Code 8 Review: The Arrowverse with the fun extracted
The Amell cousins’ crowdfunded sci-fi project hits Netflix
There’s a lot more interest in Code 8’s arrival on Netflix than there is for most other low budget sci-fi movies, and most of that has to do with its two stars, its unusual production history and the fact that a spin-off mini-series is now in development.
The stars in question are acting cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell, both alumni of the Arrowverse. Stephen Amell glowered his way through eight years as DC’s emerald archer in Arrow, while Robbie guest-starred as Firestorm for a handful of appearances on The Flash (and will soon be seen in Netflix’s very entertaining digital afterlife comedy Upload).
Code 8 began life in 2016 as a short film (embedded above), directed by Jeff Chan and starring the Amells, which acted as a teaser for a potential feature film. The Amells then launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to try to get a full-length film made based on the short. Their target was $200,000 but they’d already raised $2.4 million in little over a month and the campaign finally closed on $3.4 million. The completed movie reunited the Amells with director Chan and had a limited theatrical release last year.
But what’s it about? Well, you might expect the Amells – especially Stephen – might want to avoid being typecast in super-power shows, but not a bit of it, appaarently. Code 8 is practically a blue-collar X-Men film in which those with superpowers are feared and loathed, yadda, yadda, yadda. In this case, fear of those with powers – or “Powers” as they’re known, because, y’know, prejudice rarely begats originality in the naming department – means that the mutants have become second class citizen, forced in menial, usually constructions jobs, if they can get any work at all, that is. Because putting “powers” on your CV is a career limiting move in this world.
But Powers can earn money another way – an illegal, addictive drug called Psyke can be created from their spinal fluid. But are those who donate their spinal fluids victims of an unfair social system or just traffickers? You may still be wondering by the end of the movie, because it turns out that Psyke is ultimately little more than an elaborate MacGuffin and the morality of its origins is never really explored, just mined for some striking images.
Trying to make his way legally in this world is electricity-manipulating Power Connor Reed (Robbie Amell). Trying, but failing. With his mum dying, and being unable to afford the hospital bills, Connor falls in with a local crime gang, and is tutored in the ways of bank robbery, chemical theft, hijacking and controlling his powers from the telekinetic Garrett (Stephen Amell). But while a life of crime pays big initially, the tendency for criminals to doublecross each other soon places Connor in a very dangerous position.
The main way the Amells seem keen to differentiate this new project from the Arrowverse – despite the generic similarities – is by making it “adult”. However, that’s adult as in “what teenagers like to think is adult”. You know – blood spraying all over the place, “F**k!” in practically every line of dialogue (in fact, “F**k!” on its own very often constitutes a line of dialogue) and a relentlessly grim tone. It does attempt humour on a couple of occasions, but since the gags seems squarely aimed at the Beavis and Butt-Head demographic (“He’s got a rap sheer roughly the size of my dick.” “So, short and thin?”) you really wish it wouldn’t bother.
There is stuff here to like, though. Unlike other superpower shows and films, the powers themselves aren’t all massively impressive or easy to pull off. The characters often have to strain to use them. Garrett may be telekinetic, but somebody running at him can fight against his psychic forces and push through. This more mundane level of superpower is well realised and makes believable the idea that non-powered police and security forces could keep the Powers under control.
The police also have robot boot boys called Guardians on their side, and mightily impressive they are too, deployed from large drones in pairs and acting in cold, ruthless unison. In fact, the production design and world building are high on the film’s reasons to watch along with some efficient, exciting sci-fi action sequences.
Plotwise, though, it’s all very predictable, right down to the good cop, bad cop double act between the two drug unit officers in pursuit of Garrett and Connor. There’s nothing surprising here – after 20 minutes you can pretty much guess how it’s all going to pan out. Even a twist regarded a woman with healing powers is no twist if you’re familiar with superpowered healers from other stories (or even the heavy hints given in Code 8 itself). When she reveals it, you just think, “Huh, well that’s what I presumed was happening anyway.”
Ultimately, Code 8 is a well-made, sporadically entertaining, but largely pointless and forgettable experience. It very little new to offer an already overstuffed genre, and makes you wonder how the proposed mini-series is going to justify its existence.
The drug unit cops do have some sweatshirts, though, that are a gift for spin-off merchandisers.
Code 8 is currently available to watch on Netflix.