Code 46 (U.K., 2005, Michael Winterbottom)
Complex and cold, intelligent and aloof, fascinating and off-putting, Code 46 is one of 2004's most interesting films, with images and ideas that will stick with you for days, even if the movie lacks the sort of emotional resonance we might hope for in our masterpieces. Code 46 offers us such a grim glimpse of the future that any sentient audience member will exit shouting: Go Back!
Director Michael Winterbottom, master cineaste whose 24 Hour Party People was such a blast, steps lightly in the footsteps of great dystopians like Orwell and Huxley, and gives us his vision of the future, which he shows us to be insulated, pasteurized and rigidly-controlled. Global economy creates islands of “haves” who live in artificial, grey-lit plenty, while those on the outside lead a colour-saturated but much more materially-meagre existence. Not unlike the current state of things. While various languages have been fluidly absorbed into the lingua franca of daily life, restrictions on travel and access between people and places is strictly enforced, with a monolithic enforcement agency ensuring people do not slip between the cracks. The great paranoia of those within the safe confines on the inside appears to be the infection of the body politic by those on the outside. Further, due to the proliferation of in vitro fertilization, laws—those of the film’s title--have been enacted to prevent people with similar genetic codes from breeding, and punishing with expulsion from said body politic those who knowingly disobey them.
In a move that computer geeks and fans of their annual flu shot will appreciate, people in this world can be infected with viruses in order to strengthen areas of weakness. Want to sing with perfect pitch? Speak Mandarin? Read people’s thoughts? This place has the virus for you. As the movie opens, an inspector searches for a document-forger who is illegally greasing the wheels of travel for her fellow citizens, William (Tim Robbins) has been injected with an empathy virus, which allows him to intuitively clue into people’s most personal information. This, needless to say, makes him a valuable commodity for his employers, The Sphinx Organization, a ubiquitous mega-corp that appears to control most of this world’s industry. However, while William is able to quickly identify Maria (Samantha Morton, who is predictably marvelous) as the guilty party, he finds himself drawn to her (is the empathy virus to blame?) and in an act of complicity that appears to pose a threat to his entire way of life (which includes a wife and son), lies to protect her. When his employers discover William has fingered the wrong person, he is forced to return to the scene of the crime and get it right. This is, as the saying goes, when the games really begin, as William discovers that Maria has disappeared, having transgressed against Code 46, and thus has been forced to have an abortion as well as the requisite memory-wipe that accompanies it, leaving her unable to remember her previous relationship with him.
While the memory-wiping aspect of the story may lead you to expect Code 46 to be the cinematic cousin to Gondry and Kauffman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, those similarities are only surface deep. Rather than an absurdist commentary on the vagaries of memory and the inevitability of pain as the cost of risking love, Code 46’s angst-ridden tone and overall sense of alienation, not to mention its new-wave sense of audio-visual style, is much more reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The karaoke scene in the Asian bar doesn’t hurt the comparisons any either, as The Clash’s Mick Jones has an amusing cameo in a lounge lizard singing Should I Stay or Should I Go? This classic bit of stunt casting actually works, and not just cuz Jones is a quirky-looking dude in an exotic locale, but also cuz the song’s lyrics mirror the us vs. them-ness conflicts inherent in the plot. And so it appears that like Ms. Coppola, Winterbottom’s talents at matching swirling imagery and hypnotic sounds suggest that he’s also fallen under the spell of Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai, particularly his 1990s efforts like Chunking Express and Fallen Angels, yet more evidence that Wong remains a seminal force for art house directors.
Code 46 is a cool film, in every sense of the word. It’s message is timely and politically hip, but it is also at times emotionally distancing, particularly given the sometimes-stilted performance of Tim Robbins in the lead role. Despite this, the film has a clear and profound application to our contemporary world, divided so cleanly between us that has and them that hasn’t. In the end, Code 46 is about the forces that attempt to keep people apart, despite the innate desires that draw us together. We may have absorbed a few words from a handful of languages, but we haven’t absorbed the people who originally spoke them, leaving them on the outside, begging to be let in. It is hardly an accident that the well-to-do upper class white male is able to indulge his desires and emerge from the experience entirely unscathed, while the Hispanic woman is tossed out of the community and left only with her brittle memories of these brief moments of happiness.