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Code 46 (2004)

How do you solve a crime when the last thing you want to know is the truth?

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 93 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

The feminist serial killer road movie Butterfly Kiss, the Bosnian war pic ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’, the period property drama ‘The Claim’ and the Manchester docu-comedy 24 Hour Party People might appear to be films with nothing in common, but in fact all are collaborations between director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, who together have shown an ability to produce consistently interesting works in any and every genre. No different from their other works precisely because it is so different from them, ‘Code 46’ is a melancholic sci-fi story of love and loss set in a not so distant future where the freedom to travel and to procreate is strictly controlled according to each individual’s genetic make-up.

William (Tim Robbins) is sent on assignment to Shanghai to flush out a worker who has been smuggling travel passes (or ‘papelles’) out of the Sphinx Corporation and selling them on the blackmarket. Infected with a virus designed to heighten his intuitive powers, William easily determines that the culprit is Maria (Samantha Morton), but his intense attraction to her prevents him from telling his superiors. The pair spend the night together, before William returns to his wife and son in Seattle. When it becomes clear that the ‘papelle’ thefts have not ceased, William is reassigned to Shanghai to finish the job, giving him the perfect opportunity to look up Maria – only to find that her memory of him has been erased after she became pregnant in breach of Code 46, a regulation which prevents childbirths resulting from genetic incest.

‘Code 46’ is the myth of Oedipus radically updated to a brave new world where in vitro fertilisation and cloning have become normalised methods of reproduction. At the film’s centre is a brief, forbidden and doomed love affair between two people who recognise in one another a missing part of themselves, set against a backdrop of shimmering city states and third world deserts, where everyone speaks a form of English peppered with borrowings from other languages. Apart from a text at the beginning which cites in bland legalese the three articles of Code 46, all the inventive futurist elements (cloned limb replacements, viruses for the musically challenged, genetic segregation, memory placebos) are allowed to emerge organically from what is essentially a human story, so that they enrich it without ever distracting from it. Even Maria’s dreamy voice-over is not a vehicle for clumsy exposition, but rather modulates the film’s elegiac tone, as well as binding Maria to her beloved as effectively as a string of DNA or a thread of memory.

Possibly the only dystopian science fiction film ever to have been made without a single scene of violence, ‘Code 46’ is a starkly beautiful, sombrely nostalgic poem examining just what, in the newest phase of our timeless bid to control our genes, humanity stands to lose.

It's Got: A dizzyingly intelligent complexity; a perfect blending of a human story into its sci-fi background (with Oedipal underpinnings); outstanding performances from Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton; an effectively lyrical soundtrack by Free; a karaoke version of Should I Stay or Should I Go? sung by Mick Jones as himself in a cameo that makes a strange sort of sense within the films context of cloning; a minor character with a freckle fetish who regards Anne of Green Gables as an erotic classic; and one of the most achingly powerful evocations of longing that I have ever seen.

It Needs: Simply to be seen - what Casablanca did for love in the time of war, this does for love in the time of genetic manipulation, and it is every bit as moving.


Achingly elegiac sci-fi story of love and memory lost – an Oedipal tragedy for the genetically modified age.