25 May 2005

Code 46

Code 46 is not a perfect film, but it is an intelligent one, and the hostility many reviewers expressed toward it is frustrating, because there's too much that's good about the movie for it to be dismissed as a boring Blade Runner imitation. (A better comparison, actually, would be to Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World.) Even a critic as astute as Lucius Shepard -- easily one of the best film critics in the U.S. -- has been so conditioned to see science fiction movies as excuses for gunfights that he doesn't enjoy much of Code 46 ("I found myself yearning for a stray gunshot," he says, "a fistfight in the background, two people bumping into each other, anything to break the monotony, the slow, step-by-step expository grind of the picture").

It's understandable that many viewers would find the pacing of Code 46 slow or Tim Robbins's performance understated. They are. But it seems to me that there are reasons for both, and they grow from the setting of the story and the circumstances of the characters. This may not be to your taste, but there's a difference between something that is good and something that you enjoy. Plenty of people hate Tarkovsky's pacing, for instance, but to deny that he was a great filmmaker would be ridiculously ignorant. Code 46 isn't as layered, profound, enigmatic, or beautiful as Tarkovsky's films, but it's hardly the work of Hollywood hacks, either.

The slow pace of the movie helps to represent the background world -- a world of extreme monitoring and control. It is a world where the religious concept of fate has given way to a kind of faith in (and fear of) biological determinism. Information about everyone is tracked, and in one of the many subtle touches of the film, various moments are seen through the lens of a security camera of one sort or another, although this fact is never shouted out and is indicated only by a slight change in film stock or filter and the addition of a proprietary watermark in the lower right corner of the screen. Tim Robbins's character, William, has, through his job as an insurance investigator, access not only to personal information about anyone he wants, but also video footage of them throughout their lives. This is a world where people are conditioned to be control freaks, and the moments where control lessens or is lost feel noticeably different: moments in a dream, in a dance club, in the streets of a crowded and impoverished neighborhood, and during sex.

Robbins's performance is nuanced, but not energetic. Why should it be? He's not an action hero, just a guy who works for a tyrannical bureaucracy. He's not a hero of any sort, in fact -- he's quite willing to throw away his family so he can hook up with a 25-year-old. And he doesn't even know why, although if he bothered to think about what the geneticists tell him half-way through the movie, he'd realize it: she's nearly a clone of his mother. The inexplicable attraction that so many reviewers criticized is entirely explicable within the logic of the movie: his genes think he's found his mother, and now they push him to get all Oedipal with her. (Whether this is an accurate representation of genetic science is irrelevant; it's clearly a given in the film that genes determine everything.)

Code 46 is a movie for people who love real science fiction, because it does what the best traditional science fiction does: it makes a fantastic world feel realistic through small details that hint at far more than they state. It plays to the reading (or, in this case, viewing) protocols that Samuel Delany has written so much about, the protocols that make core science fiction sometimes indecipherable to the uninitiated. It's a movie where the viewer has to pay attention in every scene, because every scene not only moves the story forward, but adds contours to the social, cultural, and technological landscape in which that story happens.

Even the language is different here -- English is what most people speak, but everyone uses words and expressions from languages throughout the world, a fact first introduced in the credits to the film. I doubt most of it is linguistically likely, but it's certainly an interesting choice to have some important words be in Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. Just to see a science fiction movie pay attention to the ordinary (as opposed to technological) language of the characters is refreshing.

Something else that is refreshing about Code 46 is that it's not a movie about a couple of characters saving the world. This is another reason it doesn't appeal to people who want their movies big and loud -- it's the story of two rather ordinary people in perilous but not extraordinary circumstances.

Samantha Morton's performance is exquisite, and I'm surprised so many reviewers were blind to it, even if they were blind to everything else good in the movie. Her face is remarkably expressive, her physical presence both alluring and odd. Her accent absorbs the linguistic changes with subtle inflections of British, American, French, Spanish (and others I'm probably less sensitive to). She reveals as much through gesture and movement as she does through words.

The only complaint I have about Code 46, other than little nitpicks, is the music, which is occasionally evocative, but more often than not intrusive, particularly in the last scenes, where much of the possible poignancy is utterly ruined by turning it all into a cheap music video. The ending is brave in many ways, but the bravery is destroyed by the filmmakers not trusting the audience's own intelligence and emotions enough -- a horrendous way to end a movie that has given its audience a lot of credit up till then.

Code 46 may not be a deeply profound movie, it may not be a work of genius, but it is a work of intelligence and integrity, and deserves more accolades than it has received, because such films are rare, especially when they are science fiction.

3 comments:

  1. I agree--it's a really interesting film, and Samantha Morton is excellent. And the use of Coldplay over the final scene is a terrible, terrible error. I'm quite fond of the rest of the score music, though.

    -- Niall

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  2. Just watched this last week. I also thought it was unjustly overlooked. It's pacing was very deliberate (not slow) and, for my money, what held the movie together. A movie like this requires a strong visual and editing style, though not a flashy one, and actors who are good enough to both avoid looking like they're acting and still give individualized line readings that fit both the character, setting, and interaction. I was happily suprised with the film. Nice to see it get some praise.

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  3. I don't usually comment and at this point, don't know if anyone will read this, but...

    I googled the net to read the critics re Code 46. Most of them don't seem to see the movie for what it is: a poignant love story.

    Matthew makes many good points...

    Since I saw this movie, I am often haunted by the sadness of the ending. After the powerfull love affair, genetically induced or otherwise, Robbins' character does not remember or even know that she exists, while Morton's character lives on with her memories intact, alone.

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