OK, last week’s film was a dud, so things can only get better, right? This week’s quarantine offering looks a bit more promising. There are a few reasons that I was looking forward to Code 8. First, I do have an appreciation for the Amell cousins. Stephen I’ve watched for years as part of the “Arrowverse” and a few other things, Robbie both in the same, his brief but entertaining role in A Series Of Unfortunate Events and in the very under-watched and under-rated ARQ a few years ago, also a primarily streaming release. Second, I do like low-budget high-concept sci-fi, the kind of sub-genre that the biggest streaming platform seems to gobble up and regurgitate to the masses a fair bit nowadays. In the last 18 months alone, the likes of Fast Colour, In The Shadow Of The Moon, I Am Mother, Kin, See You Yesterday, Solis, and Io have all seen release on Netflix, They are all films with limited money and production values, but all with big ideas and big ambitions, some not to be realised, but you can never think little of the attempt.
Code 8 has as its canvass the well-worn world of superheroes and superpowers. Offering a fresh take on that idea is a holy grail for a lot of sci-fi film-makers it seems, and the Amell Brothers, with writer Chris Pare and director Jeff Chan, already had their idea down on film with a short version of this story released in 2016. With a feature backed by crowd-sourcing funds, a degree of creative freedom and a solid idea, was Code 8 balm to the soul of someone easily fatigues by comic book adaptations, or something destined to rot at the bottom of Netflix suggestions?
“Powers”, the 4% of the population that have some manner of extraordinary ability, are feared and treated as second-class-citizens, obligated to register themselves with a unsympathetic government. Electrokinetic Conner (Robbie Amell) struggles to make ends meet and support his ailing mother (Kari Matchett): when given the opportunity to earn a great deal of money by telekinetic criminal Garret (Stephen Amell), Conner comes to realise the full potential of his abilities, even while he is caught in a spiral of violence that draws the attention of the police.
It is perhaps best to get the very obvious out of the way quickly: yes, Code 8 bears more than a passing resemblance to the X-Men franchise. Both focus on supernaturally endowed humans that are resented by a great many of the rest of their species. In both universes the supernatural vie between traditional heroism and traditional villainy. In both, the government tries to keep tabs on the Powers or mutants, and employ robotic soldiers to deal with them when the need arises. Both franchises have as their key theme of illogical prejudice, and the dichotomy between following a virtuous path in society, and being reviled by the others living in that same society. Those hoping that Code 8 will be a truly unique experience will probably be disappointed, because this has been done. Even something as essentially formulaic as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been there. Even Netflix has, with Bright, though I much prefer Code 8‘s execution.
It’s also true that there is a certain problematic nature to the narrative that is hard to ignore. The allusion in Code 8‘s central thesis is obviously to persecuted minorities in the United States. In the way that key plot points revolve around young men in poor areas being pushed into crime (specifically drug-running) owing to a lack of legal prospects, “stop-and-frisk” scenarios and a tinge of racial prejudice imagery, it isn’t hard to see that the film’s superheroes are another film’s Africa-Americans and other ethnicities. Somewhat odd then to see two white men in the lead, backed up by some mostly non-speaking minority crew members. I am not saying that the Amell Cousins are part of a racist production, but it must have crossed some minds at some point that placing two white men in the role of a persecuted minority might not be the way to go, even if you could argue the film’s allusion is to class rather than race.
Once one gets beyond these two things, there is a lot to appreciate about Code 8. The film does a good job in its opening segments of welcoming you into the facts of its world, where Powers were once vital parts of the economy, before mechanisation made them superfluous, couching this in the form of a clever montage. What follows is a familiar, but well-presented narrative of rising in the ranks of crime, and gaining long-lost self-confidence through the same, before the realisation hits that it is a road to nowhere. Indeed, Code 8 really is more of a crime movie than a superhero one, which makes sense in a world where there is no school for “gifted” children to find refuge in. Connor is a good cipher for the audience to experience this world, one that could be converted to a fairly normal – and forgettable – crime thriller without too much bother. Robbie Amell is good at playing this kind of well-meaning guy who just wants to find a way out of his present circumstances, but who carries a certain kind of radical edge.
