BY // MAX GREENHALGH
A few days ago, I saw a project that I had never heard of in the Netflix Top 10 for movies, and it had apparently been there for at least a few days. I generally enjoy some good dystopian media (my favorite book of all time is 1984), so when I saw Netflix’s plot description of a film combining that with superhero films, I was in. 98 minutes later, I was flabbergasted, as I read reviews calling the film a “refreshing take on the superhero genre” and constructed around “novel circumstances.” Are you kidding me? Maybe I’m losing my mind a month into this new post-COVID-19 lifestyle, but I don’t see it. While not all aspects of the film disappoint, it follows a cookie-cutter formula while desperately attempting to make a strong political statement in order to gain some clout.
One thing I cannot fault the film for is its ambition. To make something this professional looking with primarily TV and brand new talent both in front of and behind the camera is remarkable. Code 8 comes from grounded roots, as it started out as a 2016 short film written and directed by Jeff Chan. With the aid of the performances and celebrity status of cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell (best known for their work in the CW Arrowverse as Firestorm and Green Arrow, respectively), its Indiegogo fundraiser raised $2.4 million for production in just 30 days. Despite financial limitations being fairly obvious in some special effects, it is clear that these funds were generally spent wisely. As a frequent consumer of high budget, mainstream movies, it is difficult for me to imagine how this minuscule budget paid for the impressive looking hovercrafts and robots featured on-screen. In the final cut, Robbie and Stephen star as superhumans, who are discriminated against in this film’s universe. Unfortunately, this is where the problems begin.
The ambition of the movie begins to backfire at this point because it struggles to pick what social message it wants to push. At first, it seems pretty clear cut that those with superheroes are being compared to undocumented immigrants, as they struggle to find honest work outside of construction and wait on the side of the road to be picked up by foremen for their odd jobs. Pushing the point further, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more on-the-nose political reference than this quote, found in the opening news montage (another sign of a GREAT movie) than this one: “I never said I wouldn’t hire a powered person. I said I would never hire an unregistered powered person.” Heavy-handed or not, it looks like we are at least settling on a main message to really dive into.
However, instead of fleshing out this angle, the movie takes detours into other currently relevant political issues, in an attempt to touch them all. A drug called Psyche is clearly supposed to be an opioid stand-in, but the film never takes the time to show or explain any negative effects of the drug. The consequences of an enhanced surveillance state seem omnipresent at some moments, but wanted criminals can then walk around in broad daylight in a heavily urbanized area, talking loudly about their plans to commit more crimes (I’m not exaggerating, this actually happens) with zero consequences. Because it wastes time on these and other brief allusions to sociopolitical themes, no single message has a satisfying arc.
The script, on the other hand, seems to be the very opposite of ambitious. This movie contains an absurd amount of nonsensical plot points, but I’ll just mention a few easily observable in the first 20 minutes. The film’s police force somehow “detect” superpower use in a construction site, and how they do this is never explained or used again by the incompetent fuzz. At the Psyche operation the cops take down a few minutes later, they use special handcuffs, able to stop a man with super-strength from breaking out, but normal cuffs were used at the construction site to take away a man with powers in the scene directly before this one, allowing him to attempt an escape. Finally, workers at the side of the road seem to know that Lincoln Power is a front for a prominent criminal ring, but the cops seem to have no idea of this connection while chasing down their clearly labeled van just minutes later. With the addition of several depthless characters and a plot thread that not once succeeded in surprising me, I am left to consider the overall idea of the film that many are calling a “breath of fresh air.” This is laughable, given that the X-Men comics and movies have been operating on a remarkably similar blueprint to this one since the 60s.
So, why do people like this movie? I mentioned the strong production values, but I think that there are some other factors. The actors here generally do a good job with what they are given. This is especially true of Sung Kang’s performance as Officer Park, who comes through with the best performance of the film despite receiving some of the worst material to work with. I also really enjoy some aspects of the film’s world structure, such as the fact that in many cases, having a gun seems far better than having a superpower. This keeps things interesting, as the heavily militarized police aren’t overmatched by godlike supernatural abilities, a perspective that I think should be employed more in the superhero genre. However, I think the biggest reason the film is getting so much positive press is that we are all stuck inside right now, and don’t have a ton to do. I know I never would have watched this movie on a Friday night if I could leave my house. While Code 8 has not (and almost certainly will not) achieve Bird Box-esque meme status and the popularity that comes along with it, I hope the Amell cousins and the rest of those involved keep working with this idea. It is clearly a project born out of passion, and despite the thrashing I’ve given it, I bet Lincoln City would be an intriguing setting for a more grounded, focused film.
⭑⭑⭒⭒⭒ 2/5 stars