CHILDREN OF MEN
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron continues to impress, and seems to be more intent on helming adaptations of veddy British literature (Great Expectations, A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) than he is on delving into stories in and about his homeland (the magnificent Y Tu Mama Tambien). His sole excursion into the realm of J.K. Rowling's magical youth is still the best movie in that series, and now with this film under his belt it feels as though he possesses his own strain of alchemical gifts – as apparently every project he touches turns to gold.
Children of Men is an adaptation (by Cuaron and Timothy Sexton primarily) of P.D. James' dystopian novel about an altogether different kind of apocalypse. For some unknown reason, the women of Planet Earth suddenly cease being able to reproduce. The world falls into disarray, leaving good old Britain as the last remaining ‘civilization', quietly awaiting the day when its last living citizen will expire and mankind will go out with a whimper. It's a fascinating concept to mull over – what would happen if human offspring were suddenly no longer an option? Most films of this ilk focus on despotic governments and nuclear threats. I've seen plenty of Post-Apocalyptic Nightmares, but hardly any Post-Fertility Nightmares.
As much as I love science fiction stories that masticate on gripping social issues, upon first hearing of this project I was immediately worried that it was going to wind up a sort of Pro-Life propaganda piece funded by some gargantuan mid-west church. These fears were allayed by the revelation that Cuaron would be behind the director's chair. Thankfully, the film is rather skittish of indulging in any such sort of commentary – it merely establishes the scenario and moves on within that framework. Some may grouse over the lack of explanation behind the rash of barren wombs, but I enjoyed the vagueness. It helps put the viewer in the mindset of the characters. They don't know why this is happening, so why should we?
It also heightens the hopelessness of their plight. How can a cure be developed when nobody can even figure out what exactly has gone wrong? In place of fervently scrambling for solutions, the government instead places a focus on ‘protecting' its remaining populace through gratuitous usage of internment camps and heightening the public's level of xenophobia (a comment on modern-day attitudes regarding immigration). The rest of the crowd go about their business as if they're already ghosts, working in the same soul deadening jobs like we do now, though with an extra layer of despair slathered on top.
Clive Owen's Theo Faron is one such cog in the system. Apparently he was a radical activist at one point before losing his fire. I won't spoil how, as most of the character revelations in the film are rich materials that deserve to be explored by the audience upon first viewing. Theo shuffles along with the rest of Britain's doomed souls, finding time to squeeze into coffee shops for a cup of joe (with a touch of Scotch) before they are bombed out of existence. Cuaron and DP Emmanuel Lubezki aim for a journalistic approach to the staging, and manage to imbue this future London with the random danger of any given war-torn Middle East city. Visually it makes a nice companion to James McTeigue's V For Vendetta.
Much of the film occurs in and around heavy military incidents, but as with the film's main subject material, it skirts around overexplanation and chooses not to apply overly heavy-handed allegorical connections to Israel, Palestine, Baghdad or any number of other real-world volatile confrontations. Children of Men establishes this strife as a backdrop, and it ultimately doesn't matter what the armed forces are doing since in the end nothing they accomplish will benefit mankind. What answers (or clues) the film does give, it lays out subtly. One character's wife is essentially left comatose, and we are left to extrapolate her history from a panning close-up of various newspaper clippings taped to a wall. But the overwhelming sentiment the film proffers is this: with nothing left to do but wait to die, mankind will choose to focus on war, fear and other of its favorite pastimes instead of going out peacefully.
When we meet Theo, the rest of society is mourning the loss of ‘the youngest person on the planet' Baby Diego - a privileged celebrity who mirrors our own Z-list stars (such as Kato Kaelin or K-Fed) for being famous for no real legitimate reason. Theo considered him to be ‘a wanker', but uses the mass depression as an excuse to sneak out of his job at the Ministry of Energy. (Another interesting set that feels relatively contemporary despite the injection of some futuristic electronic devices) Theo soon reconnects with his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who is still a practicing revolutionary. She is now working with Chiwetel Ejiofor's Luke, and their group (known as the ‘Fishes') tries convincing Theo to assist in a massively important endeavor.
