Code 46 (2003) / Sci Fi-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for a scene of sexuality, including brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 92 min.

Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri, David Fahm
Cameo: Mick Jones
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Review published May 23, 2010

Code 46 is a complex science fiction musing set in the near future where the world population is separated by those living inside big cities and those poorer peoples living outside.  The population is controlled by various codes and passwords, papers and authentications, viruses and corrective medical procedures.  The "Code 46" of the title is a bit of a spoiler for the story, though no more than the lengthy written prologue that begins the film.  It refers to the ban on offspring for genetically matched parents, the result of an incestuous union, which can be commonplace and unknown to the parents due to advancements in human cloning and in-vitro fertilization.

Tim Robbins (The Truth About Charlie, Antitrust) stars as William Geld, an investigator of insurance fraud sent to Shanghai to investigate the employees of a company that manufactures cover papers of insurance for purported forgeries and smuggling.  His investigation leads him to Maria Gonzalez (Morton, In America), a young woman he feels a connection to, which leads to him ending up protecting her rather than turning her in.  Eventually, his empathy deepens to feelings of fondness for the young woman, until the two unite.  This presents a problem for the inspector, as he finds himself compromised as to his job, his marriage, and his ability to keep from breaking the codes he is trying to uphold. 

Directed in somber but sumptuous fashion by Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart, 24 Hour Party People), the future setting of Code 46 isn't terribly different from our own, but it is more insular in its vision of people existing on a city-wide basis, surrounded by glass and structure, relying on electronic communications to continue to link each other globally.  Winterbottom creates a very futuristic portrayal of a potential future using not much more than pre-existing exotic-looking locales and architecture in which to present his story.  Steadicam and POV camerawork add to the intimate and off-center mix of visuals.

The screenplay by Frank Cotrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie, Millions) is intelligent, though a bit lean on exposition.  Despite the written prelude setting up the explanation for what the world we're about to enter through the narrative is like, much of what goes on in the story is inferred rather than explained.  While it's enjoyable to find a film that doesn't dumb everything down with over explanation, there will be moments, perhaps even long stretches, where things aren't really making sense.  Why do people in Shanghai speak Spanglish, for instance?  Why such a disparity between inside and outside living conditions, and what are the distinguishing characteristics of the two?  Why can't those on the inside traverse into the daylight?  Conjecture may lead to some interesting theories, and that's part of the film's allure, but not everyone in the audience will be comfortable grasping for answers to basic questions left off the screen.

The film is about the future of the world, without actually being about the world.  Rather, it's a commentary on the direction our current world is heading from a technological, biological and multicultural standpoint, but done through a more personal and intimate story of two people who make a connection they aren't supposed to make -- is it right for society to reduce love down to genetic matches and viruses?  Robbins and Morton deliver strong performances, despite the fact that the characters aren't fully shaded with details about their past and their motivation for what they do in the present.

Code 46 feels like a close cousin to the futuristic vision as portrayed in such iconic science fiction films as Blade Runner or Gattaca, though with a more realistic approach to technology and societal evolution.  What it does appear to be missing, which may make some viewers lose interest, is a clear-cut conflict in the plot through which the rest of the story can wrap its themes around.  In the end, its an intriguing and beguiling vision of a potential future for our world that's as fascinating as it is confusing.  Recommended only for those who truly enjoy films that take some time and focus to follow intellectually, even if it's emotionally disengaging.

Qwipster's rating:

©2010 Vince Leo