An earlier review of this film can be found here.

A couple of years ago, I encountered the argument somewhere on the internet - I cannot find it again, alack, for it is a difficult thing to search for and not encounter porn - that long tracking shots are an inherently masculine act of cinematography. Essentially, that the complexity involved, and the invariably showy results, are nothing so much as dick-measuring by male directors and male cinematographers who want to prove how tough and awesome they are to other males. And certainly, if you look at the many epic-length shots in the career of that great chronicler of American maledom, Martin Scorsese, or the works of such male-centered directors as Brian De Palma and Paul Thomas Anderson, there's something to it..

If this theory holds any water at all - and I think it does, though not in the necessarily reductive form in which I've just presented it - then Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 message thriller Children of Men is the thickest, veiniest, most throbbing erect cock in the history of cinema. Its greatest takes are not merely long, they are marathons; they do not merely track, but go in and out and around structures and vehicles like they were made of rice paper. I have at multiple times, and in complete earnestness, described it as a movie primarily about camera movement, production design, and the relationship between the two. Which has not been very helpful to the people asking me what the film's plot contained, but that's just how I see it: any ol' movie can be a "what if?" investigation into an especially original post-apocalyptic scenario, but only Children of Men is about the physical world where that scenario plays out, as depicted by the single best act of cinematography of the 21st Century. And not just because of the long takes, though one in particular is potentially the most technically sophisticated shot of the decade. As is is wont, Emmanuel Lubezki does good things with the lighting and color palette creating an overall tone of "decaying yellow" that suits the film just fine.

Adapted by Cuarón and a small army of screenwriters from P.D. James's novel, the film takes place in 2027, in London, 18 years after the last human was born. With human fertility having mysteriously blinked out of existence, the species has been plunged into a world-wide depression that served to intensify all the worst tendencies of life at the time the Bad Thing happened, which primarily means for our purposes that Great Britain has turned into an all-out police state, and on the lifeless November day that it opens, the government's plan to remove all foreign-born refugees is in its last stages. This has met with some pushback from the handful of people with enough optimism left to give a shit about maintaining human dignity and freedom, with the biggest anti-government group in the country going under the name of "Fish", and perpetrating - so the government claims - a series of terrorist bombings. One of these occurs in the movie's opening scene, minutes after the announcement comes along that the 18-year-old youngest human being alive was stabbed to death, and seconds after a particularly given-up sad-sack named Theo Faron (Clive Owen) exited the coffee shop where the bomb exploded.

I'm disinclined to go any deeper than that, because if you've seen it, it would be redundant, and if you haven't, A) fucking go do it, and B) there are fun surprises in store. Also, I will be littering this review with spoilers. Let us be content to suggest that the film is about the restoration of hope and faith in a world where those things are in short supply, and in the particular figure of a man who especially doesn't have either of those things. In 2006, it was an outright commentary on the encroaching authoritarianism being felt in America and Britain in the middle of that decade, but as time has gone by, far enough that the movie's biggest single prediction has obviously failed to come true, a lot of what comes out most strongly is the film's impossibly rich emotional landscape; as a friend of mine recently suggested (and this is a PARTICULARLY HEFTY SPOILER, BUT WHY HAVEN'T YOU SEEN THIS MOVIE YET? GAWD), it's the happiest ending any film could have in which you can see the protagonist's corpse in the final shot.

Incredibly, I find that familiarity and some time away (this was, in fact, the first time I'd watched the movie since its 2009 deadline passed) have convinced me that Children of Men is even deeper and more complex and vividly humanistic than I'd given it credit for when it was new, and that was a hell of a lot of credit. The reveal of the pregnant Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), executed with a long hold on Theo's dumbfounded face as non-diegetic symphonic music flows up and down the soundtrack, is an overt heartstring-puller, but it works, dear Christ, it works so well. And of course the ending, with its sad and hopeful gestures pulsing in tandem, and that wonderful little snippet of children laughing over black; it leaves me a wreck. It has always left me a wreck.

Also it reminds me that this most profoundly visual of movies both opens and closes with audio over a black screen, and this is particularly cunning in the beginning, as the film unrolls its cavalcade of the very best world-building in the last 15 years of cinema. Children of Men takes place in an incredibly specific reality, and one that could trigger a lot of bullshit alarms, what Cuarón and company do to usher us past the suspension of disbelief traps is to show us the world working, and pitching information at as from the side, frequently not commenting on some very important details and trusting that because those details are in frame or on the soundtrack, we will become aware of them. Even the central idea of infertility is played off this way: first we learn that Baby Diego was the world's youngest person. Then we learn that he was 18 years old. The script lets us put two and two together, not explicitly stating "people can't have babies" until a crackpot old hippie played by Michael Caine says it in the context of a joke. It does this visually, too: the incredibly precise production design is full of rich details that are right there for the picking, piles of dead cattle, worn-out technology, a lack of new artwork, and signs of barely visible police surveillance all around.

And so we come back to the camera movement, and to my notion that Children of Men is chiefly about marrying that movement to production design; and saying it that way makes it sound shallow and spectacular, like a downer Avatar, and that's not so at all. For one thing, the physical space, the story, and the themes are all inseparable: in order to make a film about the triumph of hope, it is necessary to establish hopelessness, and this is something that Cuarón, Lubezki, and designers Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland do incredibly well. Any given set in Children of Men, worn-out, jerry-rigged, and crumbling, instantly communicates the idea that the people living in it have completely given up hope.

To fully communicate what they want to, the filmmakers have to immerse us deep into their film, and that's what makes this such a tremenous achievement: the way that the constantly moving camera, crossing through doors and gazing out car windows, creates a sense of total spatial unity, emphasising how all of the elements of the mise en scène exist in a connected, organic way (oddly, it's the exact opposite of what the car window shots did in the director's previous Y tu mamá también, where the point was to stress the characters' isolation from the world around them). This is the main purpose of the first of the film's three most showy tracking shots, the one that opens the film and goes inside, around, from close-up to wide, and all in a way that tells us so much about the tenor of this society just by the way it's laid out. There's also plenty of clever storytelling done with the camera movement: a woman in a black hood is carried off screen left by the tracking movement, which proceeds to cross over several dead bodies laid neatly in a line, a sickening but hugely successful visual punchline.

I mentioned three great showy tracking shots; the other two are a bit more well-known and frequently-discussed, but let's just touch on them. To end with, there's the legendary 6-minute "shot" (stitched together digitally; you can tell when because drops of stage blood on the lens disappear), which carries us into the depths of a collapsing slum during a firefight, in which the constant movement and our awareness of it plays into the sense of chaos and danger, making for one of the most breathlessly exciting action sequences of the last ten years (so it's not all brainy shit). The middle one, and my favorite, starts inside a car and ends up outside of it, with quite a lot of ridiculously specific choreography dribbled in, and what I love about this is that unlike the other camera movements in the film, this isn't about unity of space, but unity of time; we're seeing, without the cushion of editing, how a situation can turn from neutral to warm to panicked to tragic in just a handful of seconds, and it is, if anything, even more tense and heightened than the six-minute tracking shot through a gun battle.

The brilliance of Children of Men isn't its technical accomplishment, though. Nor is it the way that the scenario tells a richly involving emotional story, nor the cutting political commentary and demand that the audience seriously considers what kind of world we want to live in. It is the way that it cannot be anything of these things without being the others as well, and how the piercing emotional highs of the film could only be created by this cut to that beat of acting, which is captured by this close in on that part of the scene. It's a perfect movie. There. Done.