As further proof of 2006's stellar year in cinema, Judge Bill Gibron offers this Alfonso Cuarón future-shock masterpiece, one of the best serious science-fiction films ever created.
Our review of Children Of Men (Blu-Ray), published May 26th, 2009, is also available.
No children. No future. No hope
"I believe the children are our future
Nice sentiment and all, but is this really the case? Of course, from a pure procreation stance, children are indeed the next generation, the persons inheriting the planet from those who gave them life. Within the most metaphysical of meanings, kids remain the hope for an already jaded and cynical adult populace. But aside from unformed optimism and the suggestion of infinite possibilities, what do children really represent? Are they the completion of the circle of life or merely a mandatory stepping stone toward universal social acceptance? Do we value them as individuals or as genetic representations of our own potential immortality? Forget all the hokey Hallmark moments and really think about the consequences of birth. On a cosmic body limited in the amount of entities it can support, with tradition trumping issues like science and population problems, we seem geared toward baby manufacturing instead of being concerned for our own failing future. Taken in the most morose fashion possible, kids are indeed our destiny—even our undoing. That's why Alfonso Cuarón's amazing Children of Men struck such a nerve when it hit theaters at the end of 2006. Not only did this thought-provoking epic reinvigorate the serious science-fiction genre, but it dared to ask the hardest of questions: what would a world be like without youth—and would it really be worth living in, after all?
Facts of the Case
Theo Faron (Clive Owen, Sin City) works as a desk jockey bureaucrat in a Britain gone despotic. It's the year 2027 and the entire planet has gone infertile. Women can no longer have babies, and the chaos that has erupted from such a discovery has lead to war, rebellion, mass destruction, and a huge refugee problem. As the military steps in and tries to reestablish order, Theo goes about his humdrum life. For relaxation, he visits an old hippie pal named Jasper (Michael Caine, The Prestige). They listen to music, smoke pot, and more or less reminisce about a world that once seemed so bright.
One day, Theo is kidnapped by a radical group known as The Fish. Seems his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights) is their new leader, and she has a proposition for her former spouse. She will give Theo five thousand pounds if he will help a "fugee" (refugee) named Kee get a travel permit. The reasons why are kept highly secret, but, because of their prior relationship, Julian hopes Theo will help. What he doesn't know is that he's about to be tossed into a web of intrigue involving the very fate of mankind. He may soon become the godfather to a whole new race, the man responsible for returning the Children of Men to the face of the universe.
Children of Men is not some callous cautionary tale. It is not a frightening allegory of future-shock proportions. It does not fool around in the domain of such sci-fi standards as "Man Playing God" or "Nature Righting Technological Hubris," nor does it mimic our recent military solution for all of life's terrorizing troubles. While it remains a stellar motion-picture masterpiece, the kind of film that will endure long after the arguments of its merits have quelled and calmed, its real intentions remain intriguing and slyly subversive. What this compelling version of P.D. Jamess prophetic novel really deals with is the value of children. Not as potential people, mind you, or as the overindulged saviors of a society, but about the very nature of youth and procreation. In the hands of the amazing Mexican moviemaker Alfonso Cuarón, what could be mistaken for a saccharine story of biology as benefactor actually demands a discussion of kids as cogs in a much bigger psychosocial machine—in essence, what they really symbolize, and what we have allowed them to become substitutes for. The answers to these startling questions, along with Cuarón's clever way of explaining his position, create the kind of entertainment that sticks to your soul. While rooting for the narrative and its various action elements, the symbolism and themes are slowly sinking deep beneath your skin.
Right from the very start, it's disturbing how mature adults respond to the absence of babies. In the opening sequences in the film, Cuarón shows us how age has become a form of celebrity, the last baby born on the planet suddenly skyrocketing to unexpected stardom as the world's hope dwindles and fades. It's a fascinating precept, a notion that tends to tie directly into the present pop culture and political state. We, as a people, have gladly given up boundless inherent rights under the guise of providing parents more power to protect their kids. We will subjugate the single and disregard (and disrespect) the childless in favor of those who have given over to biology's basics. While no one is questioning the instinctual nature of our species—all animals have an innate desire to survive—Children of Men takes a decided step back and reflects on how such an evolutionary ideal has been warped into a near faith-based fallacy. This is best illustrated when our hero, Theo Faron, walks among his mostly female coworkers directly after the announcement that the youngest boy on the planet (an 18-year-old) has just died. As they weep in almost irreconcilable grief, Theo reacts with a kind of disgust. All around them, people are dying at the hands of rebels, yet all they seem to care about is the latest adolescent casualty.
