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18 September, 2005

Review: Code 46 (2003)

I don't remember when I heard about 'Code 46', nor why I added it to my Amazon DVD Rental queue; when it reached the head of the list and Amazon notified me it had been despatched, I didn't even recognise the title.  However I came to see it, I'm glad I did.

It adopts the style of sci-fi I enjoy most: not phallic spaceships, distant planets or massive testosterone-fueled explosions (I wish that image hadn't occurred to me...), but realistic people in a realistic setting, realistically living with the implications of certain specific changes in society. In this case, two themes are explored, both related to genetics:

  • Human cloning is widespread, and therefore it is possible that two strangers might be too closely genetically related to be permitted to have children. 'Code 46' is the statute regulating this.

  • Genetic predisposition to disease, etc., is already of relevance to insurance. In the film world, this dominates daily life. Any significant activity requires 'cover'; for example, if one doesn't have travel cover, one can't travel. If a car's driver doesn't have cover to carry a passenger, the passenger can't get in. The overall effect is that those granted cover have privileged lives, those without are outcasts, reduced to begging at checkpoints outside cities.
    There's an element of social control: people receive cover to visit a specific destination for a specific time period, so freedom of travel is somewhat limited, and attempts to subvert the system are punished by withdrawal of cover.

More fundamentally, this is genetics as fate; genetic determinism. If one's genes render one uninsurable for a specific activity, or if one falls in love with someone with excessively similar genes, no amount of ambition or effort will enable one to participate in that activity, or to consummate that relationship. The boundaries of one's entire life are fixed at conception.

Aside from the central themes, additional elements add credibility:

  • 'International English' has developed, and assimilated common words from Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and other languages. It's a nice idea, if a little laboured in execution. I'm sure slang terms would lead such evolution, not more formal ones, and would be integrated better. The language would be a denser amalgam of multi-lingual phrases and grammar, as in 'A Clockwork Orange', not merely standard contemporary English with a few words substituted e.g. 'gracias' used instead of 'thanks' in an otherwise entirely English exchange. Strangely, Samantha Morton (the female lead) adopts a slightly odd, vaguely Dutch/Scandinavian accent. This may be an attempt to indicate that regional accents have been blurred, but if so, why is she the only person speaking that way?

  • Ozone depletion has rendered direct sunlight dangerous; anyone having to cross a street in daylight does so at a run, covering his/her head with a jacket. This has caused a fundamental change in society: 'daily' life is conducted at night, and people sleep during the day. Streets are totally deserted during the day, and bustling at night.

  • Apparent technological advances are primarily in biomedicine; consumer electronics and architecture look much as they did in 2003, so, thankfully, the film contains no flashy CGI. I have no objection to CGI in general, but it would have been obtrusive in this film. The cinematography itself conveys sufficient futurism, not via CG landscapes but by filming in carefully-chosen ultramodern yet real locations.

The concept of a 'Big Brother' global administration is well developed, into more of a 'Big Mother'. This isn't the standard futuristic dystopia, and one can understand the unpalatable necessity of a central authority managing the genetic 'stock books', regulating peoples lives for the good of wider society (and, to an extent, the welfare of individuals, if not their free will) not for military or corporate benefit. It's not as simple as 'man vs. faceless bureaucracy', as the bureaucracy's motivations are comprehensible and, in theory, justifiable.

There's an obvious parallel with the plot and setting of 'Gattaca', another film about genetic determinism. 'Code 46' also shares the visual beauty of that film, though not the latter's deliberate clinical sterility. In fact, in mentioning 'Code 46' to J., I summarised it as "a less-accessible 'Gattaca'", which somehow failed to sell it to him....
The primary difference is that the plot of 'Code 46' is almost secondary to the people and setting; the viewing experience is far more about emotion and atmosphere. It's about the characters, but not so much what they do as who they are. I've (over-)described the setting, but that's incidental to an exploration of what it's like to live in a world credibly extrapolated from current environmental and social trends. As I said, I find that far superior to shouty people randomly waving guns in generic post-apocalyptic ruins or a galaxy far, far (but not far enough) away.

I don't want to overstate the point, but there are strong resemblances to 'Blade Runner', too. For example, Tim Robbins plays a type of police detective or insurance investigator using virally-enhanced intuition to identify insurance fraudsters, whilst Blade Runner's Deckard uses a more mechanical, but comparable, technique to identify replicants. Plot elements are similar, too (I won't reveal them!), but it's worth mentioning the the directoral approach is very different, and 'Code 46' is not remotely a 'Blade Runner' clone.

Overall, it's a very understated production. Much like 'Lost In Translation', to which 'Code 46' has been compared, not very much actually happens, and even that is at a pace best described as 'contemplative'. If there's passion in the central relationship, it's internalised. The actors have been accused of underplaying their roles and demonstrating insufficient on-screen chemistry, especially Robbins, but that's missing the point: it's not a demonstrative film, and the relationship is supposed to develop within the viewer's own mind. The lack of exposition might annoy some viewers, but one doesn't really need to know the structure of the fictional society or its history; it just is.

One of the extras provided on the DVD is the film's trailer. It's appalling. If you've seen that and decided not to see the film itself, please reconsider. Some trailers reveal the entire plot and best scenes of a film, but at least one can't make that complaint here, as it seems some marketing executive reedited incidental shots from the film, totally out of context, to produce a trailer for some sort of B-movie action thriller, all confrontation and menace. I wouldn't have been interested in seeing that hypothetical film, and I doubt the director would have, either.

Above all, it's not a 'popcorn movie' (thank ****). Fans of 'Star Wars' or Tom Cruise would loathe it. Seriously: I can easily imagine someone hearing that it's a sci-fi film, having preconceptions about how a sci-fi film 'should' be (a big-budget, plot-led Hollywood production addressing the eye rather more than the brain), and being disappointed. This is a British-made film (the casting of Tim Robbins is the sole US element), on a limited (but not tiny) budget, from a writer and director with no background in sci-fi (it was written during the making of '24 Hour Party People'). The sensibilities aren't those of a stereotypical Middle American focus group. Michael Winterbottom is quoted as having wanted to make a film reminiscent of 'Brief Encounter'. Not having seen that film (yet), I can't say whether he was successful, but it does match my perception of its plot and very mannered style.

The soundtrack, by Michael Holmes was good; pleasant without being intrusive. It's pity about the Coldplay track towards the end. It's not that I dislike Coldplay, it's more that a recognisable song – any recognisable song – interfered with the immersive experience of occupying the fictional world, which was more important than the story itself.

In short (too late...), I can't imagine this being many people's favourite film, and it's not mine. I enjoyed it, and would watch it again, but probably wouldn't pay to do so.

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