Code 46

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Stars: Tim Robbins (William Geld), Samantha Morton (Maria), Jeanne Balibar Backland (Sylvie Geld), Essie Davis (Om Puri Doctor), Shelley King (William’s boss), David Fahm (Damian Alekan), Togo Igawa (Driver)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2003
Country: U.S. / U.K.
Code 46 Blu-ray
Code 46Michael Winterbottom is one of the most uneven of directors, regularly following up his best films with tossed off oddities that feel like little more than paycheck-cashing opportunities to sustain him while working on films he really cares about. Such is the case with Code 46, a visually striking, but emotionally flat mash-up of romantic drama, film noir, and science fiction that sounds much more interesting than it turns out to be. The film was released just a few months after Winterbottom won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for In This World (2003), a powerful depiction of the plight of Afghan refugees, and the difference between the two films couldn’t be any more stark.

Written by the prolific TV and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, who had previously written five of Winterbottom’s films (1990’s Forget About Me, 1995’s Butterfly Kiss, 1997’s Welcome to Sarajevo, 2000’s The Claim, and 2002’s 24 Hour Party People), Code 46 is set in a highly regulated near future in which the wealthy live “inside” large cities while the poor are isolated “outside” in the vast, empty stretches between (one character says that there is no “living” on the outside, just “existing”). Travel between inside and outside is strictly controlled by a vast, seemingly worldwide bureaucracy and its set of codes, as is human reproduction. The titular Code 46 refers to the regulation of who can and cannot have children together based on their genetics; basically, there can be no “genetically incestuous reproduction,” so you are not allowed to procreate with anyone with a genetic code that is 25% or more the same as yours. Doing to so accidentally results in immediate forced termination of the pregnancy. Doing so purposefully is considered a criminal act.

Tim Robbins stars as William Geld, an insurance fraud investigator who is sent to Shanghai by his boss (Shelley King) to investigate the forgery of “papelles,” or travel papers that provide “cover” for travellers, at a large company known as Sphinx. (Everyone in the film speaks in a language that is primarily English, but also mixes in words from Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and other languages, which makes the dialogue, especially early on, quite confusing.) William has been given an “empathy virus” that gives him enhanced perception; if someone tells him just one thing about him- or herself, he is able to read into their minds. Thus, it doesn’t take him long to determine who the forgery culprit is: a young woman named Maria (Samantha Morton), who committed the crime to help out a friend who wants to travel to Delhi to study rare bats, but has been denied the travel papers for years.

Rather than turn her in, William fingers another man and then spends that evening with Maria, ostensibly falling in love with her, although Robbins’s performance is so opaque that we can’t get any sense of what he’s feeling or thinking at any given moment. He is married with a young son, but he seems to feel nothing toward his family as he becomes involved with Maria, who has a somewhat flighty, mysterious quality that explains some of the attraction, but hardly all of it. That is just the beginning of the plot, though, as things take a turn for the worst when Maria’s friend dies in Delhi and a second investigation is launched, sending William back to Shanghai and Maria, who has been detained by the authorities and has had part of her memory erased. By the end of the film, they have transformed into romantic rebels on the run from the authorities, trying to disappear in the Middle Eastern city of Jebel Ali.

The film’s underlying sensibility is similar to George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971), whose protagonist rebelled against his dystopian future society’s suppression of emotion. The idea is that William and Maria’s love for each is a thing of purity that cannot be restrained by their society’s rigid codes of conduct, but the problem is that Robbins and Morton have no on-screen chemistry, and the nature of their relationship is so rushed that we get no sense of their emotional connection. Winterbottom goes through the motions of showing them drawing closer together, particularly in a scene at her apartment where she shows him her “memory book,” but the overall flatness of the film’s affect renders it cold, sterile, and largely unengaging. It’s hard to root for the romantic rebels when we don’t feel like they’re really in love in the first place, something that Winterbottom attempts to counterbalance with two passionate scenes of lovemaking, but it is all to little avail. The film looks good, even if its budget-friendly utilization of existing architecture and cars is an only partially convincing stand-in for a future decades from now. That’s just window-dressing, though. The real problem is that Code 46 should have a heart beating beneath its slick exterior, and there is almost none to be found.

Code 46 Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD 2.0 stereo
DistributorOlive Films
Release DateFebruary 16, 2016

The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Code 46 looks solid throughout, which makes it a worthy replacement for MGM’s 2004 DVD. While the film didn’t have much of an emotional core, the cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler (Steve Jobs) and regular Winterbottom collaborator Marcel Zyskind (A Mighty Heart, The Killer Inside Me) is excellent, and the transfer does it justice. The night scenes have good, inky black levels and nice shadow detail and contrast, while the brighter scenes inside the buildings have an appropriately sterile, bluish hue. Scenes in the “outside” are bright and high-contrast, while the scenes in Jebel Ali have a relatively naturalistic feel. Skin tones look natural and detail is good throughout. The stereo soundtrack is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio mix that works very well for the pulsing, ambient electronic score by Irish DJ/producer David Holmes and programmer Stephen Hilton (collaborating as The Free Association). I found some of the dialogue a bit difficult to hear and understand clearly, but that may be an inherent part of the sound mix and the confusing manner in which some of the characters speak.

The only supplement on the Blu-ray is a theatrical trailer. MGM’s old DVD included a 17-minute making-of featurette, but that is not included here.

Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Olive Films / 20th Century Fox / MGM

Overall Rating: (2)

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