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September 10, 2004

Review: Code 46

Code 46, a low key romantic science fiction, that surprisingly stars Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, is one of the two best films I’ve seen this year (the other being Oldboy). That, by the way, is the short review in case you don’t want to read any more and wish to save yourself from the nauseating praise to follow.

The director is Michael Winterbottom, a Brit, whose chameleon-like portfolio already includes a drama, a romance, a comedy, a western, and a realist road movie. And that’s just in a span of four years! Well, he can safely add another successful genre to that list. And, to steal a chant from the GOP, I’ll add: “Four more years!”

The plot of the Code 46 revolves around a thing called a “papelle”, a document that allows a person to travel around the film’s future Earth. Morton’s character Maria works for a company that manufactures papelles and, as we learn quickly, has been engaged in smuggling them out of her workplace and illegally distributing them to people who don’t qualify as legal recipients. Enter Robbins’ William, a detective with a wife a child, hired by the company to find the employee responsible for the crime.

There’s more, but it’s all less significant than the [purposely] unlikely romance that blossoms between William and Maria and which becomes the focus of the film. And the plot breaks downs near the middle of the film anyway. In a sense, Code 46 is the Lost in Translation that Sofia Coppola didn’t make. It has a similar central relationship between two very different but spiritually linked people, the same slow pace, and the same hypnotic quality. But whereas I found Lost in Translation boring, uneventful, tedious, and, the film’s greatest undoing, shallow, Code 46 is the opposite. To be cynical for two sentences, Lost In Translation had a scene of Bill Murray singing karaoke during which the film wanted me to think about Bill Murray singing karaoke. In Code 46, there’s a scene of the two main characters in a nightclub, dancing, during which the film gives me time to think about the many ideas presented so far.

For example, take Winterbottom’s presentation of the future. It’s not drastically different from our own. But just enough to be slightly alien. In most science fiction flicks, the cars and buildings are futuristic but everything else is the same as it is now. Language, morals, ethics, religion, and manners do not change. Code 46 reverses that. William drives a regular car, but speaks a form of English that’s been influenced by other languages to the point that it’s littered with foreign phrases. It’s akin to the English and Russian meld in A Clockwork Orange. Along with the law in the film’s title, whose function is to prevent two people with closely related DNA from having a child, the idea of injecting oneself with viruses in order to boost, or deaden, certain feelings or abilities, and a myriad of other half-ideas liberally sprinkled throughout, Code 46 always has something for the viewer to ponder.

Some critics have accused the film of being devoid of emotion, of lacking any sort of warmth (the same criticisms I have of ‘Hero’). But that’s exactly the point of Code 46. What’s love if it has to be regulated by computers and machines, watched over by hospitals and strictly guarded by the law? There’s no room for emotion when everything is bleached by science and reason. There’s no room for love. And Code 46 illustrates this wonderfully, by forcing us to experience this futuristic, diluted romance. By pointing out the film’s fault, critics are pointing out its theme.

But it’s misleading to pass off Code 46 as just a depressing tale of a Dystopian future. It is that, but it’s also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in a long time. When William and Maria finally shatter the restraints of society and, in an incredible piece of acting by Morton, emotion makes its unabashed entrance into the film, it’s anything but depressing. The scene, like the experience, doesn’t last forever but its impact is felt on the events that follow. Smartly, there are consequences for both characters and, in a great final shot, Maria weighs these consequences against the act and silently declares: “It was worth it.”

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