Code 46recommended viewing

The world is running down, so you may as well crash with me
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2003
Director: 
Michael Winterbottom
Starring: 
Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton
The Setup: 
Couple has a forbidden affair in the future.
Discussion: 

I had heard about this one when it was out, where reviews said it was very good but not great, which is exactly how it turned out. The DVD opens with a trailer for an awful-looking thriller in which poor Mira Sorvino has to adopt a thick Italian accent and be a hotshot detective. Then the movie starts, and, as is often the case with lower-budget films, is particularly bad with "Blah films in association with Blah films with the help of Blah films presents a Blah films presentation with Blah films in association with Blah films presenting a Blah films production of a Blah film." Then we get an introductory title that informs us that in the near future, because of cloning and genetic engineering and all that jazz, many people are genetically identical, and it is a violation of Code 46 for those people to have a "genetically incestuous" mating and certainly not to have a baby. If they do, the baby will be seized by the state and destroyed. We join Tim Robbins as William, landing in a plane, then driving into Shanghai. This occurs while we fly over this vast desert wasteland, then see this city rising in amber dust, then William drives along desolate highways and through a tool booth regulating who can enter the city. Once he passes this, the car enters a tunnels where it is disinfected, and he goes into the protected city zone. Already I am totally on board, and the film is generating a very good low-key, thoughtful sci-fi vibe.

Then begins the ill-advised voice over by Samantha Morton, in the voice of her character, Maria. She says that every year on her birthday she has the same dream, in which she is on a train and she needs to find someone, and has to do it before the 18th stop, but wakes before finding him. Every year there is one less stop, and finally she is at the birthday where there is only only one stop left. There are also a number of statements directed at William [all of it is really directed at him] of the "Did you think of me at all?" variety, giving the whole thing the whiny, passive-aggressive tone of Alanis Morrissette's "You Oughta Know." And the voice-over continues throughout the entire film.

So William is an investigator of some kind looking into a violation at this factory. He asks people to tell them anything about themselves, and can then extrapolate almost anything about them, including things like passwords. This is because he is on an empathy virus. In the future, people take "viruses" that act like pharmaceuticals and imbue them with character qualities that last a short time. He interviews many workers at the factory, finally coming to Maria, who is quite flirty and forward in a way I thought somewhat inappropriate. William can tell she's the criminal, but for some reason decides not to turn her in. They run into each other outside, and she asks him to dinner. They meet a friend, where we learn what she stole: some kind of travel pass that would allow someone to leave the city. She gives it to a guy wh wants to go study bats, who has tried to get a pass through official means for eight years, to no avail. Then they hit the floor where Maria gets a slo-mo sexy dance sequence, and all I can say is, if you're turned on by Samantha Morton, you should queue this one NOW. By now we've had cause to notice that Robbins and Morton have an unexpectedly good chemistry, despite the fact that he seems about two feet taller than her.

They go back to her place, where they have a long sex scene. She falls asleep, once more having the dream where she's looking for someone, and when she wakes--William is there. It's FATE! But guess what? He's outta there, back to his wife and child in another city. Maria is all distraught [her fate's leaving!] but he leaves anyway.

SPOILERS > > >
But guess what? The guy she gave the pass to was caught and killed, meaning William has to go back almost the minute he gets home [we establish the presence of his wife and son]. He asks if anyone else can go, but no. When he gets back, Maria is gone, having been transferred outside the city. William gets a car and heads out looking for her. He finds her at a clinic, where she doesn't recognize him. They have aborted the baby and wiped her memory of him. He has her released into his custody, and soon enough tells her that they had met, and had sex, and that he is the reason she is there. Meanwhile, you at home are like: "WHY didn't he just take this opportunity to go home and forget the whole thing?" It doesn't make a lot of sense, but somehow William's impulsivity and erratic nature are built into his character.

By the way, at this point we have reached the point where the near-constant, pointless and annoying voice-over is causing me to shout "SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" at my screen. And you know, voice-overs are widely understood to be what you do when you have no idea what to do with your movie--and don't trust your audience's intelligence to follow the story on their own--so I don't understand who so many films still employ them.

