Very infrequently, I stumble across a film that is so utterly right in every aspect of conception and execution that I just want to stand up and cheer, right there in the theater. For Children of Men that feeling came to me, never to leave, during a tracking shot about thirty minutes in that starts in the front seat of a moving car, moves around in the car, exits the car, and watches the car drive off. I have no idea how long this shot lasted. I only know that it was neither the longest nor the most accomplished nor the most exhilarating of the film’s many marathon-length takes.
What’s amazing about Children of Men is that for all I could spend the next thousand words talking about the camera movement and end with a breathless “10/10!” after having said nothing else, everything in the film is like that. The script, the acting, the production design, the soundtrack, all are virtually inexhaustible, or at least they are for one blog post after one viewing. Ultimately, I suppose this is all to the credit of director Alfonso Cuarón, here making his sixth and greatest feature film. When everything is at its peak, and when it all fits together so neatly, it’s hard not to assume that there’s a central figure conducting all of his players to the height of their capabilities.
Basically, this is a science fiction film, or at least it is set in 2027, which is actually 2009, which is just a more-corrupt version of today. What happens in ’27 is that, after 18 years of world-wide female infertility, the human race is gone to hell. I am entirely unfamiliar with the P.D. James novel upon which the film is based, and with five credited screenwriters I am largely tempted to consider the script as sort of a sui generis thing. Therefore, I praise no-one but the film’s own self-determination when I say that this is the best future-shock story in literally decades, entirely because of the seemingly bored realism of the goings-on. There are no wonderful futuristic toys because the story is set, essentially, beyond the end of history, and the world is dead, only a couple of Christmas seasons further on than we are right now.
Because the world has stopped evolving, it’s basically the same as it is now, which is used for an unimaginably clear thematic effect: the degradations and evils depicted in the film are just a tiny push past the modern day. Thank God, there’s no 1-to-1 mapping as in e.g. V for Vendetta, so all this satire is much more about what we are capable of, and even though it is still not at all subtle what’s being said (the film’s chief flaw), at least it’s not another “stop the war” polemic by well-meaning idiots, and instead an extremely serious and adult look at just what we are allowing The Powers That Be – what we are doing ourselves, even – to drive humanity straight into the ground.
The film revolves around four very bad days in the life of Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a bored functionary in Britain’s Ministry of Energy, who has given up on everything, just like the whole of humanity. Along comes his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) and her terrorist group to beg Theo for help in what the movie hides much better than the ad campaign did: their mission to save the life of a young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) pregnant with the first baby in nearly two decades. In particular, they need his government connections to help smuggle her out, being that she is in Britain illegally. Twistiness occurs.
What’s remarkable about the film is how much it trusts the audience to figure things out as it barrels along: there is hardly any exposition, and “figuring out” the world is largely a matter of paying attention to things other than the dialogue. Example: two or three times, Cuarón pans over a field of burned cow corpses, without commentary. Of course there’s no commentary! The characters all know that the cows have been burned. But for the audience, this leads to a series of thoughts: the cows must have had bovine spongiform, does this mean that there is no edible meat in Britain, what does that do to the general sense of hopelessness, et cetera. The mise en scène is full of moments like this, where a single element (an ad, a shirt, the layout of a room) spills into a series of theme-enforcing musings. Crazy, I know…a movie that uses imagery to further its plot? You’d almost think that film was a visual medium, or something.
The world of Children of Men is very holistic, by which I mean that it has been imagined with a remarkable precision and fullness of detail. Think about it a moment: the characters of the film are all in their teens now (okay, you know what I mean), and the film subtly makes that clear in makeup, attitude, and in one of the few moments of weak humor when an oldies station plays Radiohead. There are countless grace notes like this scattered throughout, and beyond the thematic thrust of the film, it’s a striking – if gloomy – ethnography of the future.
And then there’s the stuff I really love, which are the stylish quirks thrown in for no narrative reason. I already mentioned the long tracking shots: I suppose we can argue that their purpose is to move us through the world organically, but to me it’s much more visceral than that, and I found that I tended to drift into a dreamy haze during the longer takes; it may be that they mimic life more, but here they are rather unreal and hypnotic, in a good way. Children of Men is as much a dreamscape as a movie, a fact exploited by its startling and abrupt ending, which literally made me feel like I just woke up.
And then there’s the soundtrack! What a strange collection of music for 2027: “Hush” by Deep Purple, multiple versions of “Ruby Tuesday,” and King fucking Crimson, if you can believe it (have you ever heard King Crimson in a movie? Neither have I). Yet it all sounds perfect, and the combo at the end credits – John Lennon’s “Bring on the Lucie” and Jarvis Cocker’s “Running the World” – make for the best musical punchline of any movie in recent history. Not to mention how it all sets up the strange and wonderful and appropriate image of a pig balloon taken straight from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals.
It’s not “flawless.” Beyond a doubt, it’s heavy-handed (it even makes a joke about its own Christ imagery, which does not make the imagery go away). Everything the film has to say, it says – I’ve certainly been thinking about it a lot in the last couple of days, but nothing new has come to me, it was all right there on the surface. Maybe I raise subtlety to an unnecessary height, but there you have it: the plot may be subtle but the themes are certainly not. And a couple of scenes don’t really work: Theo visiting his cousin, played by Danny Huston in a very interesting but totally pointless scene; or the lengthy moments in the illegal refugee camp which serve little purpose outside of making sure we “get it” that this film is really about the way, I don’t know, Americans treat, I don’t know, Muslims. Even in its unsubtlety, the film is rarely condescending in this way.
But you know what? That last paragraph was really just covering my ass.