Starring: Robbie Amell, Stephen Amell, Sung Kang & Kari Matchett
Directed by: Jeff Chan
Distributed by: Vertical Entertainment
Release Date: December 2019
Running Time: 100 mins
Synopsis: In a world where 4% of the population are born with varying supernatural abilities and instead of being billionaires or superheroes, they face discrimination and live in poverty, often resorting to crime. Connor Reed, a power-enabled young man, is struggling to pay for his ailing mother’s health treatment. Fighting to earn enough money as a day laborer, Connor is lured into a lucrative criminal world by Garrett, who works for Lincoln City’s reigning drug lord. Garrett helps Connor sharpen his powers in order to execute a series of crimes while a militarized police unit hunts them down.
A passion project from actor brothers Robbie and Stephen Amell, Code 8 first took form as a 10-minute short film that was hosted on YouTube to encourage backers on IndieGoGo to crowd-fund a feature-length version of the movie. The project was wildly popular and exceeded its initial $200K target to make $2.4M within its first month, thanks to the involvement of the Amell brothers and their social media presence. Despite its unconventional beginnings, Code 8 looks and feels like a standard science-fiction movie, featuring the same cinematic sheen as its bigger-budget cousins. In fact, it wasn’t until researching the movie after the fact that I even discovered its independent film origins. Low-budget sci-fi movies have a certain stigma attached to them, but Code 8 is extremely professional – not just with its CGI effects, but with its acting, script and direction also.
Unlike most films of its genre, the super-powered individuals of Code 8 are considered to be beneath the general population and struggle to make ends meet by undertaking off-the-books manual labour. The story of those with powers mirrors that of the immigrants who helped build America, cast aside once the development of those cities was finished and living on the poverty line ever since. In fact, the scenes where powered-people wait for trucks to pick them up from work mirrors actual practices seen near the Mexican border, as desperate workers do whatever work they can get for cash-in-hand. Much like the X-Men and its homo-superior mutants, Code 8 uses super-powers as a metaphor for racial intolerance and bigotry, but focuses more on the socio-economic problems that minorities and immigrants face in real poverty-stricken areas of America. The super-powered people of this world are predisposed to commit crimes, get addicted to drugs and live in poverty because the odds are against them from birth. Sounds uncomfortably familiar, doesn’t it?
Robbie Amell does a great job as the conflicted Connor Reed, attempting to do the right thing in a world that hates and fears him, but in need of money to care for his sick and dying mother. There’s a tragic inevitability to Connor’s story – a good man doing bad things for good reasons – and it is his gradual descent into organised crime that fuels the story. Stephen Amell plays wannabe gangster Garrett, who manipulates and trains Connor to utilise his electric powers to be part of his drug-running crew – it is a startling contrast to its most famous role of Oliver Queen in Arrow, but Amell maintains that same watchable intensity. The supporting cast are great too, delivering surprisingly three-dimensional characters through limited screen-time. Of note are, Kyla Kane who plays the drug-addicted Nia; Kari Matchett who plays Connor’s dying mother and Sung Kang who plays the enigmatic Officer Park who has torn loyalties about his duties.
While the science-fiction elements of Code 8 are enjoyable and what distinguishes it from other movies, you could effectively remove it all and the film would still work as a thrilling crime drama. The character motivations are extremely strong and the performances so clearly defined that it feels like a Greek Tragedy at times; The city itself also felt like a supporting character and at times the film reminded me of Ben Affleck’s excellent movie The Town, but with that excellent super-powered hook. The heist scenes are electrifying (quite literally) and director Jeff Chan manages to cultivate a palpable sense of tension in those moments, especially when things don’t go to plan. It is these major set-pieces that propel the film far beyond its independent film origins, creating dramatic edge-of-the-seat sequences that are fuelled by the performances just as much as the special effects.
The world-building of Code 8 and the setting of Lincoln City is well-done, and while the film opens with a fairly dense info dump via a news report montage, it does result in a rather detailed alternate history that is ripe for future stories. It feels like this movie only scratches the surface of potential stories within this world, with concepts like the oppressed powered individuals and the Guardian robots that enforce law and order waiting for further exploration. This film feels like Connor’s story, but there is the opportunity to explore other characters – with Garrett standing out as an option. With Arrow now complete, perhaps Stephen Amell could return as Garrett in a prequel or sequel? It definitely feels like there is more of his story to be told – whether it be in comics, novels, TV or film.
Overflowing with inventive ideas, Code 8 is a breath of fresh air for the superheroes genre and a brilliant palate cleanser for those with Marvel movie malaise. Director Jeff Chan creates an intriguing blend of gritty crime drama and science-fiction adventure that will appeal to fans of both genres. A stunning achievement in independent crowd-funded movies, Code 8 is destined to become a cult classic in the same vein as District 9, Monsters and Troll Hunter – proving that smaller budget movies can still compete with the Hollywood ‘big guns’, thanks to the advent of crowd-funding, VOD streaming and social media. Do yourself a favour and watch this movie before everyone starts talking about it!