Apparently there are just a couple ways to do a science fiction movie. One is to rely heavily on the hi-tech props and computer graphics to set the stage for the “future” as either a utopia gone wrong or a hellhole gone wronger (that’s right, I said wronger). These films are generally action-driven, flying by at breakneck speed with stuff blowing up every 12 seconds and just barely enough of an “idea” to keep you interested.
Then there are the sci-fi films that either don’t have the bankroll for all that razzle-dazzle or simply wish to focus on the subtleties of the storyline and the implications thereof with just a minimum of geek-ware. This is where Code 46 comfortably resides. The film invokes an intriguing and believable near-future, following two residents/victims of that future through an adventure that is more cerebral and human than it is loud and dumb.
Not that there is anything wrong with loud and dumb. Total Recall and Independence Day and even War of the Worlds have the market cornered on loud and dumb, but can hold their heads high as “good” films in the genre. But it is refreshing when a film gives you credit for a modicum of intelligence and avoids spelling everything out and ponderously poring over this shiny machine or that to transport you to another time and place, as Code 46 does under the skilled and thoughtful work of English director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo).
The world of Code 46 is a world in which inventiveness in the realm of genetic engineering has led to a state of quiet totalitarianism, if I can use such a strange, counterintuitive phrase. But that’s exactly what it feels like in this vision of the future, where one’s movements are closely guarded to prevent the accidental “coupling” of people whose genetic profile may be too close to their sexual partners. Everyone is cooked in the lab, so to speak, with the traditional family a thing of the past. Passes are required for travel, and your every move is monitored to make sure you’re not fucking your mother.
This brings us to William (Tim Robbins) who is investigating a case of fraud involving counterfeit passes. His probe brings him to Maria (Samantha Morton), who has come up with a way to smuggle illegal documents from her workstation and into the hands of those who need to move about a bit more freely than the government prescribes. To help William in his detective work, he has been infected with a virus that makes him so empathetic he has no trouble reading thoughts and motivations and criminal intentions.
The virus has one tricky side effect. It makes him fall in love with Maria. And where there is old-fashioned love, sometimes there is old-fashioned schtupping. And where there is old-fashioned schtupping, the old-fashioned concept of “a bun in the oven” cannot be ignored. William and Maria must now run and hide from the oppressive regime that humanity has set up as a safeguard against this sort of canoodling.
Code 46 is no masterpiece and it suffers from its tendency to borrow quite heavily from other films and books. But it does allow one luxury with its ponderous tone and surreal landscapes: the chance to actually “think” about what’s happening on screen, instead of just waiting for the next futuristic megalopolis set piece to ooh and aah us into Dumb-And-Happy-Ville.
Code 46 is a smart, moody film that plants us firmly in the reality it sets out to explore. It’s a world that stays with you long after the bittersweet ending flickers a sad farewell.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.