Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, Essie Davis, Emil Marwa
2004, 90 Minutes, Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
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.