Children of Men
by Alfonso Cuarón
Review by Michael Sean McGowan
Universal Pictures Theatrical ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JP9V
Date: December 29, 2006 / Show Official Info /
God Bless the Child
Future Imperfect: Children of Men is an uncompromising horror. (Film Review)
The Upside: Bold; it'll stay with you for days.
There's a short story by Chuck Palahniuk in which a group of astronauts discover definitive proof of the existence of Heaven. Ironically, rather than this being a cause for peace and celebration on Earth, it leads to chaos and mob-rule. And why not? Perhaps the only thing that keeps humanity fighting for this burnt-out piece of rock is the very ambiguity of the future -- for good or ill -- that keeps us from throwing it out entirely. Once the knowledge of an afterlife is verified, people all over the world decide that a Earth-bound life that involves toil and suffering and growing old simply isn't worth it, when an astral oasis is just around the corner. Movements arise encouraging people to migrate to a new, better plane of existence. Wal-Mart begins selling over-the-counter suicide kits. And government hit squads prowl near-deserted cities and suburbs hunting down fertile women; anyone who can give birth and thus "recycle" a soul from its blissful stay in Heaven to spend another lifetime in a decaying mortal shell is considered a freak and an enemy of the state.
There's the same kind of sense of hopeless rot in Children of Men. The year is 2027. For a reason that is probably best unexplained a blanket of infertility has covered the human race for the last eighteen years. No births. No children. Just a dwindling number of human beings watching age-old civilizations run out the clock. With no new generation to live for, the current one has begun to turn on itself. Violence reigns supreme. Ads on TV advertise suicide drugs under the tagline "You decide when to go." During one spot we're told that nations all over the globe have been decimated, including a quick and bone-chilling image of New York City sprouting a mushroom cloud. Only Britain, it says, has "soldiered on", fending off complete anarchy by embracing fascist militarism. It's a deluding false hope -- the last tenants of English society held up by adopting a jingoistic, xenophobic national philosophy in which immigrants or anyone who can't tow the new line are swept up and imprisoned in vast, crumbling ghettos, not that unlike those found in Poland and Germany at the dawn of the Final Solution. But even in this stronghold of the last remaining civilization stress fractures are forming. Theo (Clive Owen), a dead-eyed bureaucrat whose seeds of youthful activism have long since been ground into dust, has just walked out of a London coffee shop when the building is ripped apart by a blinding explosion. Some blame "The Fishes", a leftist guerrilla movement taking up arms in defense of Britain's defenseless immigrants. Others blame the government, who needs every reason it can get to keep people afraid and hopeless.
Needless to say, this is not a light movie - Children of Men is a walking nightmare shot through a milieu of bleeding smokestacks and broken glass, a portrait of now masquerading as a more feral, primal then. The picture it presents isn't depressing; it's haunting, unsettling, and painfully real because director Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien) has eschewed the comic book aesthetic of presenting the future as a technophilic Blade Runner alien world and has simply laced the grimmer realities of today with some of our most angry visions of tomorrow. The coffee shop bombing incites recollections circa July 2005, the story of how "Baby Diego", the teenager cursed with the mantle of the youngest person on the planet, is murdered by a spurned autograph seeker, and picks up our most pathetic tabloid stories and runs for the end zone. Buildings which have not seen repair in decades are covered by real-time news tickers on watch for the Four Horsemen. It may be grim, yet Children of Men is also alive and you walk out ill at ease yet invigorated at seeing a master director portraying his vision with such hellish ferocity.
It isn't long before Theo, who's content to numb himself to the dying of the light with booze and rap sessions with his ex-hippie buddy Jasper (Michael Caine, very effectively channeling John Lennon), is snatched off the streets by a cell of Fishes led by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). They need his government connections to get a very special girl, Kee (newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey)- a very pregnant girl - out of the totalitarian chaos, where her baby is likely to end up nothing more than a propaganda tool, to something called "The Human Project", a fabled but never seen group of scientists who are writing the blueprints for a new world.
One would think, after just ingesting the premise, that Children of Men would read like the smarter, more bookish cousin of V for Vendetta, another 2006 film which painted London in shades of Orwell. This reasoning disintegrates about fifteen minutes in - not because Children of Men isn't smart, but because it has little use for a dichotomy of good and evil, heroes and villains that flag-waving cartoon shows like V couldn't live without. Despite the seemingly tell-all plot, Cuaron manages to hide a couple of sucker punches away from us, twists that render its dystopia in an appropriate if squeamish void of any conceivable ethics or morals, a picture of an unpromising future all the more convincing for its embrace of the icons of self-righteousness and self-preservation. To elaborate on this would be to steal much of the movie's thunder, nevertheless Children of Men possesses the same kind of shrill ringing-in-the-ears echo (much like the soundtrack following moments of insidious violence) that will make it a movie to be rediscovered and reevaluated on repeated viewings.
Cuaron's visual concept is not 100% new, but like Quentin Tarantino he makes his project both an homage and an assemblage of the best that great filmmakers before him have done. Present are the dynamic, long camera takes Hitchcock experimented with in movies like Rope. Cuaron also fiddles with Spielberg's cinema verite war-Gospel of handheld cameras shot over the shoulder as characters stumble in and out of the field of gunfire, and as people on the periphery get themselves shot and immolated with hardly an advance notice. The climactic fifteen minutes of Children of Men, a flight and rescue up and down the buckling corridors of a sieged hotel now serving as a refugee shelter, is one of the most kick-in-the-ass examples of movies at their rawest we've had since the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. It makes Cuaron less a director than a war correspondent, keeping his camera (the photography by The New World's Emmanuel Lubezki is a double-wow) bolting between multiple epicenters of violence at one time, filtered stain glass-like through spattered blood droplets on the lens. At no point does Children of Men compromise, at no point does it dip into heroics. At its base, it is a movie about doomed people doing everything they can to survive, and the result is not always pleasant.
Cuaron's cast list is strong, though. Clive Owen, the grizzly Brit who was once the oft-talked successor to the James Bond throne, shows he's more at home in beaten-down characters who don't have the sense not to get back up. Moore, hopefully now with dreadful bombs like The Forgotten and Freedomland out of her system, moves on to play Theo's ex-wife with an endearing, uncomplicated air.
Children of Men runs the risk of getting lost in the last-minute rush of "adult" movies that always surge like a herd of agitated elephants at the end of the year. It's above most of it - above the glitz and pomp of Dreamgirls, above the dreary hum-drum-ness of The Good Shepherd. In fact, you'd have to go all the way back to United 93 to find another movie this year as tender and bloody and inside out as Children of Men. This is a movie of great ideas and great technique, all blended together to create what might be described as the most desolate, authentic tour of what Hell on Earth might actually be like. A