With a new Blade Runner film on the way later this year, it seems an appropriate time to revisit a certain overlooked 2003 film that is as close to a prequel to Ridley Scott's seminal clone-noir as there ever was. Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 made only tiny ripples on the festival circuit before it faded into obscurity, mere minutes upon commercial release.
It's chilly central romance, and slippery, edge-of-tomorrow social concerns, failed to ignite the passion of either the genre crowd or the art-house set. There are, however, a small number of us who straddle that space in between, and continue to sing the film's myriad praises. These include exemplary future-building out of existing locations and architecture around the world, intimate (yet curiously mannered) dialogue, unconventional cinematography (from wide-screen spiral leitmotifs to nearly fourth-wall breaking centralization of the actors faces), as well as the politics of globalization, empathy, culture and sex.
The film, ultimately, is a garden variety forbidden love story. Explicitly, it is a retelling of the Oedipus myth as a hyper-contemporary mind fuck. But it is so wrapped up in moody layers of ideas, dreams, ethics, and morality that it burrows right into the whole human experience. It attempts to answer why life is worth a damn even when things are so spectacularly broken and pointless. Tears in rain. Itches you cannot scratch. C-Beams and all that.
William Geld (whose surname is indeed a loaded one) is a corporate investigator charged with uncovering a spate of document fraud in the Sphinx Corporation. This global company polices both genetics and travel, two aspects of society that now seamlessly co-exist under the umbrella of 'insurance.' Ubiquitous cloning, organ replacement, and in vitro fertilization have opened up the possibility of incestuous relationships occurring accidentally between strangers. A couple might share so much genetic material that any conceived offspring would be considered immoral and dangerous to the continuation of the species.
Unfathomable computer algorithms dictate how The Sphinx issues its 'papelles,' the documents that are both passport and health insurance that allow individuals to travel from city to city. Extreme heat, presumably caused by climate change, have reduced much of the rest of the world to poverty and deserts. Meanwhile, the cities control all the wealth, and rule a diversely intermingled society of humanity that is slowly progressing towards a mono-culture and a single language.
Geld travels from Seattle to Shanghai, and there in the course of the investigation of myriad Sphinx employees, he meets Maria while administering Code 46's equivalent of the Voight-Kampff Test. Geld is using an empathy virus that allows for an extreme intuition. He can guess computer passwords (palabra) of employees by only exchanging a sentence or two with them. This form of synthetic empathy is implied to be both volatile and abstract. Geld comes to the conclusion very quickly that Maria is guilty, he also falls for her enough that he does not expose her crimes, but rather flirts with her in similar Philip K. Dick rhythms as Deckard and Rachel.
"Tell me what you are doing later tonite."
"Is that a question or an invitation?"
"It's a prompt."
(Contrast: "Is this testing whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?”)
This leads to a walk through the congested markets and noodle-houses of Shanghai, and a conversation that is both a reciprocal seduction and an admission of guilt. Geld mentions he has a wife and a kid back in Seattle, Maria walks him though the details of her counterfeit document scheme. Like the film, this conversation is intimate, political and a little bit alien, at least as far as your usual love story goes. An exchange that resonates particularly well with me, is when Geld shows Maria a picture of his son.
"I bet he is very special."
"He is special."
"If everyone's children are so special, it makes you wonder where all the ordinary grown-ups come from."
Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, who play the leads, do not have any kind of conventional silver-screen chemistry. This is intrinsic to the tone of the film - as significant is it was for the couples in other grim dystopias such as Winston and Julia's forbidden congress in Nineteen Eighty-Four - but it also assuredly sank the film at the box-office as a crowd pleaser. Personally, I could float along the rhythm the actors manage to sustain across Code 46, even when gloriously mangling an atonal duet of Bob Marley's "Woman Don't Cry."
Geld and Maria share a kind of a mutually estranged fate, an implied higher-connection of the type that only manifests in a society founded on acute control at the top and clutter and chaos at the bottom. They converse, as does everyone in the film for that matter, by mixing languages unconsciously and effortlessly. French, Mandarin, Spanish and Farsi liberally pepper the global use of English.
