Monday, August 07, 2006

Nature versus nature

“The plot meanders almost incomprehensibly through an all-too-familiar futureworld.”
So says the Guardian’s Guide of Code 46, which held me mesmerised last night on BBC2. Until seeing it in the listings on Saturday, Michael Winterbottom’s oedipal sci-fi had entirely passed me by, which I blame on the shortcomings of my usually impeccable medley of recommenders. (Though I note my boss Joe was similarly wowed by it two years ago.)

Spoilers follow.

Tim Robbins is investigating fraud in a genetics factory and falls for Samantha Morton when she talks back to him. Nothing unexpected there. They meet up on the Tube after work and go clubbing, and then end up back in her bed. Nothing unexpected there, either. But fortune is out to make fools of these star-cross’d lovers, and the future’s pernicious technological brilliance is all out to scupper their affair…

Despite what the sneery preview said, the futureworld is effective because it’s so familiar – a dystopia waiting just a couple of years from us now. We can recognise some of the buildings, the concrete and toughened glass of Canary Wharf architecture pinched right out of decades’ old SF comic books. The cities are packed full of people (the Tube only empty in dreams), and there are no trees or green spaces left anywhere but the desert.

(Yes, I know. I think it's meant to be ironic.)

The global village of pristine urban spaces may be the place to be in this deprived and environmentally scarred future, but the cities consist of small, cramped areas for living and just as imposing and totalitarian wide-open work areas. This is a place of invasion, where a virus can steal the subtext of someone’s life out of their innocent gabble, where memories are deleted as sickness and the state uses mind control to make criminals self-harm.

In all, it’s a deft bit of sci-fi that pays dividends if you only pay attention. Everyone speaks English but peppered with bits of other languages – a mish-mash of French and Spanish and Hebrew and what-have-you that’s in many ways more effective and more credible than the incomprehensible future slang of Bladerunner. The future is also more readily multicultural, though I did mutter, “But the two leads are both white!” before realising why they’d have to be the same race.

The social structures are also nicely delineated – not just between those inside and outside the cities, but between Robbins at the top of the heap with his clinically immaculate apartment and office, and Morton on the bottom rung and commuting through the rubbish and squalor.

I loved that Robbins asking his suspects to tell him anything about themselves is not explained until late in the movie. And the kooky nova of viruses that can make you sing well or speak Mandarin (so that you’re the only one not able to understand what you’re saying) turns out to be a crucial plot point.

The wheeze behind it all is that there’s a lot of IVF going on in the future, and that cloning ups the chances of (inadvertent) incest. Morton turns out to be a 100% clone of Robbins’ own mother – though, as one expert explains, her environment and circumstances have brought her up as someone very different. But to keep the human stock healthy the two must not be lovers…

This plot loses something explained out of context (as I found trying to catch up the Dr, who wandered in some way through). I also think the mystery would have been better if the titles had not defined “Code 46 violations” right from the off. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that this adds to the tragic inevitability of all that follows, but it just felt like fumbling the big twist.

But as it’s played out, the film is strange and unsettling, arousing weird empathies in a sex scene where Morton’s body is both compliant and resisting. A lot of the film's effectiveness is down to the two leads, but it’s also busy with images that live on long in the mind – such as camels racing along beside their escape in the desert, signs of life in an otherwise unnatural world.

I can see that it’s not for everyone – sci-fi about relationships bothers those who prefer big guns and explosions as well as those who sneer at anything that dares to admit openly being set in the future. (In Dr Who terms, that means alienating those who can’t see what Jacqui and Mickey added to the show as well as those who didn’t like it whenever the TARDIS left the Powell Estate.)

It may well have done better critically if Winterbottom had played to these silly prejudices and denied it was any kind of SF (and so many authors like to do). Which is a back-handed compliment, because when you start being embarrassed that a film’s thought of as sci-fi you know you’ve got something rather good.

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