A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 5
CHILDREN OF MEN
2006, R, 109 mins.
Theodore Faron: Clive Owen / Julian Taylor: Julianne Moore / Kee: Claire-Hope Ashitey
/ Jasper Palmer: Michael Caine / Luke: Chiwetel Ejiofor Directed by Alfonso Cuaron / Written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus
and Hawk Ostby / Based on the novel by P.D. James
Theodore Faron: Clive Owen / Julian Taylor: Julianne Moore / Kee: Claire-Hope Ashitey / Jasper Palmer: Michael Caine / Luke: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron / Written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby / Based on the novel by P.D. James
During the 1970’s there was an incredible outflow of gifted directorial talent that would emerge in the movies. Surely, this remarkably fruitful period generated some of the greatest directors to make a name for themselves in contemporary cinema. Filmmakers like Spielberg, DePalma, Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese dominated the period then and – to some degree – still make their presence felt. However, it's growing increasingly apparent that the finest new filmmaking talent to come out of the previous decade and to march forcefully into our current one are from Mexico. In a way, we are experiencing a Mexican New Wave.
Just consider some of the tremendously talented artists and their recent films. First to come to notice is Alejandro González Iñárritu, who made one of the better political thrillers of this year in BABEL, a film that already seems destined for Oscar consideration. He also helmed the brilliant AMORES PERROS (2000) and made one of the truly memorable films of 2003 in the Sean Penn starring vehicle, 21 GRAMS. No doubt, Iñárritu is truly indicative of the one of the finest artists to emerge from Mexico.
However there is also the great Alfonso Cuarón, who is also demonstrating himself to be a high pedigree of filmmaking talent. His resume is certainly broader than Iñárritu's; he has made everything from 1995’s re-imagining of the classic Charles Dickens novel, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, to the erotically charged melodrama Y tu mamá también, as well as one of the darker entries of the HARRY POTTER franchise in 2004’s THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. Now comes his dystopian sci-fi drama, CHILDREN OF MEN, which just may be his most ambitious, epic, and lavishly mounted film ever. It's also one of 2006's best films.
Movies about nihilistic futures under totalitarian rule are nothing new to the movies, if not popular fiction on the whole (just about every one to grace the screen or the page seems to owe a considerable debt to the works of George Orwell). Cuarón’s own attempt here at a futuristic morality play is only loosely based on the source material (very liberal changes were made to the 1992 novel written by P.D. James in terms of plot, characters, and political themes). Yet, despite its unfaithfulness to the book, Cuarón’s film is an unforgettable and transcending piece of science fiction as a work that subtly and delicately balances state-of-the-art visual effects, probing themes, and strong performances. Many Oscar voters will – no doubt – be thinking of BABEL come this spring, but it’s CHILDREN OF MEN that reveals itself to be the best film of 2006 by a Mexican filmmaker. It also one of the year’s most intelligent, technologically complex and dense, disturbing, and emotional movie experiences. Very few genre films like this one have such a strong heartbeat. Cuarón’s does through and through.
Like past landmark films about bleak, post-apocalyptic worlds and states (BLADE RUNNER comes instantly to mind), Cuarón’s militaristic London of 2027 is one of the great original and memorable places of the movies. There are bleak futures, and then really bleak and amoral futures. The world of CHILDREN OF MEN is awash in moral uncertainty and barbarism. Global catastrophe have devastated the planet. Through an aliment of unknown origin (thankfully, the script does not feel the need to waste time with elaborate exposition) women of the world have grown completely infertile. No new babies are created. Since 2009, scientists have arrived at no explanation behind the devastating problem. With no light at the end of the tunnel, the people of the world begins to see the plight they are in. All hope becomes lost. After all, what is there to really aspire for when there will be future generations to carry on one's legacy and name?