Not just in the parlance, but also in the casting of the secondary characters. This consists of one of India's great film stars, Om Puri (who recently passed at the beginning of this year), but also Australia's Essie Davis, Japan's Togo Igawa, and Benedict Wong, a regular in Michael Winterbottom's (and for that matter, Ridley Scott's) films who was born in England to Hong Kong immigrants. In Code 46, as today, there is a diaspora of people living outside their homelands, some existing as cogs in the global machine. Humanity is implied here mainly because these are all great actors, but, intentionally or not, it is difficult to envision their characters outside of the frame of Frank Cottrell Boyce's subtle screenplay.
Maria narrates the film from a position in the future, but when they meet, William is connected to her unusual dreams of travelling through metro stations. Their initial date is, in fact, the last stop of an annual decrease in the number of stations towards her destination. Fate, or the illusion we graft onto such things? The way the couples' conversations are filmed alternates from shot reverse-shot boardroom back-drops, to busy open urban space, to look-straight-in-the-eyes close-up. (In fact, German cinematographer Alwin Küchler often employs that opening shot of Blade Runner, of just a single eye filling the entire cinemascope frame.) I also expect Spike Jonze and Hoyte van Hoytema were taking notes when strategizing how to film Her.
The film itself hops locations between a densified, vertical, Seattle (which is actually London), Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai. These locations are not in any sort of typical blockbuster set-piece utility, but rather the film does this to articulate wealth, poverty and the psychology of architectural spaces. It also implies the vast physical and social distances between meaningful connection. Maria wistfully inquires at one point, "Does you empathy virus work across long distances?"
Geld gives a street vendor at a Shanghai border crossing unauthorized papelles. He does this on impulse, as much out of guilt as from a moment of connection or mutual understanding. Geld's professional empathy-virus method is, "tell me something about yourself," but his personal one, is "Lo Siento," the feelings.
The result of William and Maria's sexual relationship results in a 'Code 46' violation. It turns out that Maria is in fact a clone of his mother, one of many. This is the unholy future-incarnation of Oedipus Rex, where The Sphinx Corporation knows best, and the relationship is strictly verböten. By the order and actions of the state, the baby is terminated, and Maria's memories of the incident are selectively erased at the same hospital. It is noteworthy that Code 46 came on the heels of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but at the vanguard of Lost In Translation. At times it feels like one, at other times, assuredly like the other. Samantha Morton had also just starred in both Minority Report and Morvern Callar, both in the year prior. Something was clearly in the air at the time.
Forces beyond international law and corporate insurance algorithms keep Geld coming back to Maria, while the more mundane obligations of life exert a gravitational force yanking him away. At one point, in a rouge-lit karaoke bar, Mick Jones is seen on a stool singing "Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?" The moment that is both brutally on the nose, and also pretty fucking swell. William returns to his family and job in Seattle, but it is sterile and distracting to his current state of mind.
Maria and Geld meet again in the Free-Zone city of Jebel Ali, one of the many 'free' places that exist outside the dystopian world order. Maria's body has now been programmed by the state to 'reject' emotional or sexual advances from William.
"I am not scared of you."
"I know, but your body is."
The resulting 'not-quite-BDSM' sex in a tiny bed in a small Middle East hotel is as invigourating as it is shocking. We are all prisoners of our genes, in as much as the Replicants of the Tyrell Corporations were given four year life spans, our finite existence is a collection of random chance and impulse that can so easily be confused with cosmic order.
Code 46 has a down-beat ending fitting with the type of movie it is, perhaps more so than even Blade Runner's (depending on the version) suggestion of Deckard's non-humanity. It sees corporate control schemes and the unfairness of the universe collide in a way that is both uncomfortable and poetic. Geld's boss at one point lectures him, "We all have problems. How we deal with them is a measure of our worth." Biology seriously fucking disagrees with this notion, but these impulses obfuscated with belief, culture, personal aspirations, and our own confusion of purpose. In other words, "It's too bad she won't live (with you), but then again, who does?"