by Lucius Shepard
November 1, 2004
Ever since Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the dystopian future has been an object of fascination for filmmakers. Generally speaking, these films have fallen into two categories, the post-apocalyptic and the Orwellian, and, in recent years, as our view of the future has come increasingly to be defined by current political realities, hemmed in by ecological disaster and technological threat and a sharpening of the distinction between the haves and the have-nots, the latter has become predominant. Indeed, toss out the avalanche of cheapo post-apocalypse flicks such as Steel Dawn, Cyborg, et al, and their more expensive, equally dimwitted brethren like Waterworld and The Postman, and what remains are essentially variants on the Orwellian dystopia. It's as though 1984 blinded us to all other possibilities of social evolution and we have been hellbent on making that dream come true (preferring it to apocalypse), because, barring a miracle, a scientific breakthrough or three that will enforce the egalitarian, it seems that our children are doomed to inhabit a corporate oligarchy of bleak dimension in which personal freedom is severely limited by technological oversight, and upward mobility is all but impossible for most of the population.
Ridley Scott's Bladerunner set the tone, if not the standard, for the type of film that illustrates this dreary scenario, spawning a number of imitations, and to that number, sadly, we must now add Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, which features, as did Bladerunner, a detective, a romance-noir, a genetic crime, and a gloomy near future dominated by corporate interests. Winterbottom (Twenty-Four Hour Party People, The Claim, In this World, Jude) has been something of genre-jumper of late, focusing his significant talent on the western, the documentary, the world of pop music, etc., and his take on the near future might well be the most persuasive of any thus far. In Winterbottom's day-after-tomorrow, cultural migration has resulted in a language that is basically English but salted with Spanish, French, and Arabic words, an international polyglot. Neither automotive style nor fashion has evolved (though there are capes designed to protect one from exposure to direct sunlight), but the gap between rich and poor has significantly widened. The privileged live in overcrowded, polluted cities enclosed in haze and surrounded by endless deserts (this due to an erosion of the ozone layer) where live the disenfranchised, an untouchable caste of stateless people who have no rights and little hope. We see them swarming the checkpoints on the outskirts of the cities, dressed in ragged Arab-style garments, attempting to sell cigarettes, pens, and such to citizens passing in and out, begging for "e;cover"e; in the form of papelles, a combination of passport, visa, and insurance (only those fortunate enough to possess such papers are allowed in the cities).
Presiding over all this misery is the monolithic Sphinx Corporation, and, as the movie opens, an investigator, a family man named William (underplayed to the point of somnolence by Tim Robbins), is dispatched from Seattle to the Shanghai office of the corporation's insurance agency to find out who, if anyone, on the inside is involved in the issuing of false papelles. William has been infected with an empathy virus that enables him to intuit peoples' thoughts, and in an entertaining scene he interviews various workers, including a woman with a freckle fetish who considers Anne of Green Gables an erotic masterpiece, before concluding that the guilty party is a young woman named Maria Gonzalez. But as William listens to Maria recount a recurring dream, one she only has on her birthday and that she views as a harbinger of fate, he feels a powerful attraction to her and does not turn her in. He follows her from work, effects a meeting on the subway, and together they go to a karaoke club (a scene enlivened by Mick Jones of the Clash doing a karaoke version of his own "e;Should I Stay or Should I Go"e;), where sheaware that he knows of her guilt, aware also that he's attracted to herallows him to watch as she passes false papelles to a customer. Winterbottom does a nice job of convincing us that William is falling in love with Maria (and she with him), using close-ups of Morton's expressive face shot from above, from Robbins' point of view (thank goodness, he chose not to use Robbins' face, because either empathy viruses dull the senses or else William is suffering from a severe case of jet lag). They return to Maria's apartment at dawn and make love. We know from the opening frames of the film that due to the widespread practice of cloning and gene splicing there is a great deal of concern about incest between men and women who are unaware that they're related, and a law, Code 46, exists to prohibit such contact. We don't need a gene map to know what has just happened.
