Code 46 (UK 2003)

Tim Robbins, Michael Winterbottom and Samantha Morton shooting on the streets of Shanghai.

Code 46 is set in the future when the rich live in large ‘sealed’ cities whilst the poor struggle on the ‘outside’, mainly in desert communities. Travel requires expensive insurance and papers proving that someone is genetically ‘acceptable’ and can enter and leave the cities. Tim Robbins plays a telepathic investigator hired by an insurance company in Shanghai to find the person who is producing false travel documents, but when he meets Samantha Morton he discovers more than he bargained for.

The following notes were produced for an evening class:

The producer-director team of Andrew Eaton and Michael Winterbottom (aka Revolution Films) has no equal in the UK film industry in terms of the fecundity of ideas or the bravura with which they are realised. Starting with Butterfly Kiss in 1994, Winterbottom and Eaton have completed a dozen features in ten years, five of them with screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce.

None of these films has exactly set the box-office alight, but several have won prizes and become festival favourites around the world – Winterbottom has been the most visible UK presence at Cannes since Welcome to Sarajevo (not produced by Eaton, but scripted by Boyce) was screened in competition in 1997. Revolution Films (not to be confused with the Hollywood company Revolution Studios) has an enviable reputation for getting films made on time and within budget. No doubt this pleases the financial backers, but everything else about the Winterbottom/Eaton partnership appears dedicated to resisting industry expectations.

When asked about his influences, Michael Winterbottom often refers to the New German Cinema of the 1970s (he was a teenager in Blackburn at that time) and it is tempting to compare some of Revolution Films’ production ideas to those of German director Werner Herzog, who famously dragged a steamship over the Andes to recreate a journey in Fitzcarroldo (Germany 1982). Eaton and Winterbottom took The Claim (2000), their adaptation of Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to Alberta in the winter for a similarly gruelling shoot and in 2002 they made In This World literally ‘on the road’ from Pakistan to London.

It was the experience of the In This World shoot which inspired the approach to Code 46. The locations in Shanghai and Dubai were chosen because of what they could offer to the film’s narrative, but also because they could be utilised quickly and inexpensively as part of what Andrew Eaton has referred to as ‘guerilla filmmaking’. The crew for the location shooting was little more than Winterbottom, camera and sound crew navigating themselves around one of the world’s busiest and most ‘futuristic’ cities. Again according to Eaton, Tim Robbins found the experience unnerving – and perhaps that works in producing his edgy performance of a man genuinely uneasy in his situation.

Every one of Revolution Films’ productions offers bold aesthetic choices – the colours of I Want You (1998) conjured up by Slawomir Idziak (creator of images for Krzysztof Kieslowski), Manchester as digital fantasy filmed by Robby Müller (long time collaborator of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch etc.) in 24 Hour Party People (2002), the lyrical 16mm camera and direct sound of Wonderland (1999) and the austere black and white opening of Jude (1996). Whatever the ostensible genre of the film, Winterbottom and Eaton will have a distinctive and illuminating approach. On Code 46, Winterbottom used Alwin Kuchler, well-known for his work with Lynne Ramsay, as well as Winterbottom on The Claim and the young Danish ‘whizz-kid’, Marcel Zyskind, who shot In This World after working under Robbie Müller on 24 Hour Party People. Zyskind has since photographed the next two Winterbottom films. Revolution Films use a limited number of personnel who understand and appreciate the ‘guerilla’ way of working and this closely-knit ‘creative team’ is essential if the unconventional working methods are going to be successful.

The aesthetics are invariably complemented by strong acting performances. Actors are required to ‘take risks’ in performance and the films often feature scenes of great emotional intensity. Samantha Morton in Code 46 carries on the excellent work undertaken by Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker in Wonderland.

The team’s approach to production is quite different to that of mainstream Hollywood, especially in terms of narrative development. There is no conscious attempt to present complex narrative twists or to be wilfully obscure, but there is an assumption that audiences will ‘work’ to understand characterisation and that they will forgive ‘holes’ in the plot or loose ends that aren’t tied up. This isn’t sloppy filmmaking, rather it is simply that less importance is afforded to ‘polishing’ scripts and explaining everything for the literal-minded audience. Perhaps this is why the films suffer at the multiplex box office. Code 46 follows this pattern and because it appears on the surface to be a familiar genre picture, it probably irritated even more mainstream audiences than usual. Conversely, audiences prepared to take it on its own terms should find it very enjoyable.

Speculative fictions
Hollywood is careful not to use the term ‘science fiction’ (which they think will alienate audiences), but reviewers will use the ugly shorthand ‘sci-fi’ without a second thought. Fans of the genre are divided between the action adventure of ‘sci-fi’ and the more cerebral pleasures of ‘sf’. Sometimes known as ‘hard sf’, because of a concern for scientific plausibility and philosophical exploration, the latter also acts as an abbreviation for ‘speculative fiction’ – the preferred term by novelists like Margaret Atwood who want to resist the connection to Star Trek and Men in Black. Code 46 is unusual in being an original script by a writer not noted for work in the genre.

