Code 46, Dir. Michael Winterbottom

BBC / Revolution Films

Starring: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri

Reviewed by North

This is not a rollicking action movie, but rather a subtle, sensitive, speculative-fiction look at one possible near-future of our increasingly artificial, genetically modified, test-tube society. Winterbottom keeps a fairly gentle pace throughout, unlike much of his television work and the excellent movies Butterfly Kiss (1995) and Welcome to Sarajevo (1997). Like the best SF, it does not focus on dazzling technology, but the social and personal implications of the changes the technologies bring about. Some quite major social differences are quietly taken for granted in this film.

The 'Code 46' of the title is a law against incest which explicitly takes into account genetic identity rather than simply family relationships. A person with whom you have 50% genetic identity, for example, is considered your sibling, and so it is illegal to mate with them. In a world where most people were conceived in a clinic and most only know their 'nurture parents' to whom they are not necessarily genetically related, the traditionally laws and taboos concerning exogamy are inadequate. The social implications of this breakdown of the traditional family are far more wide-ranging than this little legal nicety, however, and there is little recognition of some such changes: Robbins' character still has a traditional nuclear family, for example.

William (Robbins), a virus-enhanced investigator, is in Shanghai looking into a case of insurance fraud. In an uncertain world, insurance cover has become the guiding principle behind most people's lives: the all-powerful Sphinx corporation assesses the level of risk for any purchase, journey, holiday, or event you want to attend, and decides whether the risk is acceptable. If you cannot get cover, you cannot legally travel. But the woman behind the black market in insurance 'papeles' is Maria (Morton), with whom William becomes obsessed and eventually fall in love; bt William only has cover to stay in Shanghai twenty-four hours, and mysterious forces try to keep him and Maria apart, wiping her memory of him while she is in hospital.

The action mostly takes place in Shanghai and Jedel Ali, with a few scenes in William's home Seattle. Outside of the safe, protected cities is 'al fuera', the rest of the world where Sphinx hold no sway and nobody has cover. The near future world is indicated in several, understated details: Maria has a cloned finger after an accident; photographs are animated on little screens; people routinely hide from sunlight inside their UV screened buildings. Although English is the language of this film, the protagonists scatter their speech with occasional words or phrases in French, Spanish, Chinese; these words seem to be randomly selected ('pourquoi', 'papel', 'al fuera') rather than dependent on context or register, as might be more feasible (cf. the Mandarin curses in Firefly, for example). William is infected with a virus for empathy; other viruses allow their users to acquire a language, musical ability, or other skill.

Although the repressive future seems dystopic for most of the film, the constant mantra 'Sphinx knows best' proves correct, as people who travel on Maria's counterfeit insurance cover invariably come to avoidable, predictable harm. People have most of their freedoms taken from them, but it really is for their own good. The film neither exonerates nor condemns the totalitarian corporation, which remains pretty impersonal at all times, but does a good job of highlighting the sorts of changes—and moral dilemmas—we might expect as certain kinds of technology become more common. This lack of resolution is not terribly satisfying, but it is thought-provoking, and that may be more important.

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