“If we had enough information, we could predict the consequences of our actions. Would you want to know? If you kissed that girl, if you talked to that man, if you take that job, or marry that woman, or steal that papelle? If we knew what would happen in the end, would we ever be able to take the first step, to make the first move?”
– Code 46 (2003)
If you subtract the futuristic and dystopian details from Michael Winterbottom’s spell-binding Code 46 (2003), what emerges is a relatively simple and straight-forward tale of doomed, irrational love.
In other words, this sci-fi movie concerns an adage from an old Woody Allen film: the heart wants what the heart wants. Even if what the heart desires isn’t really wise, legal, or necessarily right.
Once you layer on the film’s impressive futuristic details however, Code 46 emerges as something of tremendous import and note. It’s a frightening and deeply saddening glimpse of technology run amok and genetic control ruthlessly imposed by a seemingly-invisible but all-powerful State. There are echoes and resonances of Gattaca (1997) here, but Code 46’s focus is not on personal achievement and widespread genetic “racism,” but rather on a single star-crossed couple who — inexorably and unintentionally — flout the prevailing laws. They feel they have no choice. They are in the grip of a force not of their conscious choosing.
Coupled with a mesmerizing, trance-like score and an informal cinema verite shooting-style, Code 46 masterfully conveys a real sense of place and time; even though the film’s futuristic venue doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s a staggering achievement on Winterbottom’s part, and Code 46 thrives not as an action film or even as a thriller, but as an unforgettable mood piece. Even if precise details of the plot are occasionally opaque or baffling, images and feelings from the film nonetheless linger and echo long after a viewing.
After experiencing Code 46, you will authentically feel as if you’ve spent ninety-five minutes in another world.
Or, as film critic Paul Byrnes insightfully reported in his review of the film: “It’s a bleak future, but not a bleak film. Winterbottom has an uncanny ability to create beautiful, hypnotic sequences, using contemporary music. His films have a seductive modernism, but without losing focus on character and idea. Other directors raised on MTV use music to paper the cracks; Winterbottom uses it to get inside the cracks.”
Does an empathy virus work long distance?
In the intriguing world of Code 46, genetics are rigorously policed, perhaps as a result of widespread infertility or sterility in the recent past.
As the film’s opening card relates: “due to IV, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques, it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction.”
If genetically incestuous reproduction does occur, it is termed a Code 46 violation. If genetically incestuous reproduction occurs intentionally, it is a criminal violation of Code 46, and duly punished.
The future imagined by Code 46 is also one of huge class differences. Cities are over-populated (except in the “unhealthy” heat of broad daylight), highly affluent, and termed “Inside.” Beyond the borders of the colossal cities — “Outside” — denizens live in abject poverty, environmental desolation and technological primitivism. Because of the draconian genetic regulations, freedom of travel is a luxury of the past.
To make passage from one from city to another, from Inside to Outside and vice-versa, travelers must carry genetic passport termed “cover,” or “papelles.” These electronic “papers” — genetic driver’s licenses, essentially — must be presented before all ingress and egress. “Cover” is also severely time-limited. If your cover i.d. expires while you are still in a foreign land, you have no way to get home.
As Code 46 commences, a fraud investigator, William Geld (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shanghai to investigate a problem inside the massive Sphinx Insurance Company.
Someone inside the company is falsifying cover papelles for undesirable genetic elements, thus permitting them to travel freely in restricted zones. In order to help him ferret out the saboteur, Geld has been injected by his employers with an “empathy virus” that allows him to intuit the traits of those people he interviews, provided they freely share with him one detail of their lives.
After a series of one-on-one interviews, Geld determines that Maria (Samantha Morton) is the source of the falsified or forged papers. However, instead of arresting her, the married Geld makes a leap. He pursues a romantic and sexual relationship with Maria. The next day, while still “covered,” he leaves Shanghai.
Back home in Seattle with his wife and young son, Geld still seems obsessed with Maria. When he is summoned back to Shanghai on a new development in his investigation (the death of a man with falsified papers…), he attempts to find Maria again. William discovers that she has been taken to a state clinic for a Code 46 violation. Specifically, she was pregnant with Geld’s child. Now, the pregnancy has been “terminated” by the State. Also, Maria’s memories of the sex act and her lover have been surgically-removed.
Although he knows he is courting danger, Geld remains in Shanghai as his cover papelle expires, and shares with Maria memories of their lost relationship. Geld also goes to a DNA expert and learns that he and Maria indeed share genetic history. Specifically, Maria is fifty-percent genetically related to him, a “biological clone” of his own mother, who was one of a “set of 24 in-vitro fertilized clones.” Legally, they can not “liaise“
Despite his knowledge of this fact, Geld still pursues a romantic relationship. On forged cover, Maria and Geld flee to the “Outside” and to Jebel Ali, in Dubai. There, Geld learns that Maria has been implanted with a virus that reacts negatively to his…sexual presence. Still in love with him, Maria demands William strap her to the bed and make love to her. He complies.
