October 7, 2013

Movie Review: Children of Men (2006)

As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices. - Miriam (Pam Ferris)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby

Producer: Marc Abraham

Studio: Universal

Major Stars: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Peter Mullan

What would the world be like with no children? What would happen to us as people if we lost the ability to reproduce and watched the slow, inevitable march towards our destruction? Would we soldier on or give up? Would chaos break out? Could we keep our hope, our faith? Or would we just tune out and cease to care?

These are some of the questions addressed in Children of Men, a remarkable film that I am pleased will kick off the "Top 100 Sci-Fi Films" list. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón and an adaptation of the novel by P.D. James, it brings us into the horrifying world of 2027. Humanity has gone sterile. The last baby, Baby Diego who was born in 2009, has been killed by an overzealous fan. Society has collapsed everywhere around the world except in Britain, where order is maintained by a totalitarian government and refugees are ruthlessly captured and shipped to Bexhill, a resort town turned gulag/deportation center/death camp. Against this dystopian backdrop we are introduced to Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a burnt-out shell of a man, going through the motions in a decaying society. He openly puts booze in his coffee and cynically uses the death of Baby Diego to get out of work. His only moments of happiness are spent with his aging hippie friend Jasper (played wonderfully by Michael Caine) at his country home. He has, for the most part, ceased to care.

Then his life is thrown off-kilter. His ex-wife, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), now the leader of a pro-refugee terrorist group known as the Fishes, comes to him for help. She needs a very special girl, Kee, to get out of Britain and to a scientific group known as the Human Project. Julian knows Theo can get transit papers that will allow the girl to pass through security points and reach a boat sent by the Human Project. Will she help him? It is his decision and what flows from that point that make up the bulk of the film.

Art Imitates Life: When the refugee bus reaches Bexhill, a man being tortured outside is posed in the exact same way as the iconic "hooded man" torture image from Abu Ghraib.

Odds are that most people know the plot of the film and why Kee is so special. Hell, you probably know just from what I'm writing. But since Children of Men isn't that old, and is so good if you go into it cold, I'm doing by best to avoid spoilers. So bear with me if I am a little vague.

Cuarón does a wonderful job of examining the issues of hope and faith through what is, essentially, a road film. Theo has to get Kee to the boat; that's the spine of the story. What Cuarón builds around that spine both visually and thematically is amazing.

The Britain of 2027 is dystopian and gray. Garbage goes uncollected and grime stains the buildings. Heavily-armed soldiers man every corner, along with signs asking citizens to root out refugees and report them. Captured refugees are held in cages until they can be transported to the hell that is Bexhill. Roving bands of bandits infest the countryside. It's the slow death of humanity, and Cuarón does a wonderful job (along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) of capturing it.

What really made this film stand out were its long tracking shots, i.e. shots without cuts. It's a difficult task to pull off, but when it works the long tracking shot brings you so deep into the film that you invest yourself completely in the moment. There are some incredibly long ones; when bandits chase a car containing Theo, Julian and Kee amongst others it goes on for almost four minutes. When Kee is taken away from Theo in Bexhill in the middle of a refugee uprising, his pursuit of her as the British Army assault the city is shown in a single tracking shot lasting over six minutes. It's a remarkable piece of work by Cuarón and Lubezki, and I wish more directors would take the risk. When they do, it can create some of the most memorable shots in film.

Sound also plays a major role in this film. As the refugee bus pulls into Bexhill, the song "Arbeit Macht Frei" by the Libertines plays in the background, an obvious reference to Nazi Germany and the concentration camps. Early in the film, Theo survives a coffee shop bombing. When he meets his ex-wife Julian for the first time in 20 years about helping Kee, she tells him that ringing in his ears is the death of those cells and when the sound is gone, it can never come back. The ringing sound comes back at other times in the film signaling when a character is going to die. And when the ringing goes away...they do. It's a very subtle but very well-done cue that just adds another layer to this film.

The acting is spot-on. Clive Owen is wonderful as Theo. His transformation from burnt-out activist to a man who cares once more is completely believable. Julianne Moore's Julian is tough, but you can tell how much she hurts underneath. Her screen-time is too short but well-acted. Michael Caine completely steals the screen when he is on as Jasper, the hippie who is Theo's friend. His wild hair and penchant for pot just accentuate what must have been a fun role for Caine to play.

No Guns Required: Theo never uses or touches a gun through the entire film, even though he has numerous chances and it would make his job easier.

But I'd like to reserve a special note of approval for the character of Syd, a Bexhill guard to whom Jasper sells pot. Played equal parts goofy and psychotic by Peter Mullan, he forcefully grabs your attention when he's on screen. And I had no idea this was Mullan. He played the psychotic murderer in one of my favorite small-budget horror films, Session 9. Didn't even recognize him. Well done, Peter! Shame that Syd ended up meeting the business end of a car battery... (my one spoiler. Sorry!)

I cannot recommend enough that you see Children of Men as soon as possible. It is one of the best science-fiction movies ever made, in my opinion. From the storyline to the theme of losing hope and maybe finding it again to the visuals (and those amazing tracking shots!), Children of Men is what all films should aspire to emulate. Cuarón has proven he is one of the best directors working today. Look at the films he has directed in his Hollywood career:

  • Great Expectations
  • Y tu mamá también
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Children of Men
  • Gravity

You think there aren't a thousand other directors who would kill to have one of those films on their resume, let alone all five? He's only 51 years old, which means he has another two decades minimum to keep topping himself. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Ultimately, Children of Men is about finding hope and having faith when it's hard to do either. It's a message, if you look around at what is happening in our world right now, which is important to take to heart. It'd be easy to give up, to not fight against abuses of power, the degradation of the environment, needless deaths. But it is at those moments that we have to have faith and find a way to give hope to others that things will get better. The film was stunning. Without a doubt, it deserves to be on this top 100 list.


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