Code 46

Released with no fanfare that I know of, Code 46 is one of the best SF movies I’ve seen in a long time.

The movie tells of a bustling, gleaming future where everyone in the world speaks perfect English, liberally sprinkled with Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese (five of the six official UN languages–I didn’t notice any Russian). It’s a world that looks very much like our world today–the same cars and clothes, though the cities are perhaps shinier.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled, so I’ll discuss the rest of it inside. Go watch it and then read the rest of this post.

Ursula K LeGuin said that science fiction isn’t predictive, it’s descriptive, and that’s the case with this movie. It shows a near-future that highlights many issues we see in the world today. And it is in the tradition of many other SF stories in predicting the rise of a new kind of underclass. In Blade Runner, it was replicants. In Gattaca, it was people with unpromising genetics. In this movie, the divider is whether or not you can get “cover,” a key concept in the movie that is never clearly explained. Following is my attempt to unravel what cover means.

In the world we live in today, if is extremely difficult to quarantine disease. People are too mobile. The SARS outbreak was novel in that there was a widespread effort to contain the disease, and in that it was relatively successful. Mad-cow disease (which is apparently of our own careless creation) is a similar problem at the animal level.

My guess is that cover is supposed to have evolved as a way of dealing with the problem of emergent diseases: one of the characters in the movie is denied cover because he is susceptible to a certain disease. Cover probably involves other factors, like one’s likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, illegal activities, etc. The U.S. government, with its shady CAPPS lists, already bars travel for anyone unlucky enough to get on the list, or to have a name similar to someone else on the list.

It is not hard to imagine a transnational organization emerging to handle traveller risk assessment, and in the movie, cover is provided by an overarching organization called the Sphinx, which sees all and knows what’s best; the principal characters in the movie both work for the Sphinx. Cover seems to represent the Sphinx vouching for an individual as a good bet–not providing insurance to individuals, but providing a sort of reassurance to governments that an individual won’t create problems.

Cover is something like a visa, but it is more complex than that. A one-way cover can be issued or a two-way, and cover can be for any amount of time–as if the Sphinx is saying “we trust you not to get into too much trouble over the next day, but don’t push your luck.” A two-way cover that expires in the middle of your trip leaves you stranded.

More importantly than travel, however, one apparently needs cover to even reside in a major city. Everything else, as far as we see in the movie, is a dustbowl where people do not live, they survive. Either you’re on the Inside or you’re on the Outside.

The movie is descriptive as much as predictive in its depiction of the blood ties between people. In this future, fertilized eggs are routinely cloned and peddled to couples wanting children, so the genetic relationship between family members (or random passersby) is completely unclear. This led to the Code 46 in the title, requiring genetic screening for couples to make sure they weren’t genetically related, and mandating harsh measures for people who break the rule intentionally. In one of the few simply happy moments in the brief, illicit affair between William and Maria, it struck me that they were reaching out to each other to re-establish blood bonds. The obvious comparison would be with Oedipus, but that strikes me as facile.

The code was one of the more overt signs of a system that cossets the chosen, but also condescends to them, treating them as children. People have surprisingly little information about themselves, but have surprisingly easy access to information about others. William brings a hair sample to a genetic counselor who doesn’t hesitate to tell him about the donor’s history, and also tells him things about himself that he didn’t know. When William and Maria discover that they’ve violated the code, their memories are simply taken away from them (and in William’s case, his bad behavior is conveniently attributed to a designer virus).

The one weak link in the movie–which was probably necessary in terms of plot–was that cover is provided in the form of physical tickets, called papelles. Considering that all the other information about a person is online, it seems strange that this system would be built on paper slips. Perhaps to suggest it is a house of cards?