In a not-so-distant future time, cloning and genetic manipulation of human beings has become so common that a law, Code 46, is enforced to prevent inbreeding by people who are deemed to be genetically identical. Couples must be screened before they conceive; unplanned fetuses are screened and aborted if they are from genetically related parents. A couple that knowingly violates the code is subject to criminal prosecution.
Against this background, Michael Winterbottom (In this World, The Claim) tells a love story in which a knowing violation of Code 46 reveals frightening degrees of imposed behavior control. Orwell’s classic 1984 immediately comes to mind, but Orwell’s world forbade love of any kind, a more extreme leap into a dystopian future where totalitarianism is the problem. Winterbottom’s future has a distinctly uncomfortable air of familiarity; it takes trends in motion here and now and projects their logical developments into the future.
Cities are dense islands of civilization protected against the world beyond their borders, a world that has become a desert wasteland. Travel is permitted only with "papelles," passports indicating insurance, controlled by Sphinx, a large corporate agency that, in its extensive computer database seems to know more about everyone than today’s advocates of personal privacy could comfortably accept. But Winterbottom doesn’t turn Sphinx into an Orwellian Big Brother–it’s all the more sinister because Sphinx appears to be benevolent, creating restrictions and privileges to protect people in a world grown more threatening by technological advance, Malthusian growth, and environmental neglect.
Against this background, Pinkerton detective William Geld (Tim Robbins) is investigating fraudulent papelles that have been issued through Sphinx in Shanghai. He determines the perpetrator to be a Sphinx employee, Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton), but he doesn’t turn her in because they have fallen in love. Geld has a wife and son at home in Seattle, but the greater sin of his liaison with Gonzalez turns out to be a Code 46 violation. Ironically, it is the very attraction of "likes" that makes their love verboten.
Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (The Claim, Hillary and Jackie) has created a futuristic world which Winterbottom has translated into potently effective visual imagery. Visually, Code 46 ranks up there with the likes of the classic Blade Runner, more subtle, perhaps, but no less effective (and on a fraction of the budget). A variety of details (English language which has absorbed words from Spanish and Arabic; injected viruses which can enhance anything from the learning of a foreign language to empathic response; the ability to selectively wipe out memories) at once exemplify the ways things change and fill out this imaginative conception of what tomorrow may be like.
The deliberate, if unstated, allusion to the Oedipus story makes sense here, with one pronounced differentiating element. Oedipus’ tragedy grew out of his personal hubris, his pride before the gods. Code 46 does not attempt to make Geld a tragic hero; the hubris is that of a society worshipping technology, perhaps assuming the prerogatives of the gods. The film, then, might not unfairly be interpreted as a reactionary response to scientific advance, the sort of thinking that restricts stem cell research, for example. Or, more likely, it is intended as a cautionary lesson in the risks of advancing technology and the need to anticipate its complications.
The weakness of the film is one that has plagued this team before. As in The Claim (and in Winterbottom’s In This World), for all the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the script, the principal roles fall short of fully fleshed out characterizations. They are there to carry the story and the themes, but they aren’t developed in sufficient depth to elicit much in the way of audience identification or sympathy.
Still, with a creatively imagined world and themes of genuine significance, Code 46 easily sustains interest, despite the shortcomings of the characterizations.