Children of Men
People always second-guess the films that win an Oscar for Best Picture. And often times with good reason. Chariots of Fire beat out Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oliver beat The Lion in Winter. Ordinary People beat Raging Bull. And don’t even get me started on the instantly impotent A Beautiful Mind. Then there are those films that don’t even get nominated in the first place: King Kong, Modern Times, Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Third Man, Singing in the Rain, The Searchers, Some Like it Hot, and virtually any Hitchcock or Kubrick film to name just a few.
Add Children of Men to the list.
I realize there are only so many nominations the Academy can put forward, and to be honest, I approve of all five of this year’s nominations, but regardless, I can’t help feeling that years into the future, some of this season’s crop will be all but forgotten while we’ll be still be talking about Children of Men. As well we should be. It is a superlative piece of filmmaking.
I was entranced by this movie. Hypnotized. Spellbound. In a thrall. The final quarter of the film is nothing short of an evolutionary leap forward in filmmaking. There, I’ve said it.
Based on the novel by P.D. James, Children of Men is Blade Runner for the 21st century, a dystopian thriller that, like all good science fiction that utilizes the future to reflect the present, feels frighteningly contemporary. Though set in 2027, this is a very recognizable and believable future — not so techie or advanced as to be implausible.
Terrorism has crippled the planet. The great superpower is in shambles. Civil wars rage planet wide. The garbage strewn streets are war zones. Only Britain “soldiers on” by becoming a suffocating police state in which Homeland Security has been given carte-blanch to detain anyone it deems suspicious. The flood of illegal immigrants hoping to escape the even greater horrors outside England’s shores are rounded up and cast into ghettos nearly identical to those the Nazi’s constructed. And they are liquidated just as ruthlessly, leading to terrorist attacks by The Fishes, which advocate for immigrant rights at the end of homemade bombs. England has become exactly the sort of seething, paranoid, fascist nightmare from which our current world leaders claim to be trying to protect us.
But something far worse than atomic bombs, insurgents or global warming threatens to bring humanity to its knees. Women have mysteriously stopped having children. The last child born was almost two decades earlier. In a single generation we will all be gone. Not satisfied with the utter futility of its predicament, the human race seems bent on destroying itself before nature has a chance.
Within this hell, we meet a former activist turned burned-out bureaucrat Theo (Clive Owen). Rumpled and despondent, Theo has virtually shut himself off from the world. The only real human contact he allows himself is an old friend and hippie named Jasper (Michael Caine), a former political cartoonist who now hides out in the woods, growing pot. One day, after visiting Jasper, Theo is kidnapped by The Fishes and discovers that the Fishes' leader is Julian (Julianne Moore), his ex-wife, with whom he’d had and lost a child some 20 years before. Julian entices Theo into using his government connections in order to secure transit papers to a secret facility called “The Human Project” for Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young African immigrant who, it turns out, is mysteriously pregnant and soon to deliver. Theo finally agrees, little realizing that that decision will put he and Kee squarely in the crosshairs of both terrorist factions and government troops alike.
Alfonso Cuarón (The Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) has made a film of staggering power. All muscle and sinew, Children of Men pulses with a palpable energy and dynamism. Cuarón’s visual style is tsunami-like — exhausting, and physically capable of creating stomach-eroding ulcers in his viewers.
Much of this film is composed of incredibly long and complicated takes filmed with handheld cameras. Some of these scenes go on for nearly ten minutes and cover vast amounts of terrain and action, the camera literally splattered with dirt and blood by the end. Cuarón's audaciousness, which pays off like few things I’ve ever seen, is jaw-dropping — doubly so when you consider the shocking amount of attention to detail that had to be employed in order to edit within the camera and not in the Avid booth. Cuarón builds scenes within the camera's frame instead of the editing room, crafting a film as theatrical as it is cinematic.
It speaks to Cuarón's blistering talent then, that amidst this kind of bravura filmmaking he never loses sight of the film’s equally intense philosophical concerns. Children of Men’s political relevance is never muted by the action. The film addresses fertility, racism, war, terrorism, immigration, decaying social infrastructures, technology, mass paranoia and even life itself.
It is no mistake that this film, bleak as it is, was released on Christmas Day. This is a modern day nativity story with Kee as the Black Madonna and her child a very real savior for mankind.
Cuarón’s ideas may not be new, but the audaciousness of his execution is. He has directed a film with a searing immediacy and a ferocious velocity. This world of fear and hopelessness is more real than we can ever dream possible. Infertility is merely the MacGuffin, a metaphor to examine the possibility of a humankind endgame. Deep down, we know Cuarón’s future could easily be our own. And that is perhaps the most frightening thing of all.