Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Children of Men

I've always said that it would be nice to die in a cataclysmic disaster that takes the life of all humanity. The worst part about dying, to me, has always been the idea that exciting, interesting things will happen the day after you're gone. A new movie will open that next Friday, and it will be the first of many you'll never have a chance to see. But if you die in the Apocalypse, well, that's it. No more anything. So, you know, you don't miss out on much.

Of course, it's highly unlikely there will ever be an Apocalypse like that, one that comes and goes quickly and painlessly. If humanity's going to die out (and it's bound to happen eventually), it will probably be a brutally slow procession of horrors - famine, war, rioting, anarchy, disease, you name it - that we'd all have to suffer through together. The hell with that.

The crumbling civilization of 2027 presented in Alfonso Cuaron's stark, harrowing new sci-fi film Children of Men strikes me as a highly probable representation about our own future. The film's central conceit - that one day, all of humanity will be rendered suddenly and irreversibly infertile - doesn't seem too likely. But as a reproduction of a modern Western society dissolving, shot through with a documentary-style realism, Cuaron's vision is frighteningly relatable and natural on screen.

It's this vision of a world on the edge of annihilation that makes Children of Men so compelling. The story, based on a novel by P.D. James, sets Cuaron up to explore one of Hollywood's favorte, fallback themes. As Homer Simpson would say, "When there's nothing left to believe in...believe in hope." The inability to reproduce stands in for any existential threat from which there can be no escape. (Global warming pops immediately to mind). This is something that will end our way of life, no one has come up with any solution, and this realization causes the masses of people on this planet to collectively lose their shit and destroy the world. Yet even in the midst of near-complete despair, there are people who continue to believe. And when the miraculous finally does happen, they are the ones who are ready to lay down their lives in the service of the future.

Like I said, blah blah blah. Nothing new to see there. Cuaron, the extraordinary talent behind Y Tu Mama Tambien and by far the best entry in the Harry Potter series, Prisoner of Azkaban, has an extremely subtle touch, so the film never descends completely into sentimentality. But Cuaron still lingers too long in Frank Darabont Land, milking moments of emotional resonance for every last morsel of sweet, life-giving pathos.

Where his film excels, indeed where it stands out from just about any other film released in 2006 that I have seen, is in the intricate, detailed and carefully-considered conceptualization of 2027 England on screen. A disc jockey plays an oldie from 2003, referring to it as a relic from a better, more innocent time, when we were still free to ignore the various lethal threats to our species. Cuaron couldn't be any more frank about sending his audience a wake-up call: He's talking about us, right now, watching the movie. We're contributing to this grim, dystopian nightmare-world. It may already be too late.

Theo (Clive Owen), a nihilistic beaurocrat, has made his peace with extinction. He doesn't even seem that sorry to see humanity go. He gets high with his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a goofy recluse living in an isolated cabin with his traumatized, mute wife, and does his best to ignore the fact that England has become an authoritarian police state. Looking the other way as illegal immigrants (called "fugees" in the film) are rounded up and sent to camps is easy enough. Theo even manages to dodge the occasional explosion in his favorite coffee shop. But once his radical activist ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) captures him and recruits him into the service of the underground, he can't avoid trouble any longer.

Julian's group of extremists have found a young pregnant woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). They want Theo to use his (limited) political influence to get Kee a licence to travel across the country, in the hopes of meeting up with a mysterious group known as The Human Project that will transport her and the baby to safety. Soon enough, the reluctant Theo finds himself roped into a grand journey, transporting Kee out of the grimy fortress of London, away from various groups of rabid ideologues who desire Kee's baby for their own political purposes and into the protective hands of the Human Project.

Obviously, the choice to focus on the neo-fascist British government scapegoating illegal immigrants, rounding them up and depositing them into camps, has great relevance to modern-day America. Basically, we are already doing this, and we are driven by a far less severe threat than the society in the film. Cuaron soberly observes people turning to a dictatorship out of fear. He explores how a clever despot can channel hate against the oppressed and powerless into ensuring continued dominance and how mass media has been corrupted into an establishment propaganda machine.

A double-dealing collective of subversives, fronted by the self-serving Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), likewise showcase the fallibility of ideologues, even the well-intentioned. Neo-Marxists seeking to use Kee's baby to spark a People's Revolution, they become a greater threat to Theo's mission than even the strongarm police force hunting him down at every turn. Though I'm not certain I agree with the implication that radical leftists present as great a danger to humanity's future than the fascist-sympathizing corporatists represented by the film's Ministry of Homeland Security, political observations in Children of Men are, on the whole, remarkably astute.

Beyond the overarching political perspective of the film, dozens of careful, specific details in Theo's environment really bring this far-out, improbable scenario into perspective, inviting a contemporary audience into this world and giving us clear points of reference and comparison. Advertisements for the euthanizing drug Quietus are ubiquitous on the streets and trains around London; gossip spreads around town that the effects are painless and even enjoyable. (Kee describes it using the common future-slang term "suave.")

