Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Movie – Code 46 (2003)

Code 46 is a dense science fiction movie that takes a look at the social impact advances in genetics may have on human society.  Unlike Gattaca (1997), which presented a genetically superior human race, there is no human genetic engineering in Code 46.  Instead, the increased use of cloning and in-vitro fertilization has presented a situation where genetically similar people may meet and not even know.  Because of this, governments have passed “Code 46” defining who can and cannot reproduce.  The legal and moral implications of two such people falling in love would be huge.

The movie opens with the definition of Code 46.  (Note – we have 23 pairs of chromosomes in our DNA, which is 46 total.)  If you have at least one quarter the same genetic material as another person you are not allowed to conceive a child.  If a child is conceived it will be aborted.  If the people did not know, they will receive treatment and be released.  If they knowingly broke the law, the consequences could be severe.

The movie opens with a voiceover by Maria Gonzales, played by two time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton.  She is talking about the day William Geld (Oscar winner Tim Robbins) arrived in Shanghai and into her life.  We see William traveling from the airport into the city itself, his car traversing a no man’s wasteland on a very large highway.  William has been sent to Shanghai to investigate counterfeiting of “papeles” that are printed in the city.  These papeles, or “cover” as they are known colloquially, allow people to travel into cities from the outside, and potentially to travel from country to country.

In this future viruses have been genetically engineered to enhance human abilities.  William has been infected with an empathy virus that allows him to essentially read a person when they tell him something personal about themselves.  He interviews the people who work in the company where the counterfeits are being produced.  He is immediately taken with Maria when he interviews her.  She flirts with him and he is charmed by her.  He knows she is the one doing the counterfeiting, but tells her company it is another person instead.  Maria and William see each other on the subway after leaving the company and she impulsively asks him to join her for the evening.

He is married with a son, and he doesn’t really do anything spontaneous, but he can’t help himself and he joins her.  He has fun dancing and drinking with her.  She knows he lied to protect her and she asks him straight out why he did it.  He doesn’t really know.  He asks her why she does the counterfeiting.  She takes him back to her apartment and shows him a memory book of her giving the papeles to others, and how joyful it made them.  That is why she does it.  The two of them end up making love.  Even though both have forged a very strong connection in a short amount of time, William has to leave the next day because the cover he is traveling on was for only a very limited time.

He has been back home for an indeterminate amount of time when his boss calls him, pissed off.  Another papele forged at the same company has been used.  His boss wants him to go back to Shanghai and get the right forger this time.  William arrives there on another 24 hour cover, but when he goes to visit Maria she is nowhere to be found.  Using a combination of his authority as an investigator, and blustered authority where he has none, he finds that she was taken to a medical clinic outside the city.  She was guilty of a Code 46 violation.

When he arrives at the clinic he finds she does not remember him at all.  He demands to know what has been done to her.  They explain that her memory of her pregnancy and the man has been wiped.  Since she can no longer remember William he must be the cause of her Code 46 violation.

William takes her back to her apartment, and using her memory book, shows her that the two have met before.  He doesn’t explain about the Code 46 pregnancy, though.  When she sleeps he takes a sample of her hair and has it compared to his.  She is a 50% match to him.  Even though she is 20 years younger than him, she is an identical clone of his biological mother – a woman he never knew.  In a way that could only happen in science fiction, his attraction to her has been an Oedipus complex.  Her love for him has been for the same reason.

Although this is something the viewer knew was going to happen right from the beginning of the movie, what happens next may be a surprise.  It will definitely raise questions, both legal and moral.  They are also close to being real world questions.  There have already been instances where siblings given up for adoption have met and fallen in love.  There have also been genetic half-siblings, who had the same father due to sperm donations, who have met and fallen in love.  The movie Code 46 just takes it one step further to include cloning.

There is also a scene in the movie about an hour and fifteen minutes in that is guaranteed to push people’s buttons.  Some will be pushed in a bad way, some will be pushed in a good way, and some will have both their good and bad buttons pushed at the same time.

I mentioned at the top that this was a dense movie.  What I meant by that is that the world around these people has changed from our current world in many ways, but they are not explained step by step for the viewer.  There are no flying cars, or rayguns, or aliens.  Language, however, has become a lot more fluid.  Regardless of where people are on the planet, words from several different languages have merged into a single tongue that is dominated by English.  Spanish words seem to be the next most prevalent, but I also recognized French, Italian, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, and Mandarin. 

Early in the movie I did not realize this and I thought I was just misunderstanding the dialogue.  I turned on the subtitles and that’s when I realized what was going on.  The non-English words are not translated in the subtitles, so if you do not know them you can kind of understand what they mean from the context of how they are used.

In addition, the “covers” that people travel under are not explained.  You learn how they work as the movie goes on.  They essentially are the result of genetic testing that allows the government to know what danger you may be in from viruses or conditions if you were to travel elsewhere, and also what danger you may pose to others if you are allowed into the city populations. 

Many movies have dialogue from the characters explaining something for the audience (“Papeles?  Oh, you mean the papers that allow us to travel from one place to another.”)  Even though it makes things easier for the audience, it always comes across as very artificial.  In reality two characters would never discuss the definition of something that was extremely well known to them (Clocks?  Oh, you mean the devices that we use to tell time.”)

The movie was directed by Michael Winterbottom.  He did it between the movies 24 Hour Party People (2002) [read my review here] and 9 Songs (2004), both of which feature a lot of music.  There is a fun musical cameo in Code 46 for anyone like me who is old enough to remember The Clash.  One of the bars that William and Maria go to has karaoke.  There was a man singing The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go and the voice sounded just like the real song.  I looked closer at him and he looked kind of familiar.  It turned out Winterbottom had Mick Jones, the real lead singer of The Clash, come in for a fun joke.

Code 46 had mixed results at the box office.  It’s SF, not sci-fi, and some people were lost at points.  Robbins and Morton had great chemistry and received good notice for their work.  Both received Oscar nominations the next year for their follow-up movies – he for Mystic River and she for In America.)

If the only science fiction movies you like are the ones with a lot of action, aliens, or futuristic weapons, then this is not the movie for you.  If you like science fiction films that bring up some big questions and that make you think, then give this one a try.  You may find that you like it.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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  1. I remember wanting to see this when it came out, but for some reason, it slipped off my viewing list. I wonder if my love of Samantha Morton can balance out my inability to connect with Winterbottom films...

  2. I remember enjoying this a lot when I saw it at TIFF. The odd thing is that I have not had the desire to watch the film again. It's not my favourite Winterbottom film though, I would rank it somewhere in the middle of his body of work.

  3. I have only seen three Winterbottom films - 9 Songs, 24 Hour Party People, and Code 46.

    @theoncominghope - I'm not sure either. Morton is the female lead and narrator of the movie, so she in certainly central to it. If I were to pick one Morton movie to see, though, I would highly recommend In America over Code 46.

    @CS - I haven't seen enough of his movies to have an informed opinion of his work yet. I wouldn't describe any of the three films as must see, although 24 Hour Party People was fun because that music was big when I was in highschool and college.

  4. excellent synopsis on explaining the premise of the movie code 46 Chip.