Architecture on Film: Code 46 + Michael Winterbottom Q&A24 November 2008 7.00pm
A thriller/love story set in the near future, Code 46 portrays a dauntingly possible future worl d of gated urban-city states and desert slums, extrapolated from contemporary urban reality and a collage of Dubai, Shanghai and the Jubilee Line. Set against this Orwellian conclusion to the rapid urbanization of the globe, an illicit love affair between a government inspector (Tim Robbins) and a woman (Samantha Morton) plays out.
Found Cities: The Science Fiction of Urban Space
by Geoff Manaugh
Code 46, a 2003 film directed by Michael Winterbottom with production design by Mark Tildesley, stitches together urban and exurban environments from London, Shanghai, Dubai, Hong Kong, and even the deserts of Rajasthan. The film thus creates a seamless vision of the 'near future' through the use of what producer Andrew Eaton calls found spaces. Indeed, the film makes it deliberately unclear if it was shot in multiple locations at all; many sequences blur together landscapes, buildings, and infrastructures from different cities-yet this unfamiliar new place to which we've been introduced might very well exist. You have no idea where you are, but everything around you looks familiar. For all most of us know, perhaps Shanghai really is in the middle of a desert; perhaps Dubai really does look like Hong Kong.
In the film's original publicity material, production designer Mark Tildesley describes this as a kind of 'creative geography':
We thought that the most interesting thing to do would be to try to fool the audience by taking the most interesting bits from each location. So you'd have the impression that you were walking out of a door in one city, but you'd actually end up walking out of it into a completely different place, somewhere else entirely.
What does it mean, though, that the architectural depiction of the future in Code 46 involved filming in no U.S. cities at all and includes only very brief glimpses of urban infrastructure in Europe? If, as novelist William Gibson's famous line goes, the future is already here, it's simply unevenly distributed, then this also appears to be true in the context of architectural form and urban landscapes. It's possible that Code 46's particular type of spatial confusion can only exist within a very narrow window of historical time. Perhaps, as the skylines and iconic hotel interiors of Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere become visually familiar to global filmgoers, it will become much harder to do what Code 46 has done-which is to edit them all up into a convincing whole. Indeed, where might Code 46 have been made if it had been produced fifteen years from now? What explosive urban outgrowths and instant cities built between now and then will be sufficiently unfamiliar that they can be combined into one convincing location?
Cutting between spaces and cities is an interesting visual technique, blurring geography into a seamless global metropolis-an urban spatial collage. But this mélange is in sharp, and dramatically effective, contrast to the film's inflexible political geography and its central themes of border-crossing, transgression, and taboo. Perhaps one of the film's most convincingly futuristic details, in fact, is its proliferation of border controls; it's as if any space or structure-an airport, office lobby, or remote desert motorway-becomes more representative of our imminent future if you simply add a security checkpoint.
In the end, if the role of science fiction is to diagnose and distill the present world through subtly defamiliarising it, then Code 46 is a particularly interesting example of the genre. Eschewing the construction of elaborate stage sets in favour of filming within already existing buildings and cities, Code 46 finds trace elements of tomorrow in the unremarked landscapes of today.
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