In this main character, Cuarón hopes to capture all aspects of the movie's many themes. He will use Theo as a mirror, reflecting both the good (the continuation of civilization), the bad (the selfish sense of personal loss), and the hard-to-pin -down (the government vs. rebellion dynamic). Our lead will need to go from cynic to saving grace, action man to ambivalent activist, and remain true to both himself and his cause. It takes an actor of incredible skill to capture all these frequently contradictory facets, but the brilliant Clive Owen is more than up to the task. Stepping to the fore as one of the leading lights in unusual, outside-the-box cinema, this bedraggled Brit with the wounded look in his eyes literally carries the weight (and fate) of the world on his slightly shrugged shoulders. Had this been a Hitchcockian thriller, Owen would be walking in shoes previously worn by Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Rod Taylor. But in Cuarón's version of a suspense story, Theo is not so much proactive as perplexed. He will do whatever it takes to save his skin, but he also understands the ramifications of failure. Constantly cursed with these, and many other emblematic miseries, Owen is charged with keeping us grounded. As he moves through the varying elements that make up this situation gone sour, we learn very quickly that things are indescribable, and almost certainly deadly.
Much has been made of the famous countryside car chase that finds Owen and various members of a fertility-minded resistance taking on an angry mob of troublemakers throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. While the scene is a cinematic marvel (more on the moviemaking in a moment), what's equally important is the notion of threat. Cuarón constantly confuses us, making us wonder who to trust and, better yet, who has the best interests of the society at heart. With suicide an easily accepted reality (there is even a Futurama-ish element where self-sacrificing "kits" can be purchased) and various political stances power struggling, the idea that real life is less precious than the potential infants lost is a real corker. Similarly, the raging ideologies, with their various promises of peace or, perhaps, just importance—really don't address the problem at hand. If Kee does manage to make it to the Human Project (a supposed shipbound group of scientists working on a cure for the world's infertility), there is still no guarantee of success. Instead of using such basic black-and-white conceits, Cuarón lets matters get unfocused and downright cockeyed. He wants us off balance, the better to understand the issues he hopes to address. Indeed, Children of Men has as much to say about the lack of universal care for one's fellow man as it does the devastation of people who can't produce progeny.
All throughout this perfectly formed film, our daring director hopes to juxtapose reality with reaction. When Theo visits his highly placed government relative, he is let into an exclusive section of London where citizens have reverted to the Victorian pomp and pleasantries of the pre-20th century. In another stunning sequence, Theo's family member confirms that, even in these dour days, a little self-centered hoarding in the name of cultural preservation is not unwarranted. By creating a social order gone surreal, emphasizing the rounding up of undesirables, fugees, and foreigners, Cuarón is obviously taking the white Western world to task. With set-piece circumstances in which people of color are contained in fenced-off areas and undeniably effective moments which call up memories of concentration camps and the Nazi treatment of the Jews, Children of Men uses race as a means of making a far more important statement about social priorities. While he never comes right out and says it, Kee (a decidedly black woman) creates quite a post-colonialism paradox. In essence, a non-white woman from a perceived lower class may be the single seed to jump-start the rest of society. No wonder people are desperate to see her fail. Success means recognition that the vast majority of the planet will soon be populated by non-Caucasians. Whites will have to wake up and smell the causation coffee.
But it's the concept of children that is most important to this movie, and it's the area where Cuarón creates the most memorable scenes. During a devastating urban battle, the possibility of new life brings everything to a screeching halt. Similarly, Theo finds his resolve reinvigorated when he realizes the genetic gambles at stake. But moving beyond the necessities of the plot, Cuarón is concerned that we have made kids too powerful in our cultural zeitgeist. He argues that our ready worship of wee ones has caused a lack of focus for the big-picture issues. This future world goes batty not because of people's inability to have babies as much as their individual lack of inner resolve. It's a precarious balancing act, a subtle see-saw between children as champions and kids as emotional crutches. Society has simply crumbled in the 18 years since babies became scarce, and as each year goes by and another young person falls by the wayside, the desperation is indescribable. What rises to the surface is that most painful of personal queries—do we make too much out of the natural order of life? We don't craft kids, we simply let our bodies do the baking. But when they do emerge and are ready to be reared, what exactly are the lessons we're teaching? It's these issues that drive the disturbing undercurrent in this film, a theme of troubling modern-day parallels.
In the hands of some hack, unable to work out all the knowing necessities inherent in the narrative, Children of Men would be The Handmaid's Tale without the perplexing presence of Robert Duvall. But with Cuarón, this project got a go-to guy of considerable cinematic genius. Using his camera like a war correspondent, trying to capture the actions and atrocities all around while hoping to stay out of harms way, Cuarón and his equally brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki turn Britain into a post-millennial vision of Hell on Earth. From the constantly streaming smoke off in the distance to the empty wastelands that connect the densely populated cities, it's a terrifying trip into a realm of no return. With his cast completely in sync with what he is going for (Owen, Caine, Moore and newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey are all superb and completely pitch perfect) and his storyline solidly grounded in reality (this is a future sans flying cars and outrageous technology), all he has to do is maintain the speculative status quo and everything should be all right. But Cuarón goes one step further, influencing Children of Men with his desire to make his flights of fantasy deadly serious. In the three decades since George Lucas retrofitted the genre into some combination of old-fashioned matinee serials as created by Akira Kurosawa, sci-fi has suffered from a lack of credible ideas and under-cranked opulence. Everything is like a nerd's wet dream. But Cuarón comes at this material like Kubrick, eager to show that all futurism is not robots and starships.