But afterwards, still possessed of the virus, Maria reports to local authorities a Code 46 violation. The couple attempts to outrun the State in a hastily-purchased car…
You know what they say, “the Sphinx knows best.”
In some ways — and as has been duly noted in other reviews — Code 46 plays like a high-tech variation and meditation on Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex (429 BC).
In both tales a man unknowingly falls in love with his own mother (or a genetic duplicate of his own mother, at least), and personal disaster and destruction ensue. The Oedipus Complex is known in psychological circles as a male child’s unconscious desire for the (sexual) love of his mother, of course, and Sophocles’ famous work also gazes explicitly at the conundrum of fate versus free will. In pursuing his free will, Oedipus meets his unpleasant destiny.
This idea is resurrected, updated and tweaked in Code 46. William Geld is involved in an unacceptable form of love by legal, societal standards (as was the case with the King of Thebes), but in his case, the laws of the state actually seem to compel this behavior, at least to a certain extent. Society as depicted in the film creates the very technological conditions in which William can encounter a genetic duplicate, essentially, of his mother. And then society punishes him for his “illegal” response to Maria. Yet, importantly, Geld is in no position to deny his Oedipal feelings, his destiny, either. The “empathy virus” he has been injected with only augments his feelings for others, thereby assuring that he will step outside of bounds of legality with Maria.
As for Maria, she describes early in the film a dream she experiences every year on her birthday. In that dream, she gets closer and closer to finding her “destiny.” She first meets William Geld on her birthday, and when she experiences the prophetic dream again, she sees him waiting for her. He is her destiny. Since she believes this, and William is “empathetic” (thanks to the virus), he cannot help but believe it as well. He is a sense, under her romantic influence.
And Maria? She is a biological clone of William’s mother. Does this mean that her subconscious vision of William as her destiny actually symbolizes her genetic desire for an offspring, a child? The movie never suggests that explicitly, but it certainly seems a possibility. Maria receives one signal, but misinterprets her destiny. William is not supposed to be her lover, perhaps, but her child. A biological clone of another being, her circuits seem crossed.
Even the so-called “riddle of the Sphinx” is adapted Code 46. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus must solve the riddle of the Sphinx, a query which has perpetually vexed travelers outside Thebes. In Code 46, the mysterious Sphinx — the monolithic insurance company — permits and denies travelers ingress and egress for reasons all its own. The corporation’s decision-making process remains completely hidden from the actual travelers. As viewers, we don’t discern the Sphinx’s higher purpose, except control.
In both Oedipus and Code 46, the man who has broken the law — William or the King — must pay for their crimes. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and becomes a wandering wretch in the work of Sophocles. In Code 46, William Geld has his memories of Maria expunged from his mind and lives up to his name, “Geld.” To Geld is to castrate, and here William Geld is emotionally castrated; denied the knowledge of what he once felt (rightly or wrongly) was his destiny.
In substituting a company (Sphinx) for an instrument of the divine (the Sphinx of Greek mythology), Code 46 suggests that in a high-tech future both fate and free will shall be supplanted by the iron will of the State. And again, there’s a kind of hypocrisy embedded in the State’s will. The very world that it creates ultimately is responsible for encouraging and discouraging William and Maria’s love. The State is a fickle deity. The couple would never have met without the genetic laws, never have fallen for each other without the “empathy virus” and then never have been torn asunder without the widespread prosecution of Code 46 violations. Maria and William are thus screwed six ways to Sunday, if you’ll pardon my French. Their love and loss is unimportant to the Order of Things as legislated.
William survives the affair well enough, after a fashion. But for Maria, it’s quite a different story. The end of the film features a canny montage of cross-cuts to suggest this.
In one set of images, we see William returning home to his well-dressed, perfectly-coiffed wife in Seattle. He is greeted by his gorgeous spouse and young son, and then returned to his affluent home. These images are inter-cut with visions of Maria alone, in Dubai, wandering in solitude and poverty. Her final words, uttered in voice-over — “I miss you” — are ones that William will never hear. In fact, he has no awareness or memory of Maria at all. Their love affair is erased, deleted except in her solitary memory.
And lastly, there’s one final connection to Oedipus here. In Sophocles’ work, Oedipus realized what he had done, and took steps to punish himself. He rendered himself blind, and then made himself an outcast. In Code 46 — after a second instance of illegal sexual intercourse with Maria — William knowingly permits his lover to notify the authorities. He watches her make the telephone call, and does nothing to prevent her or stop her.
