Code 46 Review

The near future. If you can get “cover”, you work inside huge cities and live a life of privilege. If you can’t, you scratch out an existence in the desert “outside”. Movement is controlled by visas called “papeles”. William Geld (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shanghai to investigate a trade in counterfeit papeles which seem to originate from a large company called The Sphinx Corporation. There, he meets Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) and they fall in love.

Code 46 depicts a world where cloning and tailored viruses have made considerable changes to society. You can catch a virus that will enable you to speak Mandarin Chinese, for example. William uses an empathy virus when questioning people. As for cloning, it has brought about Code 46 itself, which forbids breeding between people with a more than 25% identical genotype. All these are common concepts in written science fiction, less so on screen. It’s said that cinematic SF tends to lag about two decades behind the literary kind, so it’s nice to see a film that trusts its audience to take on board some complex ideas. It also invites us to build up a picture of this future society through dialogue references and inference, always a more effective method of exposition. Although the film is in English, note the use of foreign words as slang terms – “papeles” for starters – and the racial mix of characters. Further points to Winterbottom and his two DPs (Alwyn Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind) for trying to find something a bit different to the usual Hollywood CGI-infested view of the future, in their use of real-life locations in Shanghai, Dubai and India.

However, Code 46 is ultimately an ambitious failure. It has enough good things in it that I wished I liked it more. Much has been said of Michael Winterbottom’s prolific directorial output: eleven features since his big-screen debut in 1995, Butterfly Kiss. Though all of these films are interesting, not all of them are successful. (Of those released in the UK so far, I’ve seen all except The Claim, and I’d rate his best two as Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People.) His least successful films tend to be somewhat cold and emotionally remote and that’s what lets Code 46 down. While Robbins and Morton both give good performances in isolation, the chemistry between them never rises above room temperature. For what is, underneath its SF trappings, a love story, that’s a serious problem. Winterbottom’s ideas of pacing and story development have always been more European-influenced than American, and some people will find this story (written by Frank Cottrell Boyce) rather thin and slowly developed and relying too heavily on a portentous voiceover from Morton. But there are certainly many good reasons to see it. One might be the sight of Mick Jones of The Clash's rendition of “Should I Say of Should I Go” in a karaoke bar.

MGM’s DVD (encoded for Region 1 only) is transferred in the intended 2.35:1 ratio. In the featurette enclosed on the disc, it’s explained that Code 46 was shot on 35mm stock in a special process which exposed a frame area three perforations high instead of the usual four, which gives similar results to Super 35. (This is the Univision process devised by Vittorio Storaro, though there’s no mention of that.) Winterbottom was going for a clean, modern look (steel-greys predominating), and also enable him to shoot long takes with the actors – the three-perf process giving him 25% more shooting time on a standard reel of film. If anything the transfer is a little soft, and some very hazy shots of the Shanghai skyline at the beginning of Chapter 2 inevitably show some artefacting, but it’s generally quite acceptable.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, a mix that is certainly professionally done without being outstanding. The surrounds tend to be given over to the score from The Free Association with some directional effects.

There are twenty chapter stops. Subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.

As for the extras, the disc begins with a general-audiences trailer for Angel of Death and a restricted-audiences one for Confessions of an American Girl. Forced trailers such as these are certainly unwelcome, but at least you can skip past them. The disc also has a sneak peek at Species III and trailers for Species III, the RoboCop trilogy, the first seasons of Dead Like Me and Jeremiah, and for the Collector’s Edition of Raging Bull.

More relevant to Code 46 is a featurette, “Obtaining Cover: Inside Code 46”. This is standard EPK stuff for the most part, combining interviews with principal cast and crew members. It does go into a little more depth than usual on technical issues (such as the use of a three-perf format, referred to above). Robbins, no doubt under contract not to criticise the movie, is impeccably diplomatic when he says how impossible it is to predict whether any chemistry will exist between an actor and an actress. The featurette runs 16:51 and is non-anamorphic in a ratio of 16:9, with the film clips letterboxed to 2.35:1. There are four quite short deleted scenes – “Tempting Fate” (1:11, actually an extended version of a scene still in the film), “The Lift” (0:26), “Cover” (0:24), “Hurt” (0:46) – and the theatrical trailer (2:09). All of these are non-anamorphic, the trailer in 1.85:1 and the deleted scenes in 2.35:1. The trailer emphasises the thriller and mystery elements of the story rather than the love story. It, and the featurette, contain spoilers, so should be watched after the feature.

Code 46 is an interesting film that earns points for avoiding the usual Hollywood SF film conventions in favour of a different look and a feel more akin to written SF. Its approach is more of the arthouse than the multiplex and many will find it remote and cold. Ultimately, it’s a brave attempt that in the end doesn’t come off. MGM’s DVD contains some decent extras. The same extras (apart from the MGM trailers) seem to be included on the forthcoming British Region 2 edition, so the deciding factors for buyers
are likely to be NTSC/PAL issues and price.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:32:49

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