The results speak for themselves. In a year which saw The Prestige, The Fountain, Pan's Labyrinth, and Tideland, Children of Men stands right alongside the best of them. It's an experience of such all encompassing creativity that your mouth will literally remain agape from scene to scene. In Owen's dead-eyed face, we see the entire fate of the world, from the quietly positive to the permanently pessimistic. England is no longer a land of sophistication and stiff upper lips. Instead, it's a hodgepodge of horrors, a perfect illustration of the world's childless Id allowed to go gangrenous. There is no real explanation for why the human race has been rendered barren, and the reaction to same is an equally inexplicable dilemma. Even if children did make a comeback, would the planet really return to normal? Can power overemphasized ever be quelled by a return to previous positions or has society already doomed itself to an extinctive state, simply by not finding a peaceable solution to the situation? It's these enduring concerns that viewers will carry with them once Children of Men reaches its readily ambiguous ending. All art should cause apprehension and arguments, conversation and complaints. Alfonso Cuarón has crafted a modern nightmare made up of the dreams of youth. It stands as a classic in both vision and meaning.
Now, before you begin bellyaching about this DVD package, let's get the supplement story straight—in this case, directly from the filmmaker's mouth. In recent interviews, Cuarón has made it clear that, when it comes to bonus features, he's from the Steven Spielberg school of cinematic complements. This means he doesn't "do" commentaries, and prefers to discuss his methods in illustrative Behind the Scenes documentaries of Making-Of EPKs. The Universal release of Children of Men does indeed contain some of these very effective extras. First up is the utterly fascinating documentary helmed by Cuarón entitled The Possibility of Hope. At about 30 minutes in length, we get a full-blown political, psychological, and philosophical discussion of the main themes provided in the film. Even more intriguingly, said concepts are then linked to the problems that plague our present post-millennial social landscape. Though it gets a tad erudite at times, it's still a marvelous scholarly dissection of the film's many ideas.
In addition, scholar Slavoj Zizek (a Slovenian thinker of some renown) offers additional opinions in a piece centering on the storyline itself. "Under Attack" is an eight-minute featurette that explains how Cuarón, cast, and crew created the unforgettable countryside car ambush sequence, and "Futuristic Design" describes how the director made his more vivid visual ideas come to life. Along with a minor featurette focusing on the characters of Theo and Julian, some unimportant deleted scenes (none of which really add to the overall narrative) and a sneak peek behind the F/X magic required to bring Kee's baby to life, this is a wonderful selection of added content. Each piece answers many of our lingering questions as they inspire their own level of enigmatic consideration.
From an audio and video standpoint Children of Men looks amazing. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image maintains Cuarón's clear dystopian view, the desaturated nature of the color scheme given significant heft by the flawless balance between light and dark and the clear detail contrasts. Even in softer, mist-filled moments, the screen is alive with optical wonder. As for the sound situation, Universal delivers a devastatingly effective aural component. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is overloaded with ambient aspects, distant noises in the background giving all channels a chance to shine. With a wonderfully effective soundtrack by John Tavener (and some excellent modern music selections), Cuarón's creates an unforgettable look into a dark and dismal world only slightly removed from our own.
While society may have purposefully dumbed itself down for the sake of some implied guarantees for child safety and success, a film like Children of Men reminds us that, whenever you significantly or solely prioritize one thing over another, the lack of philosophical perspective can be fatal. Like any great work of cinematic art, there are levels of complexity here that aren't easily picked up in a single sit-down. No, as you watch and rewatch this magnificently satisfying motion picture, you begin to see the real horror lying beneath Cuarón's subjective surface criticisms. Though we're supposed to be experiencing a planet parallel to our own, a place seemingly out of step with our solid, more rational components, the plain truth constantly kicks us in the consciousness. The sad fact is, this is not England circa the late 2020s. This is not a far-off society on the edge of implosion. Indeed, this is who we are today, in 2007—a populace incapable of seeing the fundamental forest for the selection of self-centered trees. By staying on such a path, we definitely lead all of humanity to the end of existence. But it won't be from infertility. It will be from infighting, the kind of callous disconnect that will one day doom all Children of Men.
Not guilty. This modern masterpiece—and its digital treatment at the hands of Universal—deserves praise, not punishment. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• The Possibility of Hope Documentary
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