Code 46 begins with a premise that asks serious questions about the destiny of human beings in a world where science can customize the image of God.

The film's story takes place in a not-too-distant future, where people have been gene-spliced and cloned like purebred dogs for specific, desirable features. The divine chaos that makes us all so different has been reigned in. With everyone seeking the same admired traits, the gene pool has shrunk, yielding a bizarre twist: Since most people are born in vitro, nobody really knows who their closest blood relatives are. Hence, a person could fall in love and enter into an incestuous relationship without knowing it.

That's where the film's title comes in. Code 46 is a law that makes conception illegal for any couple who are more than 25% related. Any pregnancy found in violation of the law is terminated. Anyone who knowingly procreates in such a manner has broken the law. If they did it unknowingly, "intervention is authorized to prevent any further breach of Code 46." Easier said than done. In society today, people can avoid incest because they know who their relatives are. But in the world of Code 46, people from separate continents could be as closely related as cousins or siblings.

Tim Robbins plays William in this futuristic, romantic adventure

Tim Robbins plays William in this futuristic, romantic adventure

Part of the inspiration for Code 46 came from the Greek myth of Oedipus. The oracle warned that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, so he was sent far away to be raised outside of his family. He became a great warrior, and when he killed an adversary in battle and married his wife, he did not know they were his mom and dad. He broke the taboo innocently, but he still paid for it. The same possibilities permeate the world of Code 46, where one can easily "break the taboo innocently."

But Code 46 introduces yet another factor: Medically enhanced personality changes. William (Tim Robbins) is a detective sent from Seattle to Shanghai find out who is making and selling fake papelles, the passes that allow people to travel freely from place to place. To give him an edge, William is infected with an "empathy virus." Under its influence he can almost read people's minds, which makes his detective work much easier. But there are negative side effects: He falls in love and enters into a relationship that compromises his career and puts him in jeopardy. He also endangers his new lover, Maria (Samantha Morton). Like Oedipus, he thinks he has the bases covered, but life is not that simple.

This idea isn't so far-fetched or sci-fi as it might seem. Several years ago, a number of defendants were acquitted of violent crimes after taking the drug Halcion, which made them psychotic. Since they were not violent or psychotic at any other time, they were judged not culpable. The legal question was a tricky one. The Halcion defendants had taken the drug as prescribed by physicians. Had they taken cocaine, PCP or some other psychosis-inducing drug on their own, they would not have been able to use the drug defense.

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Tim Robbins in the lead role

Tim Robbins in the lead role

Mood-altering drugs for mental illnesses, mood disorders and learning disabilities can improve people's lives and give them hope. The question arises, though: Which is the real personality? Is it the erratic bi-polar sufferer who may be tremendously creative, or is it the medicated, calmed down, but less artistically brilliant guy who can hold a job?

Psychoactive drugs can be used in ways that are morally troubling. American fighter pilots are sometimes given the drug Modafinil, a treatment for sleep disorders and narcolepsy. It allows them to stay awake on long missions, but there are questions about what it does to a pilot's ability to make quick, well-informed decisions. If a combat pilot who has been flying for 12 hours bombs the wrong house, is he guilty of negligence, or is it the fault of the medication?

Such questions are asked—though not necessarily answered—throughout Code 46. While William is trying to figure out who's making the fake papelles, he meets Maria, a suspect in an illegal operation. William is as methodical as a junior high vice-principal ferreting out fake hall passes, approaching his work without any personal grudge against the miscreants. He's just doing a job. But then, in complete contrast to his usual behavior, he becomes romantically involved and commits adultery. But is it his "fault"? Or is he just reacting to the empathy virus? We're unsure if he's culpable, and when tragedy strikes there is no catharsis, only a whimper.

Code 46 takes us into a world of ennui where nobody is really responsible for their own actions. Laws are based on expedience and status quo, taking no notice of human need. Global warming and pollution have reduced the land to desert. The cities are the only havens, but they will only hold so many people. Those who are inside get to stay there unless they commit a crime, but those outside cannot really do anything to get inside. The whole system is absurd and whimsical.

Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton

Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton

The filmmakers chose Shanghai and Dubai as their primary locations. We see dazzling, ultramodern skyscrapers right next to crumbling shanties. The air is choked with smog, but the offices are clean, uncluttered and climate controlled. The streets are exotic, but less high-tech than the streets of Blade Runner. The look is effective and convincing.

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But not convincing enough: What keeps Code 46 from living up to its fascinating premise is the lack of empathy we feel for William and Maria. They seem to be without real humanity. They are almost like benign video game characters. The trajectory of the film is flat. It never soars. It could have been a better film had it not succeeded so well in giving us a world where sin is an irrelevant term and no one can conceive of redemption. It is a world where sophisticated technology diminishes the image of God to an automaton without a soul.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How is William's virus-driven empathy different from the true human emotion?
  2. In society, is it important that some people be less empathetic and more pragmatic?
  3. When do you think a person is not responsible for negative actions because of drug-induced psychosis or mood change?
  4. Is it possible that increased technological tinkering will make it difficult for people to understand sin and redemption?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The film gets its R rating from one very explicit nude scene. There's no violence or coarse language.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 08/12/04

The futuristic sci-fi epic Code 46 tells the story of William, a government investigator who falls in love with Maria, a woman involved in a criminal forgery operation. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (In This World, 24 Hour Party People), the film stars Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) examines the film's serious questions, but isn't too impressed with the movie overall. "Code 46 begins with a premise that asks serious questions about the destiny of human beings in a world where science can customize the image of God. What keeps [it] from living up to its fascinating premise is the lack of empathy we feel for William and Maria. They seem to be without real humanity. They are almost like benign video game characters. The trajectory of the film is flat. It never soars."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says "The filmmakers seem to have had good intentions in making a thoughtful science fiction film, addressing the consequences of such present-day issues as environmental concerns, the consequences of cloning, world poverty, and the frustrating bureaucracy of traveling between countries. Still, for all of the serious intent, the result is only fitfully interesting, and not very believable, even for a fantasy."

Code 46
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for a scene of sexuality, including brief graphic nudity)
Directed By
Michael Winterbottom
Run Time
1 hour 33 minutes
Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri
Theatre Release
September 17, 2004 by United Artists
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