No Man's Land

Issue section: 
(288)

Review of 'Code 46', director Michael Winterbottom

Code 46 is a thought-provoking, resonant, sci-fi movie for those looking for an antidote to this summer's blander blockbuster efforts. A visually haunting poetic film, set in a world where genetics, global warming and immigration controls have reached new extremes, it has much to say politically - even if the romantic heart of the film may not always prove as compelling as it should.

In the future, after global warming has made cities the only safe places to live, large sections of the world are closed to disenfranchised people who have to live in deserts. The privileged gain access to these safe enclosures through the ownership of 'pappelles' - compact ID-passport-insurance cards. These pappelles (imagine Blunkett's card scheme writ large) are highly prized for those locked out of the system.

Genetics detective William (Tim Robbins) flies from Seattle to Shanghai to investigate the forgery of 'papelles' in a factory. His investigation narrows it down to one worker, Maria (Samantha Morton), but for some reason he refuses to pin the blame on her. Compromising his professional duty, he has a drink with the suspect, finding himself increasingly fascinated by her. She offers a fraudulent pappelle she's smuggled from work to a disenfranchised man dreaming of travelling abroad. They have sex and he returns to his family in Seattle.

Drawn back to Shanghai, he learns that Maria is in a clinic for a Code 46 violation. Citizens who share the same DNA are prevented by the watchful state from having sexual relations. Maria's memory is erased and she remembers nothing of her relationship with William.

But soon he's to become a victim of the arbitrary nature of the state, as overstaying in Shanghai will cost him dear. With the removal of his pappelle he'll be cast out, joining the ranks of the excluded.

The runaway lovers will also have to contend with the heavy price of generations of genetic engineering. Maria's a clone of William's mother and has been drugged with a virus to make her recoil in disgust from making love with him. The doomed lovers set out to survive what this Brave New World holds for them.

There's a chilling logic to the ideas presented here as we contemplate our potentially more restricted lives. The film depicts a world where characters speak in a form of Esperanto; William has been given an empathy virus drug that helps him read people's minds; and all sexuality is under surveillance. Genetic engineering has run out of control and the state has to ruthlessly guard against incestuous couplings. The love affair then becomes some sort of rerun of the oedipal myth.

The film-makers say the idea for Code 46 grew from the frustration they encountered while making their impressive previous film about migration, In This World. From that they extrapolated into the future a world inspired by their anxiety over globalisation, migration and the potential misuse of genetic science.

Dour Tim Robbins and beaming elf-like enigmatic Samantha Morton make an unlikely romantic duo and in truth it's hard to discern the sexual chemistry that must exist to propel these two into each other's arms. Occasionally the collaborations of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Winterbottom exhibit a slightly disjointed form of narrative (The Claim, Welcome to Sarajevo) and those looking for the emotional catharsis of a classic tragic doomed love affair will have to look elsewhere. There's a sense in which it is the powerful ideas and ability to film an unusual landscape that have captured their imagination more fully than writing a romantic tragedy. Particularly noteworthy is how Winterbottom has visualised this near-future dystopia with his creative use of existing buildings that live cheek by jowl with shanty town poverty. The camera floats lovingly over this world of glamorous abstract architecture, interspersed with impressionistic fast-paced montages of a stratified heavily policed globe - not that far from where we live today.