Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

code46My rating: **
Imdb link

The characters and story in this science fiction film directed by Michael Winterbottom are of no real interest and the film doesn’t offer much that is inspiring either on what appears to be its main themes of memory and identity and otherness. But what is interesting about this film are its incidental depictions of forms of biopower and notions of territory.

It is set in a society which regulates the geographical movements of its population via a computer system called ‘The Sphynx’. This system offers no explanations to individuals as to why it restricts their travel to places they wish to go. But we see one individual who obtains an illegal visa to visit Delhi die when he contracts a disease to which he is susceptible. The Sphynx had not granted him a visa due to this biological vulnerability in that geographical region but he is never told the reason.

But the Sphynx doesn’t govern all the territories – there is a large outside zone which is inhabited by the poor, the marginal and those designated as criminal. This territory is a harsh desert outside the urbanised centres. In this society the criminal is banished to the exterior rather than incarcerated. But mind control is used on more valuable members of the society if they transgress so that they can remain integrated and functional.

There are also interesting viruses available for public consumption, one that allows you to speak Mandarin for example – but if the speaker is understood by others they can’t understand their own speech. The main character has taken a virus for empathy which allows him to perform a job of unmasking criminals via psychic insight.

The notion of Code 46 is also interesting. In a society where the human population is reproduced via cloning, IVF and other forms of genetic manipulation as well as by more conventional means, there are strict rules to preserve the gene pool and couples have to have their DNA checked so as to determine whether or not they are ‘related’ by too much common DNA. There are severe penalties for transgression of this code.

Also of interest is the language the characters speak: an English base with lots of French and Spanish words and phrases thrown in. Science fiction films rarely speculate on how language evolves over time and this is an original feature of the film.

Great ideas, but the central story – an illicit love affair which is dealt with by an all-pervasive and disciplinary Panoptic system – is probably the least interesting thing about the film.

Definitions from my Foucault site


Foucault argues that biopower is a technology which appeared in the late eighteenth century for managing populations. It incorporates certain aspects of disciplinary power. If disciplinary power is about training the actions of bodies, biopower is about managing the births, deaths, reproduction and illnesses of a population.

Panopticon, panopticism and surveillance
The Panopticon, was a design for a prison produced by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century which grouped cells around a central viewing tower. Although the prison was never actually built the idea was used as a model for numerous institutions including some prisons. Foucault uses this as a metaphor for the operation of power and surveillance in contemporary society.

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