NETFLIX ORIGINAL | DIRECTOR: JEFF CHAN | SCREENPLAY: JEFF CHAN, CHRIS PARE | STARRING ROBBIE AMELL, STEPHEN AMELL, SUNG KANG, ALEX MALLARI JNR | RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Code 8 - a low-budget sci-fi passion project for cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell, expanded from a 2016 short film of the same name - would probably have passed largely unnoticed if not for the curious lockdown circumstances that have forced people to dig deeper into the dark corners of Netflix than they might normally have done. Consequently, the film is currently enjoying a healthy profile on the streaming service as ravenous audiences clamour for more and more original content. ‘Original’ isn’t, however, a word we’d necessarily associate with Code 8 as it takes some well-worn clichés – here it’s the idea of the trials and tribulations faced by a small percentage of the population who are born with ‘supernatural’ abilities and the fear and suspicion they arouse in a hostile society that forces them to live in poverty and squalor. Code 8 is unashamedly low-budget stuff – the film was largely crowd-funded – and yet it manages to turn its lack of cash to its advantage by delivering a few impressive money shots and spending its time developing its world and its characters.
Connor Reed (Robbie Amell) is a ‘Power’ with electro-kinetic abilities, eking out a living from manual labour jobs and trying to support his sick mother who is suffering from brain cancer. He is enlisted by telekinetic mobster Garret Kelton (Stephen Amell) who recruits him in a series of heists and robberies which will provide Connor with the money he needs to pay for his mother’s treatment as well as making up the shortfall in the profits from a drug business run by Garret’s sleazy boss. Garret tries to help Connor master his own abilities and encourages him to become more assertive in a world determined to grind him and his like into the ground. But the pair’s partnership and, particularly, Garret’s associations, lead the pair into dangerous territory and Connor is forced to make difficult decisions about his own future as his mother’s condition deteriorates and time begins to run out.
It would be easy to dismiss Code 8 as just a cheap and lazy X-Men rip-off but the film’s strength lies in its thoughtful characterisation, its well-realised vaguely-dystopian world, and a script that gives its characters room to breathe and develop as it explores its themes of a society where people aren’t just good or bad but capable of great moral ambiguity for all sorts of reasons. Lincoln City, the faceless metropolis where the action takes place, is patrolled by huge flying drone aircraft which disgorge RoboCop-like android ’Guardians’, and these sequences are where the money has been spent, resulting in a couple of impressive action scenes in which the drones sweep across the city and the Guardians indulge in combat with Garret’s gang and assorted undesirables. Elsewhere, many of the effects – electric bolts and various bangs and flashes – are very much the stuff of a modestly-funded TV series – but we’re constantly reminded that they’re really not the point of the film or the story; the point is we’re getting involved in these people and we’re genuinely invested in their world and the uncomfortable predicaments and moral dilemmas it throws up.
Code 8 isn’t perfect, of course – it’s a bit too relentlessly dour and humourless – but it does a remarkable job in bringing a believable alternative world to the screen on the sort of resources that would barely pay for the credit sequence in an X-Men movie, and yet it handles similar themes and ideas with considerably more intelligence and thoughtfulness than the last few desperate entries into the enduring Marvel mutant saga. There’s enough potential here, in fact, for what’s been described as a ‘short-form’ spin-off series for pointless short-attention-span streaming service Quibi, but we’ll believe that when we see it.