Code 46

Code 46

2004. 92 mins., R, UK
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce

The future megalopolis that is Shanghai in this unusual dystopian love story has the look of numerous sci fi predecessors: six lane highways breach deserted lands between airport and high rises, crowds of commuters fill high tech crowded subways, workers make tiny micro chip-like papelles or genetic IDs in antiseptic labs, and security guards monitor virtually every portal of the city, in part to keep those who get relegated to the “outside” separate from those “inside.”

What constitutes outside and inside is part of the mystery, while the title, Code 46, is not: the opening credits inform us that the law of the land monitors and prevents childbirth between any couple whose consanguinity score is 25% or higher (their genetic cousins, so to speak).

In many ways Code 46 is a not-so-ingenious re-working of “Blade Runner”: instead of replicants (humanoids) implanted with memories of an unlived past, we follow the recurring dream of Maria Gonzalez (played by Samantha Morton), one of the assembly line workers, on a seemingly endless ride on a subway (scenes shot on London’s latest Tube, the occasionally Pirandelaesque Jubilee Line). Instead of a time limit on the replicants’ lifespan we have Code 46 itself, a genetic law prescribing sexual union or offspring between genetically-defined cousins.

Maria has in fact been forging the IDs. When William Geld (played by Tim Robbins), an over-confident investigator of the central government who always gets his suspect, he falls in love with her instead and because of their violation of Code 46, are in double dutch.

Although the megalopolis of the film is set in the Shanghai of an authoritarian future, when Maria and William try to escape, their desert destination is one of the “outsides” of the state, filmed in the megalopian Jebel Ali, a port city southwest of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, boasting the largest port in the Middle East and the largest man-made harbor in the world. It marks one boundary of the Dubai megalopolis as does the nearby Al Maktoum International Airport (formerly called the Dubai World Central International Airport).

In the end it is probably the look of this film that convinces us of the near future of the megalopolis, rather than the occasional polyglot newspeak reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 or even the viruses people ingest to gain knowledge and power: Geld’s “empathy virus” makes him not only a good interrogator but a fine lover.

Further Reading:

Scott, A.O. “A Future More Nasty, Because It’s So Near.” New York Times, 6 August 2004. Praises this “somber dystopian romance … thick with disquieting, not always coherent ideas about the effects of globalization on human intimacy” and compares it to the director’s earlier realistic drama, “In This World,” in which two young Afghani refugees escape Pakistan for London, “a journey from afuera [the outside] to the modern metropolis that may in time come to be seen as a prophecy of the world to come.”

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