Since the trailers already spilled the beans, it's no spoiler to let out that the Fishes are harboring the potential savior of the human race – a young pregnant African immigrant (Claire Hope Ashitey's Kee, a refreshingly non-Virgin Mary style performance). There are many references to a shadowy organization known only as the ‘Human Project' that will be able to study the girl and her child, hopefully encountering some solid cure along the way. Like all heroes of this sort of fiction, Theo is a reluctant one. Even when he does begin to follow through with the plan, it isn't until much later that he feels it in his gut.
There are some interesting scenes amongst the rare folks who see ‘The End is Nigh' as a chance to live the good life, or the closest possible interpretation. There's a bizarre ride past a common loaded with exotic animals that feels like a postcard out of the late 1800s, and a visit to Theo's art aficionado cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), whose high-rise studio window in what he calls the Ark of the Arts (actually Battersea Power Station) overlooks a flying inflatable pig a la the cover of Pink Floyd's concept album 'Animals'.
Music plays an integral part of the film's feel, and apart from obvious choices such as Radiohead, Aphex Twin and King Crimson they also dig up the rare John Lennon tune Bring On the Lucie. There's also the cacophonous noise-metal enjoyed by Michael Caine's delightful character Jasper Palmer. Jasper is Theo's only remaining friend, a charming ex-political cartoonist and weed-loving hippie who has taken to hiding in a small house well off the beaten path. He has often attempted to convince Theo to join him in his celebration of end times, but one gets the feeling that the latter man is too haunted to be able to relax without a loss of sanity. And as jovial a character as Jasper is, he always keeps a supply of the government sanctioned suicide drug ‘Quietus' around just in case.
Once Theo and crew attempt to make a break for it, the film's first true tour de force moment ensues, in which their small escape vehicle is attacked by a hillside full of ruffians who look as if they'd wandered out of a Mad Max film. The ensuing action scene is a nail biting assault on the senses, and uses clever filmmaking techniques to make the madness appear to be all shot in one take. They worked it so that the car could be filmed from all angles with its five passengers still in place. Some tricky effects work was done to fuse the footage with other stunt shots involving a duel with a motorcycle. It's an amazing set piece.
From this shocking turning point the goals of Theo and Kee change wildly, and apart from some brief moments of respite (including an odd visitation from a deer in an extra-eerie abandoned elementary school) the rest of the film is a gripping race. Along the way they meet some unlikely allies, such as the unctuous Syd (played by Trainspotting and Session 9 actor Peter Mullan), the kind of guy who makes your skin crawl even while he's saving it. The finale paints a bleak picture of having to enter the one place any sane person would try to get out of - a true hell-on-earth refugee camp at Bexhill-on-Sea.
Once inside, the film feels more like Saving Private Ryan or The Pianist than Blade Runner, leading up to a punishing journey through embattled, rubble-strewn locations. As bullets shatter bricks and torsos and ricochet like mad, you may find yourself ducking for cover as the characters work their way across the screen. It's hard to imagine that a newborn baby could somehow lead to the end of such madness, and judging by one interesting scene involving an all-too momentary cessation of the siege, it probably couldn't. Even the rosiest propositions for the future of Children of Men's world are still murkily gray.
The film smartly leaves most of the final conclusions in the lap of the audience, with an ambiguous ending that refuses to connect all of the dots for you. Some may be left cold by the amount of subtlety found within the film, but I felt it dropped enough meat along the way for one to chew on. The performances are stellar across the board, though I particularly enjoyed Michael Caine's character. Clive Owen is perfect for the kind of moral ambivalence displayed by Theo at the start of the story, a trait other actors often just play as boring. One must also give credit to the insanely talented eye of Lubezki, who has truly given us a superlative effort.Children of Men joins the ranks of great science fiction films in part because it doesn't come across as an extremely futuristic tale. Its horrors are real, pressing matters that can affect us all regardless of our babymakin' capabilities. If there are any doubts that Cuaron is a vitally important filmmaker, this should put them to bed. I look forward to whatever he tackles next, especially if it's another literary adaptation. It's not often that I get to see a contender for the ‘best film of the year' during the first month of the year. Bravo!