Children of Men
2006Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine
s it’s January now, with pre-Oscar buzz in full swing, so I’ll take this opportunity to make a prediction: Children of Men will not win any Academy Awards. Here’s another prediction: Oscars or no, this movie will eventually be recognized as a masterpiece. The best film of the year and one of the finest of the decade, Children of Men faces an unfortunate demise at the box-office. Critics have tried to get the word out, but considering the lousy marketing campaign and tepid opening-weekend returns, odds are that Universal Studios will chalk up Children of Men as a big-budget disappointment.
The film opens with a typical morning for Theo Faron (Clive Owen): a cup of coffee, a shot of whiskey, and a terrorist bombing. Theo lives in London of 2027, where squalid camps house illegal immigrants, toxic pollution clouds the air, the government sanctions suicide pills (named “Quietus,” a nod to Hamlet), and no child has been born in two decades. When 18-year-old “Baby Diego” (the youngest person in the world) dies, all of London grieves, mourning the slow death of the entire human race. “He was a wanker,” says Theo. “Yes,” counters his hippie friend Jasper (Michael Caine), “but he was the world’s youngest wanker.” Within a hundred years, mankind will be extinct.
Like nearly everyone else on Earth, Theo has lost all hope. More than a cynic, the man is a misanthrope, seemingly without the possibility of redemption. That is, until Julian (Julianne Moore), his ex-lover, comes back into his life. Julian leads the Fishes, a revolutionary group blamed for terrorist bombings (the Fishes claim Britain’s authoritarian government is responsible, but to its credit, the film never clarifies the matter). Julian asks Theo to protect a poor refugee girl, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). The girl, as it turns out, is pregnant; her baby represents the last beacon of hope for the human race—and for Theo.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has already produced both a near-masterpiece (2001’s acute Y tu mamá también) and a fine studio picture (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the only Potter film that retains the novels’ sense of wonder and darkness), but even these successes fail to prepare one for Children of Men. The film rapidly grows in scale, becoming a road movie, an action flick, and finally, a war picture. In two particularly note-worthy sequences, an ingeniously staged ambush and a climactic battle, the director—astonishingly—uses a single take. We’ve seen this trick before, most famously in the opening of Welles’ Touch of Evil and the nightclub sequence in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But the extended takes in Children of Men accomplish something very different. Rather than heightening artifice, these shots bring us directly to the battlefield, dodging bullets and stepping over bodies.
Critics claim that Cuarón never gives us enough information about this world and its various warring factions, but repeat viewings confirmed my initial suspicions; this film is so visually (and aurally) dense that it requires a second, and in my case, even a third look. But repeat viewings aren’t necessary to convince the viewer that this future could exist—it’s the world we’re making for ourselves every day (the movie is replete with allusions to Guantanamo, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the Falklands, homeland security, terror alerts, and much more). Cuarón explores massively ambitious themes not through dialogue, nor even through narrative, but through a series of metaphorically rich visual motifs that encompass political, biblical, and mythic dimensions. With this remarkably sophisticated storytelling, the big picture evolves out of accumulated texture and detail.
All this ambition would falter were it not for Clive Owen, whose careful performance provides the human spine that a film of this scope so sorely needs (a spine that Steven Spielberg’s recent, painfully uneven work in this genre lacks). Cuarón has a deep, tender belief in people, and the warmth and humor of Children of Men come from the tiny moments we share with these characters. Cuarón is more interested in Jasper’s strawberry-flavored joints, Julian’s ping-pong balls, and Theo’s feet than he is in the global, political, and scientific implications of infertility. Children of Men isn’t really an action movie, a sci-fi picture, or a political allegory, but a humanist epic. Its hero never picks up a gun, never kills a villain, and his moment of change—from despair to hopefulness—doesn’t come amid explosions or pyrotechnics, but with the birth of a child: just as he’s about to perform the impromptu delivery that will give hope to the human race, he sanitizes his hands with the scotch he’d once used to shut out the world.
Children of Men is currently playing in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-01-12