Code 46 (2003, Michael Winterbottom)

Code 46 is a budget future-noir, down to the male lead being a fraud investigator (though it’s unclear why there’d be a third-party contractor investigating identity theft). But it’s not just a budget future-noir; it’s also a future eugenics thriller; the title refers to the legal code forbidding procreating with your near relatives. Cousins would probably be all right. The movie opens with the explanation as two title cards; it doesn’t matter for half the movie.

And once it does matter, it’s another ten or fifteen minutes before someone explains there are clones everywhere. Most people never know their birth parents—just their “nurture” parents—so you’d never know if someone was actually your genetic sibling. Though without ever really breaking it down, the exposition has to be opaque to some degree because not everyone’s going to know about the Code 46. Or at least not at the same time. Though it’s unclear how some people find out about it because Code 46 has some very broken noir-ish narration. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce writes just to the edge of the plot hole and then leaves it up to director Winterbottom to cover.

“Cover” is another of the film’s MacGuffins. To get around in the future, you need to have “cover,” which is basically either a travel pass or a living permit. Some people get to live in the nice cities, and some people live outside the nice cities. Those living outside don’t have “cover.” Though when you want to go someplace and can’t, it’s because you don’t have “cover.”

Samantha Morton works at a cover manufacturer. Since Code 46 is pre-smartphone (though people do have video phones), the “cover” is a physical object. Tim Robbins is investigating someone making counterfeit cover and giving it to undesirables. Though it turns out, they might not be so much undesirable as in danger. Code 46 doesn’t pay its oppressive future society enough attention—or define it enough—because it seems generally altruistic.

Like, preventing unnecessary deaths and in-breeding isn’t villain activity.

Such observations do not matter, however. Any observations about Code 46’s plot or any details with potential are useless; it all goes nowhere; Code 46 has a sparse script, which just draws attention to the worse aspects. Like Morton’s MacGuffin dream sequence. The film opens on her birthday and promises to be about her recurring dream and then is never, ever, ever about her recurring dream. Partially because it’s not a real detail, it’s just something to kill time.

The film’s only ninety-three minutes. It’s concerning how much time they waste.

The whole thing hinges on Robbins and Morton having chemistry, which they do not. He becomes infatuated with her and frames someone else for her crime. She apparently has a thing for much older men. Part of Robbins’s character involves him being on an “empathy virus,” which lets him read minds. Including passwords. No one in the future uses good passwords, it turns out.

The film could get away with all the future silliness and plot conveniences if it didn’t go spectacularly off the rails in the second half and then just keep going, making less and less internal sense as it goes along.

Morton and Robbins do better than expected. In the first half, anyway, when it seems like Morton’s got a character. She will not, with the film increasingly restricting and erasing her development in the second half. At the same time, it’ll turn out Robbins doesn’t have anything going on either.

There’s good photography from Alwin H. Küchler and Marcel Zyskind, though Peter Christelis’s editing is probably more impressive, even though the film uses his cutting abilities for questionable purposes. Okay music from Stephen Hilton and David Holmes. Mark Tildesley’s production design is excellent.

Winterbottom’s direction is just okay. He makes some big swings—having Morton stare directly into the camera a lot, a Coldplay song—and they don’t often connect.

Code 46 is an unfortunate fail; it seems like there might be a decent picture in the cast, crew, and concept, but Cottrell-Boyce’s script isn’t it. It doesn’t help Winterbottom’s checked out too. There are some solid moments and efforts, but they’re nowhere near enough to compensate for the problems.

Leave a Reply