Code 46  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Code 46 is a 2003 British film directed by Michael Winterbottom, screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and starring Tim Robbins. It is a disquieting science fiction love story with many themes associated with the biopunk genre.


  • Tagline: How do you solve a crime when the last thing you want to know is the truth?

It is the not-too-distant future, in a world which appears to suffer from overpopulation and large scale environmental degradation. The population is divided between those who live "inside", in high density cities physically separated from "outside", where the poor and underclasses live. Access into and travel between the cities is highly restricted, and regulated through the use of "travel covers," known as "papeles" in a global pidgin language which has developed (which appears to comprise elements of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, Urdu and Mandarin). Residents of the cities venture outside at night and remain indoors during the day, as direct sunlight has become hazardous to their health, perhaps through ozone depletion. The form of government appears to be somewhat authoritarian in nature, and society is regulated by various "codes". The eponymous code of the movie title prohibits "genetically incestuous reproduction", which may often occur as a result of the various medical technologies which have become commonplace, such as cloning.

The main character is William Geld (Tim Robbins), an insurance fraud investigator based in Seattle who is sent to Shanghai to interview employees at a company known as "The Sphinx", which manufacturers insurance cover documents. William's assignment is to identify employees who are suspected of forging and smuggling covers.

With the aid of a genetically engineered "empathy virus", William is able to obtain unstated information from people if they voluntarily reveal something about themselves. After interviewing numerous Sphinx employees, he identifies a young worker named Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) as the cover forger. Maria tells William that she has the same dream each birthday: She is travelling the subway to meet someone she cannot identify. Each birthday she is one station closer to her destination, where she expects to meet the person she is looking for. William is captivated by her, and instead of turning her over to security, identifies another employee as the forger.

William then follows Maria and they secretly meet and begin an affair. They have dinner, then end up in a nightclub. She puts complete trust in the man who could have had her arrested, and reveals how she was able to smuggle covers out of the company. A gentleman named Damian (David Fahm) then appears and Maria hands him a cover document. Damian is a naturalist who longs to travel to Delhi to study bats. William is upset by the supply of the cover to Damian and indicates that he should turn Maria over to the authorities, but Maria somehow knows that William would not do this. William explains that there are legitimate reasons why Damian is unable to obtain the proper clearances legally. However, Maria believes that risks are worth taking to fulfil one's dreams and no one has any right to interfere if those she helps are willing to take that risk.

William and Maria then leave for her apartment where they spend a passionate night together. While there Maria shows William her "memory scrapbook" (an electronic booklet that records and displays video seemingly from the user's mind), which contains memories of her parents and close friends. Other movies show her passing off cover documents to various people. Maria says she thinks these people are beautiful; their eyes are full of desire and dreams, and she wants to help them. As Maria sleeps, William finds a forged cover in her room and takes it.

Wiliam's travel cover expires the next day so he returns home to his family. On the way to the airport, he stops to give the forged cover document to a poor street vendor at the city's perimeter checkpoint, an act of humanity which could change the anonymous vendor's life. A few days later he learns that Damian died in Delhi after exposure to a virus to which he had no immunity, and it is known that Damian was able to travel there using a forged cover made while William was in Shanghai. William is reprimanded by his superior for not discovering the true Sphinx forger. William explains that he had trouble with his empathy virus and requests that someone else be sent. However, he is ordered to deal with the problem and to return to Shanghai to complete his assignment.

Upon his return William discovers that Maria has gone. Her apartment is abandoned and the only clue to her whereabouts is an appointment scheduled at a medical clinic. He visits the clinic and using his abilities learns that Maria was pregnant, but that the pregnancy was terminated due to a violation of Code 46. William knows that this means Maria is somehow genetically related to him, but he has no idea how this is possible.

Meanwhile, the authorities have responded to the Code 46 violation by erasing Maria's memory of the man who impregnated her, but no action has been taken against William because she did not reveal who he was.

William discovers that Maria has been taken to another institution for the memory treatment and he travels there to get her out. He is able to do so by indicating that Maria is a witness in his fraud investigation. After she is released William reminds Maria of their time together as recorded in the memory scrapbook and her feelings of love for him return.

While she is sleeping, William takes a hair from Maria to a facility which provides instantaneous DNA analysis (similar to the one portrayed in Gattaca), and discovers that Maria is 50 percent genetically related to him, which means that she is a biological clone of his mother who was an in-vitro child. This knowledge does not affect William's feelings, but he does not reveal the information to Maria.

William and Maria travel to Jebel Ali in the Middle East, which does not require special travel clearance. The two hide out in the old city where they book a room. William discovers that as part of Maria's memory wiping that she has been given a virus that induces a terrorizing adrenaline rush in response to physical sexual contact with the person who brought about the Code 46 violation. However, Maria still wants to make love with William so has him tie her down to prevent her from physically responding negatively.

Afterward, Maria enters a somnambulistic state also caused by her virus which forces her to report the further Code 46 violation to the authorities. She is unconscious of this though William is aware of the virus's reaction. They then rent an old car and travel away to escape the authorities who are tracking them. William eventually crashes the car while avoiding a collision with pedestrians, while Maria is playing with the steering wheel, and they are both knocked unconscious.

When William awakens he finds himself in Seattle with his wife and child. He has no memory of Maria or the Code 46 violation as all memories of her and their time together has been completely flushed from his mind. The authorities had brought William before a tribunal, but decided the empathy virus had affected his judgement. Perhaps significantly, he attempts to use the empathy virus to read his son's thoughts on the drive back from the hospital, but is unable to. Maria is more severely punished and sent to live in exile in the wasteland "outside." However, she retains her memories of William, and her subway dream becomes complete; the person she meets at the final stop on the track is William.

Code 46

Article 1
Any human being who shares the same nuclear gene set as another human being is deemed to be genetically identical. The relations of one are the relations of all.
Due to IVF, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction.
I. All prospective parents should be genetically screened before conception. If they have 100%, 50% or 25% genetic identity they are not permitted to conceive
II. If the pregnancy is unplanned, the foetus must be screened. Any pregnancy resulting from 100%, 50% or 25% genetically related parents must be terminated immediately
III. If the parents were ignorant of their genetic relationship then medical intervention is authorized to prevent any further breach of Code 46
IV. If the parents knew they were genetically related prior to conception it is a criminal breach of Code 46.


  • Characters in Code 46 frequently use a form of Esperanto combined with English to communicate with each other.
  • Mick Jones of The Clash sings The Clash song "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" in the karaoke club scene.
  • 46 is, probably not coincidentally, the number of chromosomes (23 pairs) in human DNA.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Code 46" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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