Genetically Modified Desire 

Sex and science in Michael Winterbottom's Code 46

Thursday, Aug 5 2004
Photo by Peter Mountain

Consider a future where everyone speaks in a uniform tongue composed mostly of English but with bits of French, Spanish and Chinese mixed in like sprinkles on an ice cream sundae; where the world’s major cities have become overcrowded oases dotting an arid desert expanse; and where travel to and from these cities is strictly regulated at heavily fortified borders. Code 46 asks us to do just that, and then to consider that such a future may already be upon us. Directed by the prolific and prodigious Michael Winterbottom, the film is a prescient social commentary encased in a pop science-fiction premise. And while Winterbottom doesn’t belie his true intentions as subtly as his forebearers George Orwell and Jack Finney, he still offers us a welcome reprieve from a sci-fi landscape littered with so many reloading and revolutionary matrices. Be advised: Not once in the film does Will Smith appear to chase after or get chased by some form of artificial intelligence.

Written by Winterbottom’s frequent partner in crime, Frank Cottrell Boyce — their previous collaborations include 24 Hour Party People, The Claim and Welcome to Sarajevo Code 46 feels like a story that might have been conceived during an interminable wait in an airport security line, or while watching the latest news about the detainees in Guantánamo Bay. The film follows William Geld (Tim Robbins), a fraud investigator dispatched from his Seattle base to the Shanghai offices of the Sphinx Insurance Corporation. Where Orwell imagined the continents contracting into a sort of nouveau Pangaea, Winterbottom and Boyce present a brave new world in which the rift between developed and developing society has widened into a perilous chasm. In Code 46, there is only “inside” — the protective envelope of an urban metropolis — and “outside,” where, as William’s taxi driver declares, “It’s not living, just existing.” (As if to prove the point, when the taxi enters Shanghai, pressurized jets of water blast it clean of the residue of those unseen places and people.) To cross these borders, one must obtain “cover” in the form of a “papelle,” a temporary passport issued by the aptly, if somewhat bluntly, named Sphinx — an entity arguably more terrifying than Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother regime, for it suggests a wash of Enron-style privatization may have finally supplanted government as we know it.

“If people can’t get cover, there’s a reason,” a Sphinx executive (Om Puri) assures William upon his arrival. Nevertheless, someone inside Sphinx has been manufacturing illegitimate papelles and supplying them to those who have been denied official cover. Armed with an “empathy virus” that makes him telepathically sensitive to others’ subconscious brain activity — think of it as the futuristic version of Ecstasy — William interrogates the suspect workers and discovers, in short order, that the culprit is one Maria Gonzalez. Case closed. Only, there’s a hitch. Maria is played by Samantha Morton, that lithe, moon-eyed actress who, at the tender age of 27, has been twice nominated for an Oscar (most recently as the mother in In America) and who may be best known to viewers for playing one of the aquatic seers in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Here, Morton is back on dry land, but as Maria, she nonetheless shimmers. With her close-cropped blond hair, cherubic face and distant smile, she’s like some extraterrestrial fertility goddess, and from the moment William first spots her — a brief meet-cute in the Sphinx lobby — he’s hooked. Forget the wife and son he has waiting for him back home — this is love at first sight, even if something about Maria feels strangely more familiar than that. And so he covers for her, pinning the blame on another Sphinx employee and proceeding to elope with Maria on a nighttime odyssey through the city. In a two-bit karaoke bar, William watches, taking no action, as she sells a fake papelle to a young naturalist who wishes to study bats in Delhi. Later on, back at her apartment, William and Maria make love.

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The title of Code 46 refers to the guidelines regulating which men can mate with which women, based on the makeup of each person’s DNA. The idea is that, in this particular future, genetic technology has advanced to the point where identity itself has become somewhat blurred. (And isn’t that a far-fetched idea!) After briefly returning to Seattle, William is called back to Shanghai, where he finds that Maria has been placed in a clinic for committing a Code 46 violation, her memories jiggled around to remove any trace of the offending incident. Like 1984’s Winston and Julia before them, William and Maria are fated to become doomed lovers on the run from a society in which love itself is less a human emotion than a high-tech science experiment. Given that this is the case, we should feel the full blinding force of their passion — but we never quite do. It’s hardly Morton’s fault — she’s radiant, and there are moments in that karaoke bar, as she dances in slow motion to a pulsating strobe light and the churning grooves of Winterbottom’s world-music soundtrack, when she seems to be seducing William (and us) into a secret pact: Come with me and we can start a new world order together. Robbins, alas, proves unworthy of the invitation. He’s something of a stiff, turning in the sort of stoic, monolithic performance that cribs way too many moves from the Harrison Ford–in–Blade Runner playbook. (And Robbins isn’t allowed to fall back on the possibility that he may be a robot.) It’s as though the conscientious-liberal aspects of Boyce’s scenario so tickled Robbins’ fancy that, even in the lovemaking scenes, he seems to be overintellectualizing everything and not particularly enjoying himself — he’s trying to ferret out the sociopolitical worth of the carnality.

If the movie is finally something of a failure as a romance, it’s rarely less than a triumph of soulful imagination. When it played at festivals last year (including Toronto, where I first saw it), Code 46 was sometimes shown alongside the film Winterbottom had made just prior to it — the brilliant refugee drama In This World, which depicted the harrowing journey undertaken by two Afghani youths seeking to emigrate to the U.K. In This World was one of Winterbottom’s best, and Code 46 is never as strong a work, but it’s easy (and rather fascinating) to see the new film as a version of the earlier one, made using radically different materials. Both tell stories of people seeking freedom in societies that place little value on individual liberties. Both are deeply concerned about immigration, globalization and the tension that’s created when people with different beliefs attempt to live together, without presuming to offer facile solutions to those gnarly dilemmas. Yet while the improvised, video-shot In This World starred a cast of unknowns and looked as coarse as the sand dunes its characters traversed, Code 46 sports recognizable movie stars and luxuriant, neon-flushed cityscapes (even though it was, in fact, made relatively on the cheap, using futuristic-looking locations in present-day Shanghai, Dubai and Jaipur) and can’t help but reach a larger audience. So, the ever resourceful, chameleonic Winterbottom has yet again changed his appearance without fundamentally changing what he has to say. He gives us a smorgasbord of food for thought in a time when most fiction films are an ideological famine.

CODE 46 | Directed by MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM | Written by FRANK COTTRELL BOYCE | Produced by ANDREW EATON | Released by United Artists | At ArcLight Hollywood, AMC Century 14

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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