Honing that edge is Stephen Amell’s Garret, half super-powered criminal/half Malcolm X, who guides Conner through various robberies and allegiances in the underworld while also trying to get him to embrace who he is. He’s not far off Arrow in many respects, and the elder Amell has been playing that role long enough that he’s gotten very good. The two have a decent chemistry throughout, as they rapidly move from a mentor/student relationship to something more equal. The film does a good job of making Garret the person that Conner has been looking for all of his life, even if there are some seriously negative consequences to their association.
There are lots of nice twists and turns in the road, sub-plots that add meat to the bone without ever stealing too much of your focus. Connor’s mother – an under-stated but effective Kari Matchett – faces prejudice in her job and in the American healthcare system; Garret and Conner’s crime-boss employer is too incompetent for his position to be too secure, from external and internal factions; that same employer has a girlfriend/drug addicted victim (a little-known Kyle Kane, but she has a future) who has an interesting power of her own; and the cops, through Sung Kung and Aaron Abrams, are on the trail of everything that is going on, while encountering the system’s in-build prejudice. Director Chan juggles all these balls well enough, and Code 8 rarely drags or feels like it is not justifying its 100 running time. Instead, while never reaching a level of true complexity, it feels instead like a well-honed, thought-out plot, making the best of its universe and the possibilities that exit therein. Perhaps the only thing that could have used more fleshing out are those detectives, whose perspective on the inside of the system would have been interesting to see more of.
Code 8 was crowd-sourced, primarily through Indiegogo, and even with four minutes worth of subscriber thanks in the credits, it is undeniable that the film is trying to make the most of a limited budget. It certainly has the look of a TV show: more cinematic than Arrow and the like certainly, but not very far beyond that. It is apropos to say that Code 8 could serve as a pilot, or as the spine for a season of television, and it may be possible that this was the intention at some point (and may yet be). But just because it looks like a TV show does not mean that it looks bad per say. But there are deficiencies present, in the lack of variety in sets, in the limited number of extras (sometimes very obvious, in scenes set in supposed city centres) and in certain scenes that suffer from poor lighting.
But the cinematography is not some serious weak-point in the film either. Chan prefers intimacy in his shots (or maybe that is also a budgeting issue) and Code 8 comes off as a character-driven drama more than anything else as a consequence of this, no bad thing. There are some effective instances of montage, and what moments of action that Code 8 has are shot with competence. Indeed, the lack of traditional super-powered battle is probably a benefit for Code 8, allowing it to be its own thing, even if that means it must be comparatively restrained, with superpowers mostly used for practical purposes, like cutting through fences. Even when the not-Sentinels are involved, they essentially amount to human principals without faces. Chan even makes the very most of what he has in terms of shooting locations most of the time, with the dingy suburbs and backstreets of “Lincoln City” forming a sort of overground underworld, whose look and the inhabitants there-of will inevitably make one think of the likes of District 9.
I enjoyed Code 8 a lot. While it is nowhere near as unique and fresh as I thought it would be, and while parts of its presentation are distractingly white-washed, it pretty much nails every other aspect of itself. It presents a great juxtaposition of the crime and superhero genres. It’s acted well, with the two leads clearly immersed in the project to the extent that it is a passion affair, in all of the positive ways that this phrase can be used. It’s a well-constructed story that may not re-make the wheel, but which provides a suitable way to explore the universe that has been presented. And it is a crisp, professional looking production that has been made from non-traditional funding sources, a fairly significant achievement in its own right. I’m not sure if we will be seeing more from this universe or from this creative team, but I would happy to see if it it gets the opportunity to exist. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Vertical Entertainment).