Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Code 46’ (2003) : a Sci-Fi Tale of Fate & Forbidden Love

Director Michael Winterbottom joined forces with writer Frank Cottrell Boyce to create 2003’s “Code 46,” a film starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.

Here we are brought into a near-future society where IVF and cloning have increased dramatically, also increasing the possibility that a random stranger you encounter could be related to you. To prevent any “accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction,” potential parents are screened before conceiving. If the two people share 25% or more genetic identity, they are not allowed to have a baby. If the pregnancy is unplanned, or the two people weren’t aware of their relation, the pregnancy is terminated. If two people knew of their relation and willingly conceived, they’re in breach of Code 46. (Interestingly, human beings also currently have 46 chromosomes.)

Set in Shanghai, William (Robbins) is sent to investigate forgeries of passport-like documents called papelles. These papelles serve as ID cards for city residents, allowing them to travel freely. Those without papelles have been banished to the desert, a place simply referred to as “outside.” The “Sphinx” is a government-like system which stores all information on an individual. Maria (Morton) works at the branch of the Sphinx that William has come to investigate; she’s the one making the forgeries. William learns of her guilt but feels a strange attraction to her, so he ignores her crime and goes out with her instead. A one night stand ensues, resulting in a mixed batch of memory loss, dream symbolism, displaced feelings, and of course, a transgression of Code 46.


“Who wants to discover their fate? Who wants to take a chance like that?… If we had enough information, it could predict the consequences of our actions. Would you want to know?… If we knew what happened in the end, would we ever be able to take that first step?”

This quote from Maria describes just one of the many subplots of this film. Fate is tragic because it’s out of our control, but what if we could know the answers? Would we try to avert such actions from happening, or does the whole concept of fate rest on our inability to escape predetermined events? This idea is particularly prevalent in the mythological story of Oedipus, on which the filmmakers supposedly based this movie. In a twisted fashion, however, the woman (Maria) is exiled with her painful memories, and the man (William) is blinded with ignorance. Who is better off?

You’re not alone if this movie left an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. For one, surveillance pervades even the most intimate of scenes. The beautiful, tranquil city of Shanghai is overpowered by the invasive, sterile force of the Sphinx. Voluntary and programmed feelings are muddled together (Nature vs. Nurture.) This is a world safe and secure but devoid of thrill, perhaps accounting for why the characters took the risks they did. But what’s more disturbing are the scientific and technological advances in the film that are masked as liberators for the human race.

Today more than ever we live on a thin line between science and fiction. Global warming, cloning, IVF, fingerprint identification, microchip implants, and security over privacy, are already pedestrian concepts. We may not have legal, skill-enhancing viruses such as the film’s “empathy virus,” but we do have illegal drugs (MDMA) which induce empathy in the user. Each day we see advertisements for the newest cell phone, car, music player, or television. Never before in history have different cultures, races, an ethnicities been fused together as one (In the film, multiple languages are spoken, with English being the main dialect.) And of course, anyone who doesn’t abide by the rules of the system is outcast and considered worthless.

The point is that “Code 46” foreshadows our inevitable future, yet it uses this future as only a backdrop for the story of William and Maria, resulting in confusion and lack of cohesion for the audience. Any movie that contains elements of sci-fi typically provides an opposing force which the characters must change or overcome. In “Code 46,” the characters are already adjusted, and therefore indifferent to the world they live in. All the advances, from cloning an IVF to the viruses and memory-erasers, essentially influence the behavior of Maria and William, and thus are the cause of their conflict. Yet although natural, human processes are controlled (in a subtle yet deliberate form of eugenics,) we’re made to believe such methods are necessary to maintain the utopian ideal. The true culprit in this film is society itself, as it caused both the creation and destruction of William and Maria’s relationship. But because the characters don’t fight back against this totalitarian lifestyle, we unwittingly judge them as deserving of their fate.

“Code 46” is a beautiful, enveloping film with an equally ambient soundtrack (Mick Jones of The Clash even makes a cameo.) Still, prepare yourself to be enticingly unsatisfied.