Films about the near-future have been given a bad name by the blanket literary term of ‘science fiction.’ But, as the prolific Michael Winterbottom’s latest engrossing story shows, the future will not be full of flying cars, aliens and rebellious robots. It will probably be one where only the science useful to those in power is developed to its full potential. That means genetic records on every citizen of the world and the impossibility of hiding your identity. Meanwhile, the money and knowledge gap between rich and poor gets wider and all world cities are blandly identical. Yet, happily, people will still fall stupidly in love regardless of the difficulties or the consequences.
Code 46 is the section of the law that requires all prospective parents to pass a test of being less than 25% genetically related. Human cloning has long become a part of modern life, but so has a shrunken gene pool, so the code is there to prevent both disease and oedipal dilemmas. Especially in this central premise, the science of the film is noticeably vague but we can give Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce the benefit of the doubt. After all, the film is about a very human set of passions and mistakes set against the iron laws of science-based rule. Insurance fraud investigator William (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shanghai to root out the source of illegal ‘papelles’ – electronic tags allowing uninsured individuals to go wherever they wish. If you have dodgy genetics or won’t live a life of low risk, you can’t get insurance. No insurance means no travel in this super-globalised world and being condemned to live outside the city limits in baking shanties. Maria (Samantha Morton) is the source of these tickets. William knows this instantly, but realises she is his also own ticket away from his sanitised marriage and the prison of a job where he controls behaviour, including his own.
The story rarely deviates from the torture of the two doomed lovers. Morton is as usual near-perfect, totally living the role. What might otherwise be a simple undistinguished story benefits massively from imaginative and very beautiful cinematography by Alwin Kuchler (‘Lynne Ramsay’s DP of choice) and Marcel Zyskind. Kuchler especially is a master of soft-focus close-ups attracting us to the slightest feature in an actor. It is rare to see cinematography used so explicitly to convey emotion, and a thrill to see it done well. Winterbottom has proven himself in the past to be willing to experiment with visual story-telling and again, demonstrates why our film industry should be delighted to be the base for a director who reinvents himself with every film.
Even so, there are fascinating comparisons with Golden Bear-winner ‘In This World.’ Maria has been the disenfranchised refugee and tells of the contempt with which the elite treat those who suffer in a globalised society. Papers and red tape govern all movements and the likes of William’s family are ignorant of those condemned to arid inhospitable landscapes. The world of ‘Code 46’ is a hyper-modern one, but one as dirty and difficult as our own. It is a strange, absorbing film, immaculately acted and gorgeously realised by a director with a rare mix of fantastic imagery and social conscience.