William tries once more to go home, but can't. He asks her to illegally get him a pass. He takes her DNA to a testing facility and learns that although she is only a 50% genetic match to him, she is a 100% genetic match to--get this--his MOTHER! How's that for Oedipal? However, another issue with the movie--if this was such a problem, wouldn't you get tested BEFORE you hooked up? Wouldn't there be kiosks like in Gattaca where you do genetic testing on the first date, or before? Why put yourself through all this fruitless coupling if it's not going anywhere? But that's the way it is. So he finally learns what he already knew--that they can never be together. When she shows up at the airport and gives him his papers and says "Okay, see ya 'round," he impulsively says: "Let's leave the city and run away together." They do.

They leave the controlled city and fly to a desert city which we know is Dubai. Life here is not regulated by the state, but it's also pretty ramshackle. They check into a hotel and are billing and cooing when she starts to freak out. He tells her that part of her abortion is that they gave her a virus so that HER BODY naturally rebels against his. So she tells him to make love to her and ignore the signs that she doesn't want it, so he TIES HER TO THE BED and has sex with her while she expresses terror and revulsion--then tells him she loves him. Then, in the morning, she gets up, goes downstairs to report a code 46 violation, gives their location, then goes right back upstairs and gets back into bed and falls asleep. The voice-over tells us that the virus is making her do this--and that he would have known this is exactly what would happen. They get in a car and drive out of the city, but eventually have an accident and are picked up by the authorities.

We learn that his memory was wiped of her, and we see him happily making love with his wife, intercut with her wandering poor in the outside desert city. She was left outside the city because she knew she was violating the code and did it anyway. While all this is going on the filmmakers have decided to trivialize their own creation by ending with a very prominent Coldplay song--please keep in mind that there is no human emotion that cannot be adequately summed up by a pop song--and what's worse, the song's repeating refrain is "I miss you," and the last line of the voice-over, and the film, is Maria saying "I miss you." Then the cover of the album appears with a note saying that it is available for digital download and at retailers everywhere.
< < < SPOILERS END

I REALLY liked it. Of course, I'm a sucker for low-key, thoughtful science fiction. What I liked about this movie is its focus on ideas and emotion, letting the details and rules of the future unfold as we continue through. Perhaps the best and most notable thing about this movie is its atmosphere, and I really admired how it used real locations to create its future world in a way that seemed completely recognizable to us now, and very believably lived-in, but also seems futuristic and cold. And the movie has a very slow, meditative tone with numerous lengthy shots slowly moving across a desert landscape or viewing a cityscape that become the content of the film in themselves, and express more than words ever could.

Which is EXACTLY why the voice-over is such a disaster. Okay, remember how the original release of Blade Runner has the narration and was a bust? And how the director's cut was such a revelation for simply REMOVING the narration? Because it now allowed you, the viewer, time to THINK about what you were seeing? The voice-over here presents the exact same problem. When it's pointlessly yakking, you should be able to just be quiet and take in the sights and atmosphere and THINK about what you are seeing. But someone--whether director Winterbottom or the professionals at his releasing company--believe that you are frankly too stupid to spend all that time without being told precisely what to think. And they come very close to ruining their movie in the process. They certainly do succeed in preventing it from achieving the greatness that was within their grasp. And all of this is not to metion that the passive-aggressive, whiny tone of the narration is extremely annoying.

One of the things that should be a problem here but somehow isn't is our character's murky motivations. We never really know why Maria comes on to William so hard, or why he responds. We never really understand why, once he knows their relationship is forbidden and doomed, he goes ahead and pursues it anyway. But this, for me at least, served to open up evocative questions [are they somehow just genetically attracted? Is this a form of rebellion against the state?] rather than just seem like screenwriting carelessness, which seems a pretty fine line to walk.

If your ears perked up when we learned that Maria is a 100% genetic match to William's mother, you won't be surprised to learn from the making-of documentary that the original idea was to retell Oedipus against the new environment of cloning, etc. You'll also see Morton in these huge Bee Girl glasses blathering about how all this is really happening now, without providing any examples.

All in all, a very fine movie for those who love thoughtful, meditative, idea-based science fiction. Ultimately the story meanders a bit, but what stays with me most is the wonderfully thick atmosphere it creates and the vividness of its future world. Now if only we could have some sort of version without the horrid and useless voice-over.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you're a fan of thoughtful, meditative sci-fi.