Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: With the Hugh Jackman vehicle Reminiscence headed for theaters and streaming, we’re thinking back on other sci-fi noirs.
A lot of the best science fiction finds the present in the speculative future. No wonder the genre makes such a strangely appropriate bedfellow to film noir: Both exaggerate the problems and anxieties of the world via a distorting prism, like staring at a skyline through a glass of scotch. In his lumpy but imaginative Code 46, director Michael Winterbottom pulls one of the oldest and most effective tricks of economical world-building, casting a real modern city—in this case Shanghai—as an imaginary one on the horizon. It’s the approach Godard took half a century ago, using Paris as a stand-in for a futuristic metropolis in his own clever, more overt blend of dystopian sci-fi and detective-yarn noir, Alphaville. Winterbottom’s film isn’t as cool or playful as that New Wave classic, but it’s similarly resourceful in its acknowledgement that the architecture of today resembles the tomorrow of popular imagination. The future is now, cosmetically and in other, less attractive ways.
As in the quintessential noir Double Indemnity, our hero works for the insurance business. William Geld (Tim Robbins, appropriately witty and weary) comes to Shanghai to flush out a forger at The Sphinx, a company that prints “covers,” which are essentially passports. The future of Code 46 is one of hard borders and enforced segregation: The wealthy live in the cities, or “inside,” while the rest live impoverished lives “outside;” passing from one to the other requires strictly administered papers of transit—the kind printed at The Sphinx, and the kind so desperately sought in Casablanca. William has no trouble identifying Maria (Samantha Morton, back in sci-fi noir territory a year after her role as the fragile Precog of Minority Report) as the employee who’s been smuggling these valuable documents out the backdoor. But he’s instantly smitten with her, and protects her secret to get closer to her.
As a romance, Code 46 is no great shakes. Robbins and Morton don’t have a ton of chemistry—and not just because he comically towers over her. But what the film lacks in smoldering passion it makes up for in its surfeit of compelling, resonant sci-fi conceits. William, as it turns out, can do his job so well because he’s acquired an “empathy virus”—a bug that allows him to “feel” people’s thoughts once they’ve provided a single piece of personal information. (He’s like a corporate-bureaucrat Blade Runner.) The script by Frank Cottrell-Boyce creates an international pidgin language, the English dialogue peppered with stray Spanish, French, Farsi, Mandarin, etc. It’s one ironic aspect of the global landscape the film lays out: All national culture has blended together, even as the governments of these respective countries have severely limited travel between them. The title, meanwhile, refers to forbidden fraternizing among individuals with shared DNA—a response to the way that cloning has homogenized the gene pool, greatly increasing the possibility that you might end up reproducing with, essentially, your own mother. The Oedipal echoes are undeniable but also just one of the film’s thematic strands.
Code 46 rather casually predicts a world where every aspect of life, from your residence to your biology to your memories, will be carefully monitored and controlled. By contrast, Winterbottom, coming off the success of his intoxicating 24 Hour Party People, doesn’t exert an iron grasp on the material; he’s more interested in tracing stray intriguing notions than issuing some grand thesis. Conceptually, the film is something of a genetic experiment itself, splicing together influences, creating a helix of the parallel genres it breeds. Thankfully, its make-up includes some intoxicating style: a strong whiff of the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai in the glow and blur of passing trains, the quicks cuts and slow-motion, the sheets of seductively reflective glass. If there’s a silver lining in the dark clouds that roll over this film, it’s that ideas and traditions can cross even the most guarded of closed borders. Code 46 latches productively onto a few of them, passing from one genre to another and across the great plane of international moviemaking.
Availability: Code 46 is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major digital services.