This is by far a more passive response than Oedipus’s, but it is William’s tacit acknowledgment that he has committed a wrong, and that it must be corrected. Yet — in some cowardly way — the burden of pain falls not on William (as it did on Oedipus) but on Maria instead. William blithely returns to his happy life, never knowing what he has lost while Maria forever bears the scars of their brief but passionate relationship.
In this fashion, I submit, Code 46 also concerns a globalized society in which the rich make the rules and benefit from those rules, while the poor get shafted. William had an illicit dalliance, but was welcomed back into the loving embrace of his wife (and we see them make love after his return). He carries not even the burden of a guilty conscience for his illegal behavior. In this world, love apparently means you don’t have to remember to say you’re sorry.
Instead, Maria takes it on the chin, alone. Outside, and grief-stricken. She wonders, mournfully abut the man she has lost, harking back to her own memory loss. “Can you miss someone you don’t remember? Can one moment or experience ever disappear completely, or does it always exist somewhere, waiting to be discovered?”
We all have problems, William. How we deal with them is a measure of our worth.
As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Code 46 is an eminently powerful mood piece, and all the details add up to a believable future world as backdrop to the haunting, conflicted love story.
In this case, one of those backdrop details involves the “globalized” society I just noted. Although the world-spanning State (a one world government?) regulates genetics, it has apparently also paved the way for the assimilation of all known languages and cultures, and therefore also the destruction of small, local, individual worlds (at least on the “Inside.”) Specifically, all the characters in the film speak a hodgepodge of English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Farsi. There are no borders anymore, as the State (apparently a Corporate State) has smashed all of them.
To support the idea of this rampant “globalization” and wanton intermingling of cultures, Winterbottom even intermingles our very sense of geography in the film. Outside metropolitan Shanghai, for instance, is a vast, empty desert. And Seattle looks roughly the same as Hong Kong, or any other over-populated urban center.
And in every city, gigantic interior structures seem to wind around on themselves, technological behemoths with no end and no beginning. The idea here is that technological and business “globalization” has dwarfed individuality the world around. By shooting in real life locations all over the world and mixing and matching locales freely, Winterbottom presents a vision of global sameness on an inhuman (and inhumane) scale.
What’s so beautiful about Code 46’s presentation, however, is that Winterbottom does not approach this inhuman world with sterility or even, actually, cinematic formality. On the contrary, through informal editing and shooting techniques (jump cuts, blurred focus, point of view perspective shots, and more), he enhances the sense of a real place, of bustling Shanghai at nightfall, for example.
Desson Thomson, writing in The Washington Post rightly observed: “The movie’s atmospherics — the grainy-hazy images, a blighted world, the zoned-out luminosity of Morton’s face — give “Code 46” an impact that transcends the actual story. You may soon forget the specifics of the plot, but you’ll always remember the world it came from.
The spontaneous-seeming, cinema verite camera-work in Code 46 also successfully contrasts the controlling aesthetic of the Sphinx and the State. It’s a top down world of rigorous control in which citizens are constantly under surveillance. But down on the street level — and between two lovers like Maria and William — life can still feel spontaneous, surprising, unpredictable. This couple wander into their pre-ordained genetic meeting with eyes closed; not understanding the pull of destiny, or rather, genetic pre-determination.
The fact of their genetic incompatibility is revealed in visual clues by Winterbottom, right down to the casting of Robbins and Morton. Robbins towers a full meter over the diminutive Morton, a virtual giant beside her, and there’s something unsettling and wrong about them “together,” down to their very physicality. Kurt Loder noted this idea in his review of the film: “But in extrapolating from our contemporary unease about human cloning, and of course the ever-ominous powers of government, “Code 46” presents a future society that’s hauntingly plausible. Robbins and Morton don’t seem to have much in the way of romantic chemistry at first — or do they? In fact, they probably have all the chemistry possible in a world that’s been so drained of cheer and trust and human possibility, and so fundamentally disfigured by scientific technology. They have too much chemistry, it turns out, and it dooms them both in different, dreadful ways.”
That last point is a critical one. In some very deep, thoughtful fashion, Code 46 concerns the way that our feelings seem to dictate our reality; how our emotions become intertwined, irrevocably, with our world view. Maria and William may be courting destiny in their tragic love affair or they may be responding to something deeper: a genetic, Jungian unconscious that must pull them together, regardless of the consequences.
In small, meaningful ways and in occasional grace notes, Code 46 artfully explores the nuances of the human condition, and the way that the human condition forever remains constant, even in the looming shadow of scientific, technological and business “advances.” The heart must have what the heart must have…