I previously mentioned the 2003 "classic rock" song on the soundtrack, which highlights the clever devices Cuaron employs to fill the film with music from our own time. (The Dude-esque Jasper, still a fan of the music of his youth, bumps Radiohead while he enjoys his afternoon j.)

At one point, Theo gazes out a train at graffiti reading: "Would the last person alive please turn off the lights." It's a perfect, succinct expression of the commonly-felt desperation. If no one will be around in 50 years to see what we've done, if nothing matters and everything that will ever happen has already happened, why continue living at all? Particularly when to keep living requires such tremendous exertion?

This hopeless, consequence-free world has become an unpredictable, ugly and exceptionally violent place. Cuaron and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki, use exceptionally long takes to build suspense before unleashing fast, propulsive bursts of bloodshed. Employing handheld cameras to get close up to the action, Cuaron and Lubeszki have shot the most intense, exciting and brutally realistic action sequences of the year. These are scenes that more closely resemble riot footage on the news than the typical Ridley Scott circle jerk. A seige by raiders on a compact car driven by Luke commences breathlessly within a single take. An amazing single shot finds Theo hiding from armed guards as he checks a variety of vehicles' ignitions for working keys. The final leg of the journey, an extended chase through a city-sized refugee camp undergoing a fiery insurrection, makes full use of Lubeszki's roving camera and the remarkably immersive sound mix to jolt and unnerve.

Bullets, shattered glass, missiles, grenades and assorted debris rains down on Theo from all directions, blocking his visibility, spinning him around in circles and causing him to trip repeatedly and slice his leg. The disorientation and panic comes fast once the gunfire gets heated, but Theo himself never turns violent or runs amok. He never even handles a gun. He just protects Kee and runs for his life, the ultimate survivor in a world filled with no one but survivors. The entire set piece ranks among the most inventive and memorable sequences of 2006.

So, what I'm saying is that this movie's good. Very good. Worth seeing. But Children of Men is not without its problems. For such a beautifully-made film (the whole thing is probably the best-shot movie of the year, and among the best-directed) with so many winning little details and penetrating observations, it doesn't end particularly well. Cuaron wraps up the film on a note of optimistic uncertainty - something has happened that seems positive, but we're never told what the implications of the film's action will be, and the pat "hope is all you need" homilies didn't really do it for me. Anyway, perhaps the director and I are just at odds about the fate of humans on this planet, but the build-up here's much better than the pay-off.


Jonathan said...

I loved this film. The several sequences shot in long takes create an intensity I haven't experienced since the first half of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and I think Cuaron even improves on this style here. It's probably also the most realistic sci-fi-dystopia movie I've ever seen. I did not expect to be as immersed in this harrowing world as I was. Too dark and bloody for the Academy, but I think Lubezki will get another cinematography nomination under his belt.

Anonymous said...

This movie was nuts, going to it high and then sitting in the second row made the whole experience even more intense. When Clive owen kicked out the car door into the motorbike and it rolls over the car, I was sold on the film. The hand held shoots are amazing. Much of the war scene at the end reminded me of the opening Normandy scene of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Much of the same hand held use was similar and the bullet trails are extremely realistic.

Cuaron does an amazing job of "showing not telling the story", like many crappy dialogue-filled hollywood movies. There is actually very little conversation in the movie, and the expansive wide shoots are great. Cuaron really could have told the story with no dialogue.

Yes, the movie wasn't perfect, but Children of Men is definitely up there as one of my favorites of 2006.

Great review by the way.

Lons said...

Yeah, I also sat close to the screen and...um...enjoyed some refreshments before the show. Intense is the word.

The film has grown on me considerably in the time since I wrote this review. It will probably make my list of the year's top films.

gohlke said...

Saw it last night. I think you nailed what works in the film in your review. The ending did work for me, because as I was dreading the inevitable escape from the building under siege, I was pleased how Cuaron contrasted it all. I was afraid people would stop fighting when they heard the baby cry, but I think he portrayed people as having more of a passing curiosity than a life-changing experience, which was jarringly interrupted by a stray rocket. And, let's face it, in the hands of less focused directors, the throngs of fighters could have laid down their arms and we'd have had this horrible, Christian-leaning parable. I think the final scene left a good taste in my mouth because it both avoided the sentimentality (like you said about the rest of the film), and also because it was uncertain, which is the feeling that I found so compelling about the movie from the beginning.

steve c. said...

Be sure to check out a great short film currently on youtube: FECES for the FUHRER. It really speaks to our troubled times!

steve c. said...

So let me get this straight...a near-future world where no kids or crying babies are around and filthy immigrants are locked in prison camps? Sounds like utopia to me!