Code 46

Crossposted to UrbanVancouver.com.

Code 46 is one of the most creative and edgy science-fiction movies I’ve seen in years. It’s full of ideas and themes–so full, in fact, that they occasionally get in the way of our understanding of the plot and characters. Still, it’s an admirable achievement on a small budget, replacing costly special effects with clever writing and compelling acting.

In a near future, where eastern China is a desert, William (Tim Robbins) arrives in Shanghai as a fraud investigator, seeking a counterfeiter working inside “The Sphinx”, an omnipotent corporation. There, William meets and falls for Maria (Samantha Morton), a Sphinx employee who may be involved in the forging of ‘papelles’, travel and living permits which separate the haves from the have-nots. The have-nots live ‘outside’, scratching out an existence in vast deserts. William and Maria fall in love, and become struggle to free themselves from the corporation and Maria’s past.

Samantha Morton, as always, is a revelation. She’s the most tragic of actors, and seems so tremendously vulnerable in most of her roles. She is tiny beside Robbins’s 6’5″ frame, but that only contributes to our need to see him deliver her from her troubles. Robbins, as usual, is a steady everyman whose politics no doubt influenced his participation in this movie.

The film’s dialogue is unique, as it’s a post-geographic creole of English, Spanish, French and Chinese. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce seems to have picked the most useful phrases from each language for a given situation. It’s a very William Gibsonian conceit, but it’s extremely effective. When William greets a Chinese clerk in English, and she replies in Spanish, it establishes the ‘otherness’ of this future far more than a digital craneshot of futuristic city ever could.

Aside from a few video phones and wall displays, there are no apparent digital effects in the film. Yet, director Michael Winterbottom does an extraordinary job of achieving a futuristic setting using dialogue and real life locations that look and feel like they’re from the near future. The sequences in Shanghai, for example, would not look out of place in Bladerunner.

‘Code 46’ to a genetic law which is, ultimately, something of a misnomer. It’s an important plot device, but isn’t at the thematic heart of the film. Mostly, Code 46 has more in common with Dirty Pretty Things than, say, Gattaca. By the film’s conclusion, you realize that, among other things, it’s about the gulf between the developed world and the developing one.

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