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  •  REVIEW: CODE 46

    Code 46

    Not with a bang but a whimper

    The world may be slowly dying but the subtle ways people adapt tells most of the story in the futuristic cautionary tale "Code 46."


    "Code 46" manages to turn in a who-cares story into a quite good movie because of the sheer number of little things that are done right. It has the essential quality of a great science fiction film — it doesn't try to dazzle us with futuristic gewgaws. Instead, it's about people almost like us, living a life that's different from ours only in subtle ways, in the subliminal exoticism of future people's everyday assumptions.

    CODE 46
    Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
    Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce.
    Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, Jeanne Balibar, Nabil Elouhabi, Togo Igawa.
    Cinematography: Alwin H. Kuchler, Marcel Zyskind.
    Edited by: Peter Christelis.

    Related links: Official site
    The plot, which remains a little murky even at the film's end, has something to do with the theft of official identity documents at the factory that makes them in Shanghai, to which an American investigator named William (Tim Robbins) is sent to investigate. He brings with him a secret weapon: the ability to read people's thoughts. "I listened to you while you weren't talking," he explains to one victim of his little parlor trick.

    The investigation leads him to Maria (Samantha Morton), an enigmatic young woman of indeterminate European descent who is marking her birthday by staying up 24 hours, avoiding sleep so as not to be subjected to her annual birthday dream. They become lovers, kind of, and try to evade the authorities, a little, have their memories erased, partially, and, well, maybe it doesn't matter what actually happens because what happens isn't very relevant and what's relevant isn't very clearly resolved. If there's supposed to be mystery, it's quickly dispelled; if there's supposed to be an adversary, it stays largely out of the picture; if there's supposed to be something at stake, it's never put on the line. This is a detective yarn without any detecting, a thriller without thrills.

    Code 46  
    But where the film really succeeds is in atmosphere — in all the contextual clues that tell you about the world we've entered, whether the script ever calls attention to them or not. Globalization has had decades to make its effects felt. English has spread worldwide, but the accretion of international vocabulary has given it a jarring feel. (Foreign words are dropped almost too ostentatiously into everyone's speech. "Do you want to drink a cerveza," a character is likely to say, regardless of the fact that the Chinese, like the French, Germans, Italians and Japanese, use something similar to the word "beer," just like us.) And earth is rapidly turning to desert. The atmosphere has become so feeble at protecting us from the sun's rays that people now sleep all day and go out all night. If they get caught out in the sunlight, they hold their coats over their heads as we would do in the rain.

    Disease control seems to be the motivation behind this world's massive security apparatus. To compensate for the loss of genetic diversity, even in humans, the state monitors people's personal liaisons. To control supergerms, tomorrow's nation-states (city-states, maybe) seal themselves off to travelers lacking the necessary visas — referred to as "cover," maybe because they permit the bearer to take shelter from both sun and disease under the city's protective aegis. You may not notice it, but even the cars are given an automatic wash before they enter the secure zone.

    There is a vision at work in "Code 46," and its underlying narrative is something like this: The earth could already be in a death spiral and you wouldn't know it — there's no one day when scientists will issue a press release saying this is the first day of the end of the world. We've already shown how we'll react to these gradual changes — through accommodation and adaptation, not foresight and corrective action. In that case, here's what the world might look like in the decades to come. Get a feel for it now.

    Director Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People") deserves credit for creating this vision out of a script that seems inadequate in many ways. The story remains a little opaque but the overall feeling should give you a serious sense of disquiet about the world's future.

    AUGUST 6, 2004

    Reader comments on Code 46:

  • Great Film!!!!   from Conde, Jan 23, 2005
  • Code 46 - Reality in The Making. .   from Jeff Sherman, Apr 13, 2005
  • [no subject]   from mmw, Apr 30, 2005
  • Code 36   from Michael, Dec 22, 2005

  • Post a comment on "Code 46"