Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is absolutely one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Two viewings have overwhelmed me with some of the strongest emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. It is, at the very least, one of the best of 2007 (along with Pan’s Labyrinth and United 93), and everything the similarly-themed V for Vendetta could have been.
This coffee packs a wallop
The movie opens nearly two decades after the last human birth. Mass infertility is a terrifyingly plausible sci-fi trope in 2008, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of a globe-spanning contagious disease outbreak like SARS (a fictional flu pandemic is alluded to in the film). As the infertility remains uncured, so too is it unexplained for the audience. The best science fiction avoids pedestrian pseudo-science that tends not to date well (2001: A Space Odyssey being the exception that proves the rule). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and we can assume that cloning and artificial insemination of frozen eggs have failed. So by the time the film opens, the harsh fact that the human race is doomed to slowly die out is a given, and has reduced the world’s societies into chaos. Only Britain has been able to survive, to a point, using only the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda commercials glimpsed throughout the movie, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is this kind of survival worth the price?
Immigrants flood the only country with some semblance of stability, fleeing unspecified atrocities abroad. All we learn of the United States is of a vague catastrophe in New York creepily referred to only as “it.” Immigrants are demonized as “fugis” (for “fugitives,” perhaps punning on the derogatory British slang “paki” for any and all Middle Easterners) and penned in concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. Several of the fugitive voices we hear are German, causing one to wonder just what exactly may have happened in Germany, and if it may have been something we have seen before in human history. My German is non-existent, but If I’m not mistaken, we overhear one captive German woman bitterly complain to her guard for being locked up in a detention cell with black people. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature, that at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.
At gunpoint is one way to reconnect with an ex
The five credited screenwriters, usually a bad sign, have done an extraordinary job of adapting the original novel by P.D. James (who, according to IMDB, has an uncredited cameo in the café bombed in the opening moments of the film). I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the movie is “better” than its source material, but it is certainly more visceral and emotionally affecting to a post 9/11 audience. As an adaptation, the many changes are justified and benefit the translation to a different medium and time. Most significantly, the chronology is condensed from months to days, and the relatively polite insurrectionist group The Five Fish has become a full-fledged terrorist organization called simply The Fish. Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, and no longer living a life of wealthy ease. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his original motivation to help The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England of the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. King Crimson’s dramatic Mellotron dirge “In the Court of the Crimson King” fittingly accompanies Theo as he visits Nigel, passing into a walled city that separates the privileged elite from the working masses outside (Naomi Klein predicts the future dominance of such places in the DVD bonus features). The Ark is a pointless quest to archive the world’s great works of art, including everything from Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, to Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig.
Crying babies don’t usually have this effect on people
Several mind-bendingly impossible tracking shots grace the film, so fluid and justified by the action that the mind barely registers a lack of cutting. There is an incredible level of detail in the art direction, but as Cuaron declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Two decades hence, technology has marched on only to a degree. What’s the point of innovation in fashion, automobiles, and consumer electronics when the human race is doomed to extinction? Eerie sights include fields of burning cattle corpses (possibly due to mad cow disease, or more likely the simple fact that the farming economy has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer fit young people every day.
The Human Project is real
Children of Men may be a punishingly bleak vision of the future, but there is hope to be had. Theo is a broken man resolved to a slow death, both his own and of his species. But there is something special within him; his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) trusts him over everyone else to do the right thing when presented with a gift of hope: the first human child in two decades. Even animals are drawn to him, including dogs, kittens, and deer. His friend Jasper (Michael Caine) praises the Hindu Peace Mantra, which also appears as an epigram after the credits (over the sound of children playing), and bears repeating here:
Shantih Shantih Shantih
Official movie site: www.childrenofmen.net
Must view: Daily Film Dose’s Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema, including Children of Men.
Must view: a reel of fake adverts made for the film by Foreign Office Design (via Kottke.org)
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