This is all achieved at a leisurely pace, taking up more than a third of the movie's running time, but we have been kept interested by the authenticity of the world that Winterbottom has created. Shooting in Shanghai, Jaipur, and Dubai, contrasting ultra-modern high-rise towers and neon-bright streets with the desolate slums that surround them, he has persuaded us, without the use of expensive sets or CGI, that this is the blighted future that awaits us, a world whose sterile halls of power resemble LAX and are kept functioning by proles who dwell in slums. At this point, however, we expect a variance in tone, a quickening of pace to support the slight story, and when none is forthcoming, when the movie continues to drift along, drift along, we are pushed to a distance and questions arise, question such as, Does one need a papelle to exit the theatre?, and, Is Tim Robbins awake? The dreamlike mise-en-scene, the grainy digital images, and Morton's elegiac voiceover threaten to pull us under, and the trancey soundtrack (heavy on the Coldplay) contributes to the overmedicated emotional values implicit in the script.
Back in Seattle with his wife and son, William is informed by his superior that three people bearing the false papelles have died, including the man to whom he saw Maria give the papelles. She orders him to return to Shanghai on a twenty-four-hour "e;cover"e; and settle the issue. He discovers that Maria has been taken to a clinic outside the city to deal with a "e;body issue"e;; at the clinic, he coerces a doctor into revealing that Maria has been guilty of a Code 46 violation, that she has been impregnated by an improper donor, the pregnancy has been terminated, and all memories of the affair have been removed. She does not remember him. He breaks into her apartment, secures some of her hair, and takes it to a lab for DNA analysis. It happens that he and Maria are a fifty-percent match. William panics (Robbins tenses his jowls) and makes for the airport, intending to fly back to Seattle, but his cover has expiredhe needs Maria to provide him with false papelles. He extracts her from the clinic and they go to her apartment; there he reacquaints her with their history. She agrees to get him the papelles and bring them to the airport, but when she arrives, William thinks better of it, he can't let go of her, and together they fly to Jebali, an Arabian port. This is the sort of irrational turn that good love stories take, that enlists our interest and our sympathy, but by this time the film has nearly run its course. We have endured eighty-some minutes of set-up, of foreplay, to get to ten minutes or so of the good stuff.
As part of her treatment at the clinic, Maria has been infected with a virus that makes her body "e;afraid"e; of William. In the movie's most affecting scene, he binds her hands to the bed in order for them to make love and, as they do, she writhes in alternating waves of fear and ecstasy. On waking, operating according to programmed instructions, Maria goes into zombie mode, walks downstairs and calls in a Code 46 violation. Though he knows this is going to happen, William does not try to stop her, opting instead for an ill-considered flight across the desert where the lovers encounter the fate that will separate them for all time.
The main problem with Winterbottom's movie is its flimsiness and its reliance on style, on the evocation of mood, to convey all things. It plays like a documentary with a little story attached, like a cyberpunk novel with all the exciting parts left out. Winterbottom seems determined to avoid action and he does so at the expense of his audienceI found myself yearning for a stray gunshot, a fistfight in the background, two people bumping into each other, anything to break the monotony, the slow, step-by-step expository grind of the picture. Incest of such an incidental sort is not much upon which to hang a tale, yet the basic story, that of doomed lovers cast against the grain of repressive society, has been done successfully before. Perhaps Winterbottom could have told the story non-linearly or at least layered in the exposition . . .perhaps that would have moved things along at a faster clip. Perhaps if he had chosen a more animated actor for a leading man, that would have claimed our attentioneven at the heights of passion, Robbins appears on the verge of passing out and in opposition to the punkish, energetic Morton, he comes off as something of a docile, paternal figure and not as a man motivated by an emotion sufficiently powerful to cause him to risk everything (though in fairness to him, Winterbottom seems far more interested in Morton, giving her all the best lines).
There's a lot to like about Code 46. The cinematography, by Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind, is superb; the script, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (The Claim, Twenty-Four Hour Party People) is intelligent, thoughas notedit has pacing problems. Moreover, this is the kind of little story, a story about Mr. and Mrs. Brown, that is needed to counteract the vast wave of comic-book superheroes, video game makeovers, acid-drooling aliens, and Jason-versus-Godzillas that is threatening to define genre cinema. But Winterbottom's documentarian approach verges on the sleep-inducing, and the fact that this is all terribly familiar, that the science fiction concepts with which he is dealing have been worked and reworked ever since Orwell's protagonist Winston stumbled upon his secret room . . . Well, there's just not enough new and innovative here to mark his film as more than an interesting failure.