As I was watching Children of Men, one of my favorite movies, in preparation for writing this review, I came to a sudden realization: I regret having only seen this movie once in the theater.
I’ve never thought of myself as being very good at writing about movies that I love. I get so flustered, it’s hard to say things without sounding like I’m just repeating stock phrases – you know, the same things you say about every movie. Talk about the cinematography, talk about the acting, talk about the score, talk about the marvelous use of symbolism and humor and visionary artistry at work behind the camera. All of these things are certainly words I could put to use in order to explain what makes director Alfonso Cuaron’s film among the best films of the aughts. Because it’s all true. This is a beautiful film, perfectly captured in every way.
Maybe I will get back to that before this is over, but watching the movie last night I was struck by how easy and realistic the events that play out in the film are. It all takes place in the year 2027, in an age where the human race has stop producing offspring, and the youngest person on earth has recently been murdered in a horrific paparazzo accident gone wrong. The world has been gone into a frenzied panic, chaos is the rule. With that being the case, world governments such as that in England, have taken to exercising their power to over-extend their power. Illegal immigrants are detained in internment camps, sometimes literal cages on the sides of streets already littered with trash and graffiti. The citizens of the country walk past without batting an eye, it’s become so mundane. And when a van rushes up to the sidewalk, masked men get out and throw a civilian inside before squealing away, well, it is what it is.
Having just watched the fantastic Dr. Seuss film The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, I’m tempted to make a comparison between the two films. One of the things about Seuss’ stories is that the characters speak about absurd, made-up things in their world (“bipping and beeping and snooping and schneeping”, for instance) with a matter-of-fact manner. They don’t see these things as bizarre because they live in a world where these meaningless words have meaning, have concrete and discernible definitions rather than simply being nonsense. Similarly, in the world of Cuaron’s film, the world has fallen apart but that has become so tedious that nobody much notes it anymore. Propaganda advertisements scroll by on buses and bridges, cameras are everywhere, and herds of sheep run loose in the streets. In a way, things aren’t a lot different from the way things are in the world today. The parallel between the government’s actions and that of the political climate five years ago, in 2006, when this movie was released, are embarassingly obvious – as the image of a hooded prisoner a la the famed Abu Ghraib photos is prominently displayed at one point in the film. And beyond that, the world of the movie parallels that of George Orwell’s nightmarish 19 84. While the authorities might not prosecute thought-crime in the same way that they do in Orwell’s novel, they’re sure to inundate the public with their version of the truth (“ONLY ENGLAND SOLDIERS ON”), forcibly dissuading opposing viewpoints (a group of rebel activists worries that the government wouldn’t admit that the first baby born in two decades was the child of an illegal immigrant), and possibly even inciting terrorist acts in order to maintain a common enemy for the public to abhor.
But dammit, okay, all of this is nothing if not for the extraordinary filmmaking behind it. There are three key scenes, each of which is impressive because they were accomplished in a single, long take. I’m growing weary of the “long take”, as though the mere fact of the extended shot is enough to make the scene something of note. The scenes in Children of Men remain astounding, though, because it is not merely the existence of the shot that is worth marveling at. Early in the movie, the camera swirls around inside of a moving vehicle as the occupants are attacked by a motorcycle gang. As bullets fly and glass shatters, the tension is ramped up as everybody in the car is screaming and flailing about. The camera turns to look out the window, spins back to the frightened passengers, rotates again to bring the assailants once more into view. It’s a fantastic moment, even before you find out that a special device was created in order to allow the camera to travel through the vehicle with that much ease and fluidity. Closer to the end of the film, Theo (Clive Owen) scrambles through a war zone as soldiers and civilians fire mercilessly upon one another and heave home-made explosives. The camera sticks close behind Theo, bouncing along as if an actor there in the scene with him. Shrapnel flies, confusion ensues, and during one particularly violent moment, blood splatters on the camera.
But the most incredible moment in the movie comes when Theo realizes that he has to get Kee (Clare Hope-Ashitey), the first pregnant woman in years, to safety. The group that has been harboring them have shown their true colors, their intention to eliminate anybody who stands in their way has been made clear. In the early morning hours, the two huddle down and sneak outside, trying the handles of the cars parked outside to see if one is unlocked. The sun is coming up, the only sound we can hear are the birds chirping in the treetops and the occasional voices of the activist group members, causing our hero to freeze in his tracks. It’s a stupendously thrilling moment, despite the slow pace, because there is so much fear in whether the two will ultimately be captured. What follows is a chase scene unlike any other, where the scales tip back and forth between the two groups. The heart races and it’s hard not to sit forward in your seat urging the characters forward as they struggle to get away.
We, the viewers, stay anxious throughout most of the film’s runtime. It seems that, at any given moment, everything could give way and the story could be over. But the characters keep pressing onward; Theo’s life changes slowly over the course of the movie. Where he early on asks his cousin why he even bothers salvaging classic artwork from wrecked museums, incredulous since there will soon be nobody left to view them, he later becomes infused with a profound hope for the future, and yes, faith in mankind – even in the face of a seeming endless despair, he holds strong to the belief that there must be a Human Project at the end of it all, a group of people still interested in bettering humanity. The “Human Project” isn’t a MacGuffin, driving the journey of the characters – it is the journey of the characters. This is both in a literal sense, as there is the necessity of keeping Kee and her baby safe from harm, and in a more figurative sense, as the reminder of mankind’s potential has the symbolic effect of stopping the carnage momentarily.
I’m kind of all over the place here, but I know it’s not only because I am letting myself go on stream-of-consciously. It is also because there is so much to say about this glorious film. I didn’t even get around to talking about the actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, especially, stands out) and I hardly touched on the cinematography. The symbolism goes on much deeper than I’ve let on. I haven’t mentioned the importance of the changes which the scriptwriters made from the source material, the haunting musical selections (“Ruby Tuesday”), the gentle humor, or the stunning vision of technology in the not-so-distant future.
There is so much to say about Children of Men. I have seen the movie a dozen times – I just watched it over the weekend, even – and yet just thinking about it makes me want to watch it again. I can think of very few movies quite as powerful.