Posts Tagged ‘Panopticon’

code46My rating: **
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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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Spoiler alert cube1
My rating: ***

Imdb link

This film about a group of strangers, inexplicably trapped in an interlocking network of connected cubes and their efforts to escape, is gripping from beginning to finish. It also raises some interesting questions.

What if we were trapped in a disciplinary mechanism which has gone way beyond any necessity for Panoptic surveillance and simply relies on the complexity of its own mechanism to keep people in place? Worse, there is no reason for the mechanism, it has simply arisen as the anonymous result of collective labour, each worker producing part of the machine in ignorance of others, until its original purpose – if there ever was one – is lost. The people trapped in the cube are there for no ostensible reason we can see. Perhaps there is still a residual bleak comfort in the notion of the Panoptic society. At least somebody cares enough to want to watch what we are doing, even if only to exercise punitive measures. Nobody (as far as we know from the film) cares what happens to the people who are seemingly placed at random in the cube. It would appear the only reason they are there is simply because the cube exists and something needed to be done with it.

The only person who escapes is the idiot savant who has no purpose, no capacity to wonder why, and whose contribution to his own escape is not willed but simply the result of instinctive action which others have been able to harness even if they themselves do not survive. And to make this grim scenario even darker, as the director’s commentary points out, the people are in far more danger from each other than they are from the deadly but logical workings of the cube.

The film’s intellectual and somewhat abstract approach, gives the viewer enough distance not to be dragged down into a gloomy morass and it works extremely well.

The famous soliloquy from Macbeth is clearly more than a little apposite here.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

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