Cuarón does a brilliant job revealing little, discrete details here and there through casual dialogue and newspaper clippings that grace walls. This is a patient film that does not feel the need for glossy, pre-credit title cards that explain everything. Instead, Cuarón invites the viewer in to piece things together for themselves. Many of the details are revealed casually through the film. Because no one seems to give a damn about the future, lengthy world wars ensue, with some nations completely decimated by nuclear bombs (Africa and Kazakhstan have been rendered uninhabitable by Russia nuclear attacks). Global pollution levels have soared, leaving immense and irreparable damage to the environment. Terrorism is a fact of everyday life in just about every major city. Places like New York, Geneva, Moscow, and Tokyo have been ravaged by nuclear terrorist attacks.
Because of the huge worldwide calamities, floods of immigrants from other nations have sought refuge in the world’s only “stable” place: The UK. By 2027 Great Britain is the only government left, primarily due to its island geography and its totalitarian government, which interns the millions of refugees in Nazi-like camps. The media only fuels this reality, constantly plastering slogans on giant view screens like "THE WORLD HAS COLLAPSED; ON BRITAIN SOLDIERS ON,” and “DO YOUR DUTY: REPORT ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.” The immigrants – called “fugees” - are society’s least desired elements and are ruled over with an iron fist. London and its government feels their lands to be safe, but with the crippled and desperate citizens, they seem just as poorly off as the rest of the world. Again – there’s no wonder hope is so lacking. In 100 years, there will be no one left on earth.
The film opens with one ordinary citizen living under Big Brother, Theo Faron (the always intense and empowered Clive Owen) who sees a TV report that the “youngest person on the planet” – aged 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, and 8 minutes – has been stabbed to death. To Theo it does not matter. Hopelessly mourning after the man’s death will solve nothing. Seconds later he narrowly escapes a terrorist bombing allegedly from “The Fishes”, an underground group that tries to fight the inhuman treatment of immigrants.
Theo himself was a former advocate, but has now turned to a life of relative normalcy – if you could call it that – working as a pencil-pushing bureaucrat at the Ministry of Energy. Theo’s only recluse is with an old friend named Jasper (in a jolly and spirited performance by Michael Caine) who lives in the woods with his disabled wife and cultivates marijuana (which is legal) and sells it to whomever wants it. After a visit with his old companion Theo sees himself thrown irrecoverably in between the fascist government and the rebels that hope to overthrow it. He finds himself kidnapped by agents of “The Fishes” and has a chance meeting with one of their higher ups, Julian (Julianne Moore). She is a woman from his past (they were lovers, fellow advocates, and both had a child that was lost at an early age).
She asks him for some forged passport papers in exchange for money. The down on his luck loser agrees, but his outlook changes forever when he meets the mysterious Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is…pregnant. Julian only wants the girl safely taken to an enigmatic group known as “The Human League.” Others in her organization think otherwise, seeing the miracle baby as a tool for establishing rebellion rule. Through a series of disastrous events the care of Kee is taken upon by Theo and he desperately attempts to get her to safety and avoid detection by the government (who also could exploit the baby) and the rebels, lead by Luke (in a chilling performance by Chiwetel Ejiofore).
CHILDREN OF MEN is endlessly provocative and thoughtful in the way the best sci-fi cautionary tales are. It presents a distant look at the future and presents it in a way that does not seem altogether far-fetched. There is a familiarity to the film’s proceedings, and anyone with their finger on the pulse of our post-911 climate will see echoes of governmental policies here that infringe on the rights of its citizens. Even if the premise is remarkably fanciful, it’s not too difficult to accept how the state of the world could degrade with such enormity under such a calamity. The future that Cuarón and company portrays here seems eerie in its probability, which is why the film’s drama resonates in viewers so strongly. The finest sci-fi has sociological and political echoes of the present day.
What’s really astonishing is the level of thematic density that the film generates in its nearly two-hour time frame. CHILDREN OF MEN is not just a bleak allegory about what would happen if children no longer existed. It works on those tantalizing levels, but the script also has some pointed and thought-provoking things to say about immigration and how governments equate these people less as human beings with rights and more as intrusive elements that need to be "dealt with" at the end of a gun barrel. However, the epicenter of the film rests squarely on it’s “hero” in Theo, whose own ethical uncertainty and reluctance to be a savoir for Kee more or less reflects the world he lives in.
