a passport scandal. They spend a night together, unknowingly setting in motion all the cogs of a faceless, villain-less dystopia that can clone, erase memories, and hates outsiders. Yes, there’s something of a chase at one point but, in true Orwellian style, it’s such a foregone conclusion that the mindless drones of the powerful will catch them, that excitement is replaced with an elegy. Director Winterbottom fills his vision of the future with details and bits of technological changes, but hammers us over the head with nothing. Instead, he lets his audience figure things out for itself.

Even at 93 minutes Code 46 feels a little padded for length; there’s a lot of driving footage, perhaps a homage to the spookily arterial driving sequence in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. More than being about its characters — it’s too smooth, sterile, and precise for that — Code 46 is a parable for how the First World dopes itself up and forgets the past in order to live in a comfortable ignorance of the Third World all around it. The closing shot of a blue-eyed woman named Gonzalez dressed like a Middle Eastern nomad embodies the idea that humankind’s fate is unified, despite how we might like to say “it’s all their own fault.” Or it’s just another case of how we don’t care until it happens to a white person.

- The Friday & Saturday Night Critic


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