Code 46 (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

 "Everyone thinks their kids are special. If all kids are special, it makes you wonder where the average adults come from."


The story of Code 46 takes place in an unspecified time in the future when the world is controlled by multinational corporations. There are two worlds: "inside," a nice, sterile, high tech environment which encompasses most of the world's important cities, and "afuera," the impoverished, unregulated world outside the cities. A fraud investigator has been sent from his office in Seattle to a factory in Shanghai to investigate some stolen "papeles" - a form of ID/passport/visa that everyone "inside" must have.

In order to perform his job responsibilities, the fraud investigator has been specially prepared by The Sphinx, a giant all-encompassing ruling body of some kind, which seems to include both corporate and national authority. He has been inoculated with an "empathy virus" which allows him to read other people's thoughts. He arrives in Shanghai and quickly determines who has smuggled out the papeles and why. Only one problem. He doesn't turn her in. He knowingly fingers the wrong suspect.

Why does this trusted, straight-laced investigator do this? Because the criminal is not a profiteer, but simply an extremely compassionate person who has passed out the stolen papers for humanitarian reasons. Since he is an empath, he makes a psychic connection with all that compassion, is overpowered by the goodness he finds inside of her, and falls in love. He spends a night with her, then has to return to Seattle because he has no further permission to stay in Shanghai. Attempts to contact her prove fruitless.

Needless to say, his investigation does no good whatsoever, the documents continue to be smuggled out of Shanghai, and his boss is more than a little irked that he closed a case by fingering the wrong suspect. He is sent back to Shanghai to clean up his mess. This time he resolves to turn in his lover, only to discover that she has mysteriously disappeared. Some further investigation reveals that she has committed a "Code 46 violation," and has been sent away to have an abortion and a convenient memory purge.

What is a Code 46 violation? It is procreation between people who are too similar genetically. Future society forbids this, fearing a repeat of horrible genetic mutations of the past, like the population of rural Kentucky or the European royal families. This can be a problem even in our time, but in this future world, babies are routinely created either from cloning or in vitro fertilization. Without knowing it, a man may be sleeping with his twin sister, for example. The investigator is able to determine that the aborted baby must be his own, and that therefore he must also have committed a Code 46 violation.

But this doesn't stop him from wanting to pursue his lover, and to find out the exact nature of their genetic link, no matter the cost.

There are a number of components necessary for a great science fiction film about the future: thought-provoking ideas, an imaginative look at future locales, and a good story.

Code 46 manages some of those things, but not all.


There is a lingering close up of Samantha Morton's genitalia, but no other nudity.

The ideas are certainly provocative. It would be an interesting film to attend with a movie club, or maybe with a group of friends who like to talk through the concepts explored by films. I can see where this could be an excellent conversation starter for an evening to be followed by many bottles of wine in convivial company. Is society really moving in this direction? In the case of an increasing number of anonymous sperm donors and the possibility of cloning, how do we keep people from mating if they are nearly identical genetically? Will that require everyone to get permission from the state before producing children? Will we all speak the same language in the future - an English-based argot laced with words from other languages (especially Spanish)? Are we really separating into two worlds, one prosperous and sterile, the other more passionate, but also lawless, impoverished and primitive?

The vision of the future? Well, let's just say that director Michael Winterbottom was not working with a James Cameron budget here. In fact, the future looks exactly like the present. Although their future science has "empathy viruses" and doctors can erase very precise portions of your memory, there has been no improvement at all on the internal combustion engine. Everyone still drives around in cars. More depressing than that is the fact that they are driving the exact same cars we drive now. Not similar ones. The exact same ones. The rental cars are 2003 models, unchanged in any way. The director did manage to cover up his lack of budget in some very clever ways. He found some excellent futuristic-appearing locations in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai, and London to represent the inside, and he found some impoverished areas of urban India and the desert to represent "afuera." A sense of the future is enhanced by occasional techno shots from security cameras.

Winterbottom also came up with some great atmospheric photography. An early morning shot of an Asian city with completely deserted streets. Helicopter shots monitoring a desert journey which is punctuated by encounters with wild camels and primitive nomads. Nighttime shots of frenetic urban streets. All of this was impressive, but obviously not from the future. The director did what he could with the money he had, but it wasn't enough.

A good story? I'll tell ya true. There isn't much of a story here at all. Nada. The film's first scene includes word slides which explain the details of the dreaded Code 46 itself. If you pay attention to those, as I did, you already know the whole story, and don't need to watch the movie at all. As soon as you realize that the investigator (Tim Robbins) is going to fall in love with his suspect (Samantha Morton), you know they are headed for a Code 46 violation, and you know that Big Brother will not approve. You know that there must eventually be a "Luke, I am your father" moment between the lovers. Although you don't know their precise biological relationship, you can venture a reasonable guess that is just as good as the one the script offers. (OK, I admit I guessed wrong. The film's explanation was, in fact, more interesting than my guess.) Once you hear that the future's technology includes mind erasure, assuming you realize the film is less than half finished, you can figure out that it won't be the last time that process figures in the plot. And that's about it. I've basically spoiled the entire movie, even though I haven't told you anything at all, because there just isn't any more to it.

It is the arty kind of S/F movie, not the kind driven by action and plot. There are no chase scenes nor high-tech gunfights nor anything resembling an action scene. There are not even any fast cuts, nor rapid edits, nor even voices raised in excitement. There is nothing to speed up your pulse. Watching this is like spending an evening with Judge Souter. It's thoughtful, reasonable  ... and dull. Let's face it, there must have been a very good reason why a film with name stars never made it to as many as 80 theaters in the entire world. Cynical distributors, faced with a glut of product, felt that general audiences would not respond to this movie, and did not want to commit any screens to it. In the very few theaters where Code 46 did get a chance, the cynics were proven correct.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

  • Deleted scenes

  • "Obtaining Cover: Inside Code 46"

  • Original theatrical trailer

So is it a good movie? I actually liked it. In fact I liked it quite a bit, but on balance I recommend it only for fans of S/F, and even then only if you can tolerate extremely glacial pacing and low energy, ala Solaris. Like me, many S/F fans are likely to enjoy the concepts enough to overlook the negatives. 

Everyone else - stay away. It's nothing but ideas. There's no plot, no action, and the future looks exactly like the present. The empathy and the memory cleansing and the universal ID cards may make it sound like a juicy story by William Gibson or Philip K Dick, but at its heart it's really just a thoughtful, slow, talky series of two person discussions about the relationship between individual freedom, science, and the State. It just so happens that those discussions occur in front of some impressive scenery.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: two stars. James Berardinelli 1.5/4, Roger Ebert 2.5/4.

  • British consensus out of four stars: two and a quarter stars. Mail 4/10, Telegraph 6/10, Independent 4/10, Guardian 8/10, Times 6/10, Sun 7/10, Express 5/10, Mirror 3/10, BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Distributors in the USA treated it as if it had a fatal virus of its own. Despite expensive location shoots, name stars and a famous director, it grossed only $210,000, never reaching more than 21 theaters. It did about the same in the U.K.: 140,000, reaching only 53 theaters and disappearing fast. The budget was reported to be about $7 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C.

Return to the Movie House home page