Perhaps even more crucial to the film’s power is in its handling of the rebels themselves. Lesser sci-film dramas would typically portray them as righteous heroes. CHILDREN OF MEN has another modus operandi. It shows these men and women less as gallant freedom fighters and instead portrays them as curiously amoral. Sometimes, there is very little delineation between what the government does and the actions of the rebels. This aspect of CHILDREN OF MEN makes it stand further apart from other similar genre films. It’s the complexity of the characters that add another layer to Theo’s dilemma. His major obstacle becomes “who can he really trust” and this - turn - makes the film that much more scary.
The performances are key to the film’s effect. Michael Caine is a warm and comical presence in the film, which effectively counterbalances the overwhelming tone of decay. Julianne Moore strikes the right beats in her brief role as a noble-minded rebel. Claire-Hope Ashitey has the tricky job as the mother who is caught in-between everything. Clive Owen – as always –is such an invigorating screen presence when he plays flawed, introverted - yet inquisitive - screen characters. His Theo is layered and nuanced, a man that cares little about the world he populates, but slowly learns to rediscover his own humanity. Chiwetel Ejiofore's part – like his underrated performance as the icy-cold villain in SERENITY – is a quietly fierce and domineering force in the film.
However, the best attraction of CHILDREN OF MEN is its direction, cinematography, and art direction. The set design and effects work for the film are incredibly well realized: This is a dystopia that is messy, dirty, vile, and repugnant. The bleakness of futuristic London is reflected by Cuarón’s aesthetic choices. Color is vacant and the film is awash in sepias and greys, and the special effects (as they should be) to create a ravaged London that looks like it did during World War II are low key enough to not draw attention to themselves. Effects here, thankfully, underscore the story; they don’t drown it out. London in the film is a wasteland of suffering and human misery. It’s one of the best-realized visions of a despotic future world I’ve seen.
The cinematography – by Emmanuel Lubezki – is equally extraordinary. Using incredibly long, unbroken shots, he and Cuarón do such a bravura job of completely immersing the viewer in the desolate landscapes. One unbroken shot is a masterpiece of timing and implementation. We see Theo races hundreds of feet across a war torn street with tanks and machine gins blaring everywhere. From there he runs into a nearby building, up several flights of stairs, and into one of the devastated rooms where he finally meets back up with the hiding Kee. All of this done in one unbroken shot, all while a vast, large scale battle occurs around them. The payoff here is astonishing in its effectiveness; it gives CHILDREN OF MEN a grizzly, documentary feel. This is one of the very few post-apocalyptic films that essentially makes you feel like you've inhabited its world from a grunt’s perspective. This is amazingly exhilarating and visceral filmmaking that gives you a totally immersing feel for a world on the verge of utter collapse.
CHILDREN OF MEN is one of the finest sci-fi dramas about wholly engaging the viewer in its futuristic world of ambivalence. The greatness of Alfonso Cuarón’s parable here is that everything gels so cohesively together. The film’s virtuoso set design, art direction, and awe-inspiring cinematography create an unforgettable London of the 2020’s that’s gone berserk and chaotic. CHILDREN OF MEN is – ironically – one of 2006’s most gorgeous visions in terms of its command over the more weighty and thoughtful themes of man’s inhumanity to man, the strong desperation that permeates the performances, and in the startling action set pieces (one in which is perhaps the best elongated, single take sequences of mayhem committed to the screen). Maybe the finest accomplishment of the film is that Cuarón is able to dial down the film’s technological artifice (the special effects are almost after-thoughts here) and instead fully transfixes the viewer through more subtle means, like with story, characters and interplay. CHILDREN OF MEN is a spectacular work that succeeds so well on all of its levels and Cauron – using every trick up his sleeve – conducts it all so masterfully that he easily is starting to command respect as one of the cinema’s great visualists.