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May 12, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Code 46 has the detailed, precisely realized look of a labor of love, but it also has the myopia that so often accompanies obsession. It’s a fine group of trees that never quite comes together to make a forest. The film is set in the near future, when the world’s urban areas are strictly guarded and no one is permitted admittance without the proper papeles (we’ll come back to that). Outside the locked gates of this closely monitored society, people live nomadic, subsistence-level lives. Inside are beautiful, sleek, modern cities whose inhabitants are nocturnal, afraid to go out during daylight hours because they believe sunlight is too harsh to endure. The society is tightly controlled, but the individual is always a chink in the smooth wall of authoritarianism: People can be manipulated, and they can be bribed.

As the story begins, William (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shanghai by his employer to solve a mystery — someone at a huge, powerful corporation called The Sphinx has been using their equipment to falsify papeles allowing their buyers to travel to places they would otherwise be forbidden to visit. We also get a voice-over from Maria (Samantha Morton) describing a prophetic recurring dream. These elements come together to bring us a romance between William and Maria, who apparently fall in love at first sight, with Maria at least believing it to be preordained. Naturally, they’re star-crossed lovers, and the laws of their world soon intervene to forbid their relationship. The rest of the film is a suspenser about whether they will be able to evade society’s rules and fulfill their romantic destiny.

The major problem here is that the leads have no romantic chemistry. If we’re to believe that these two people are meant to be together, oughtn’t there be some real heat when they are? Robbins and Morton have both given fine performances in other films, but they share an understated style that may require a more outsized performance from another actor to animate them. Here they both seem deadened to experience (Another inevitable outcome of a dehumanized society? If so, the movies in their world must be painfully tedious.), and even when they’re meant to be in ecstasy it looks more like they’re getting a moderately good foot rub. We know little about William and Maria outside this relationship, so their love has to carry the weight of humanizing them and making them real to us, but we can’t see their passion and therefore don’t connect to them and feel why it’s so important they be together. Ultimately, we have nothing at stake. The affectless performances also contribute to the film’s almost total lack of humor. Even the few lines that were apparently written to be funny are delivered in such a deadpan that they fall flat.

Code 46 keeps the viewer unmoored in time and space by showing exteriors only in unfamiliar parts of the world that create the proper texture of futuristic glossiness or third-world squalor. It was filmed on location in Shanghai, Hong Kong, India, and the United Arab Emirates, and it makes great use of these locations to deliver futuristic scenery without a big budget. Shanghai (or what we’re told is Shanghai; I assume there are some bits of Hong Kong incorporated here) at night looks like a Manhattan made up entirely of Times Squares. When the protagonist briefly returns to his home in Seattle, we’re shown no exteriors, so that a familiar skyline will not interfere with our conception of this world.

The film’s most plausible conceit is the polyglot dialect spoken by the characters, made up mostly of English (so that it’s almost always intelligible), but incorporating bits of French, Spanish (thus the papeles), and perhaps a dozen other languages. In an increasingly global economy, it makes perfect sense that we would wind up speaking this way, and the actors mostly incorporate foreign words and phrases without discernable discomfort. The film’s language also has some fun at the expense of institutional doublespeak by incorporating some cleverly vague euphemisms — when Maria is sent to a clinic, it’s because of a “body issue” and she’s on a “happiness break” from her job.

Code 46 is the sixth collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, and the style and point of view of the film certainly suggest that the two felt they had a point to make here. Any story that takes place in a dystopian future would appear to be a caution against elements at play in current society, but it’s never clear exactly what Winterbottom and Boyce are warning against. Is it genetic engineering and the conception of children in laboratories rather than wombs? Is it the lack of freedom to act as an individual? Is it the pollution of our environment? It seems to be all these things and none of them, because the film lacks the focus to clearly delineate the dangers of any. Code 46 is a Serious, Important film that is so caught up in its style and tone that it forgets to make its point.

Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


Film | May 12, 2006 |

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