‘Sf’ speculates about a near future, not too dissimilar to contemporary experience, in which the narrative interest depends on the impact of scientific and sociological changes on the lives of the central characters. Code 46 draws on genetics, population migrations, the growing power of multinational corporations and the development of the ‘walled cities’ of the rich and privileged. As such it draws on several other well known films, including adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, with their telepaths and memory implants. Boyce creates a recognisable ‘Dickian’ world, but for some audiences comparisons with these big budget films will not be helpful (Samantha Morton also appears in an important role in Spielberg’s Dick adaptation, Minority Report). The Hollywood films are able to create (expensively produced) ‘future worlds’ and promise ‘action’ and ‘thrills’. Code 46 is more concerned with relationships and social questions.

A better reference would be to Gattaca (US 1997), both in terms of its theme of genetic ‘validity’ and in its ‘look’. Photographed by Slawomir Idziak, Gattaca drew directly on ideas about representing the future developed by French New Wave directors. Chris Marker was first to make a short sf film based solely on still photographs of Orly Airport (Paris) in La Jetée (1962). Jean-Luc Godard followed on with Alphaville in 1965 and François Truffaut with his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in Roehampton, SW London) in 1966. These are more likely inspirations for the approach in Code 46.

‘Crossing borders’
Code 46 is the fourth of Winterbottom’s films to feature migration/crossing borders. Welcome to Sarajevo focuses on a child brought out of Bosnia and I Want You features refugees in an English seaside town. In This World focuses entirely on the process of ‘crossing borders’.

What does migration mean in a globalised economy/culture? Should we still be thinking in terms of migration from the relatively underdeveloped ‘South’ and ‘East’ to the prosperous ‘North’ (America) and ‘West’ (Europe)? Code 46 suggests that geography and even language are no longer the basis for ‘borders’. More important is the concept of being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’. The crucial passport that allows entry to the high tech cities is a ‘papelle’, a combined visa and insurance certificate. The idea of multinationals having ultimate power is an sf staple, but the focus on ‘insurance’ is a new concept and might be interestingly explored in terms of the UK government’s current interest in identity cards and iris scanning and the introduction of ‘chip and pin’ credit cards by the major banks. Pretty soon we will need an officially sanctioned ‘identity’ for every aspect of life. That identity will certainly be worth stealing. Will it also be required in order to have children?
The relationship between the ‘inside’/’outside’ communities and the after effects of uncontrolled genetic engineering is never really explained in the film. Instead, we are asked to consider the possibility of what a love affair might be like in a society in which identity (and memory) are not something we can decide for ourselves – both are effectively in the control of corporations. The film mixes the conventions of the romance – the chance encounter, moments of happiness and regret, secrets, unexplainable passions – with the familiar concerns of issue-based sf. If they don’t gel ‘perfectly’, surely that is because the future is uncertain?

Revolution Films often use music imaginatively and in an inspired moment, Mick Jones of the Clash was invited onto the ‘set’ in India where he performed ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. When this appears in the film, it has a strong impact for many in the audience who will think, “Who is that? What’s that song? I know it,” or as Noel Coward put it, “It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. Romance is very much about the memories that belong to us – but memories can also be manipulated, obliterated and falsely created in an uncertain world of borders, both real and imaginary.

A brief encounter
Code 46 offers a good example of what happens to a film narrative in development before shooting begins. Frank Cottrell Boyce began work on the script after initial discussion with Andrew Eaton and Michael Winterbottom, aiming to write a science fiction story that combined elements of the love story, film noir and Greek mythology. The cinematic models were Brief Encounter, Casablanca and The English Patient – narratives in which something prevents two people in love being together. Boyce was also influenced by the script he had just finished, Pandemonium (UK 2000), and the relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.

The completed film owes much to Winterbottom’s experience of shooting In this World, especially in the use made of the locations. We will want to discuss how the ‘ingredients’ from Boyce’s script were eventually made into the final film. Our approach will be, as with Out of Sight, to think about how we ‘read’ the locations, camerawork, performances etc. in relation to our understanding of genres such as the romance thriller and science fiction.

Roy Stafford 25/10/05

Further reading
The October 2004 issue of Sight & Sound carries both an interesting article on Winterbottom by Ryan Gilbey and a ‘putdown’ review of Code 46 by Kim Newman.

Winterbottom created something of a stir with 9 Songs, the film following Code 46, and his new film has just been shown at the London Film Festival. A Cock and Bull Story is a film about the making of a film of the ‘unfilmable’ Tristram Shandy. It was profiled on last Sunday’s South Bank Show and will be released in the UK in the next few months. Reviews and discussion about the film and Winterbottom’s approach are widely available on the internet.

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