It’s the 90s, and times are tough all over. The economy’s in a downturn, unemployment is high, and people with super powers are being discriminated against every single day. While the government debates bans and further restrictions on the super-endowed, life in the streets is already tough enough. Connor (Robbie Amell) is an electric — he can manipulate electricity to short systems or use as an attack — but he’s trying to play things straight by working regular jobs to help support his sick mother, Mary (Kari Matchett). Circumstances stand in his way, though, so when the opportunity arises to do some illegal work with a crew of other supers he’s unable to resist. Soon the team is on track for a massive heist guaranteed to solve all of their problems…
Strip away the super powers, and the story here is familiar enough for fans of crime thrillers including everything from Topkapi (1964) to The Town (2010). That’s not a knock either, because why break what isn’t broken? The trick each time is finding a compelling and/or fresh way into the story, and both director Jeff Chan and writer Chris Pare manage just that with Code 8.
A low budget prevents the filmmakers from getting too crazy with the super shenanigans, so they instead find strengths in their downsizing. Pare’s script treats the abilities as the norm, things that exist to be shunned or exploited as only humans can do, and the result is some effectively low-key power demonstrations brought to life with solid effects work. From Connor’s electric beats to others with fire skills, telekinesis, super strength, healing powers, and the ability to read minds, these are everyday people going about their lives. It’s tough all over, but it’s even tougher for those devalued by a society in decline.
Connor’s move into crime is fueled both by his sick mother and the death of his father, himself an electric who died while committing a robbery when Connor was still a boy, but he’s not alone in his personal motivations. Det. Park (Sung Kang) is working the case alongside a bigoted partner, but his own feelings about supers is clouded by a personal attachment to one, and Nia (Kyla Kane), a healer who’s indentured into working for a crime lord due to her own father’s past actions, becomes an interesting focal point for a later moral complexity. Connor is a good guy, but the film allows that definition to stretch when it comes to the question of just how far someone will go for the ones they love. Amell’s real-life cousin, Stephen Amell, plays a telekinetic who leads the small band of thieves, and he’s working with his own personal grudge against a society that shuns people like him.
The script’s world-building works well given the limitations, and while the story stays focused little touches here and there help paint a bigger picture. While some supers go about their lives and others commit crimes, others are letting unscrupulous grifters tap their spinal fluid to sell as a high-priced drug, and the media debates whether these down on their luck sellers are victims or traffickers themselves. Police heli-crafts fly overhead monitoring and controlling the populace, and each is fitted with a pair of armed droids that appear straight out of a Boston Dynamics robot lab.
The cast does good work across the board with both Amells committing to the premise and their characters. The two share another connection as they produced Chan’s original short together before helping expand it for this feature adaptation. Its brief real-world release didn’t catch too many eyeballs, but as the script creates a world that could easily continue — and since the film has found some heat with its premiere on Netflix — I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similarly budgeted sequel in the near future (albeit one paid for by Netflix as opposed to an Indiegogo campaign). There are more stories here that could be told alongside those of the continuing characters, and it would be fun to see how far they can go without using the word mutant or mutation…
Code 8 never stretches enough to break the mold of what’s come before, but it pairs its ideas together well resulting in a solid genre tale about the gray area between good and bad, desire and need, and right and wrong. It’s a quick distraction from the real world, and that’s never a bad thing.