Near future. Or is it now?
– How do people live out here?
– It is not living, just existing…
A Future More Nasty, Because It’s So Near
It has long been axiomatic that speculative science-fiction visions of the future must reflect the anxieties of the present: fears of technology gone awry, of repressive political authority and of the erosion of individuality and human freedom. Often these worries are expressed, and to some extent mitigated, by means of extravagant visual fantasies that picture a world of gleaming, high-rise cities, flying cars and soulful robots.
In ”Code 46,” a somber new dystopian romance that opens today nationwide, the prolific and stylistically promiscuous English director Michael Winterbottom forgoes the usual indulgences of special effects and elaborate set design, preferring to glean the contours of the future from an observation of the present. Filming on location in places like Shanghai and Dubai, in the sterile fluorescence of ultramodern airports and hotels and in impoverished outlying regions, he delineates a time of global mobility, extreme inequality and radical loneliness, distilling the fugitive moods of contemporary life into an ambience of muted, abstracted longing.
His cities of the future house relatively privileged populations of transnational workers, who speak a version of English sprinkled with borrowings from French, Spanish, Arabic and other languages. Their movements are controlled by an elaborate system of surveillance based on travel documents called papelles. Beyond the administered urban zones is the outside, a realm called afuera, where freedom of thought and movement coexists with danger and deprivation.
William Geld (Tim Robbins) is an insurance investigator who goes to Shanghai to investigate a factory where counterfeit papelles are being produced. His inquiries cast suspicion on Maria (Samantha Morton), and the two have a brief, intense affair, whose consequences threaten William’s calm, orderly life and also illuminate the disquietingly plausible details of Mr. Winterbottom’s imaginary world.
It is, at times, a confusingly busy place, and you have to concentrate to stitch together a full picture of it from scraps of exposition. Cloning and in vitro fertilization have become so common that the gene pool, like the borders between Shanghai and afuera, is heavily policed. The film’s title comes from a law intended ”to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction.” The system through which potential parents are screened and unauthorized pregnancies terminated is supported by a technology of selective memory erasure, which in turn coexists with a thriving market in therapeutic and recreational biological viruses.
All this information threatens to slow down the story, but Mr. Winterbottom, working from a screenplay by his frequent collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, films it all with a logy elegance reflected in the alternately harsh and dreamy score by the Free Association.
The movie’s atmosphere is, in many ways, more interesting than its story. Mr. Robbins and Ms. Morton are not the warmest actors. He can be mannered and smug, and she often seems to beam her performances from a strange, private mental universe. Her big-eyed, changeling quality, and her ability to speak the language of the future with a flawless accent, makes her the more intriguing presence, but the emotional connection between William and Maria, which the movie’s humanist message depends on, never quite arrives.
The two of them, like other alienated citizens of the future (in ”1984,” for instance, or George Lucas’s ”THX 1138”), are asserting their right to experience passion in a world organized, for their own good, to suppress it. In the end ”Code 46” proposes a stark choice between comfort and freedom, between the managed abundance of Shanghai (and Seattle, where William lives with his wife and son) and the anarchy and danger of afuera. It is also a choice between the luxury of forgetting and the keenness of memory.
Mr. Winterbottom’s films to date cover such a range of subjects and styles — from the bouncy pop energy of ”24 Hour Party People” to the semi-documentary harshness of ”In This World” to the hard-core sex of ”Nine Songs,” which was shown this year in Cannes — that you hesitate to suggest any continuities between them. But ”Code 46,” for all its strenuous inventiveness, seems to elaborate on some of the themes of ”In This World,” which was as immersed in the realities of the present as it is possible for a film to be.
That movie chronicled — and at the same time, reconstructed — the flight of two young Afghan refugees from the Pakistani frontier to the streets of London: a journey from afuera to the modern metropolis that may in time come to be seen as a prophecy of the world to come.
A. O. Scott, NY Times, August 6, 2004