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The Chilling Children of Men

January 10, 2007

I always find it distracting when science fiction movies try to imagine the clothing of the future. Characters are either dressed in all-black (The Matrix) or they’re dressed like clowns (A Clockwork Orange). The former suggests a lack of imagination; the latter, too much.

Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Children of Men, and his costume designer, Jany Tamime, avoid this problem entirely. In Children of Men, the fashion of 2027 is the same as the fashion of 2006. Watching Children of Men, it’s easy to forget that the events shown are supposed to take place two decades from now; the contemporary wardrobes make the film’s frightening vision of a world where all the women are infertile that much more immediate.

Cuaron’s handling of the fashion trap is just one of many small details that make Children of Men such a potent and convincing portrait of the future. Like many other great science fiction movies, the movie’s premise draws its power not from its plausibility but from its adroitness in exploiting our fears. As best as I know, there is no looming fertility crisis, but who doesn’t know a woman who has tried and failed to have a baby? Declining birthrates and fertility problems in Western society are more a function of choice—couples having smaller families, women waiting longer to have babies—than of health, but it’s a fear of many people nonetheless. It’s not like there was ever much chance of a sentient computer network taking over the world either, but Terminator and The Matrix still did damn fine jobs of tapping into our fears of technology.

In the world imagined by Children of Men, no woman on earth has had a baby since 2009. Global infertility has led to the disintegration of states, widespread terrorism and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Responding to a massive influx of refugees, England has become a police state obsessed with jailing illegal immigrants. As the Orwellian ads on the London buses say, “The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on.”

But even Britain isn’t immune to the chaos. Terrorism has become commonplace, and the refugee camps have become its breeding ground. (Sound familiar?)

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a former activist—a terrorist, perhaps, we’re never fully told—who has become a cynical low-level bureaucrat. He once lived outside of, in opposition to, the system; now he’s another invisible cog. In the movie’s opening scene, crowds fill a London café to watch a television report about the shocking death of the world’s youngest person, “Baby Diego,” who is now 18. Theo makes his way to the front of the mob, not because he cares about the news, but because he wants to get a coffee—which he proceeds to spike with whiskey. Once he gets to work, after noticing all the women sitting at their desks and sobbing while watching news reports about Diego’s death, he asks his supervisor if he can take the rest of the day off. “I didn’t realize how emotionally affected I was by Baby Diego’s death,” he lies.

Like most science fiction films, the opening minutes are used to establish the contours of our future world. There are several shots of Owen walking by cages holding refugees speaking in foreign tongues; trash piles up on the street and graffiti litters the walls because facing humanity’s extinction, even the English can’t be bothered to keep up appearances; holographic ads on the sides of billboards and buses advertise Quietus, a euthanasia pill that comes in a discreet, inviting package. “You decide when you’re ready,” proclaim the ads, mindful of commercials for Lunestra and Viagra.

Theo is content to fritter away his remaining days drinking and occasionally smoking weed with his old friend, Jasper (Michael Caine), an aging hippie, but history—personal and political—intrudes. Theo is kidnapped at gunpoint on a London street as pedestrians walk by, unfazed; Theo falls victim to the widespread apathy he so readily embraced.

He’s brought to a warehouse by the Fishes, the underground terrorist group that seeks to topple the British police state. When he is unhooded, he meets his captor: Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), his former lover from his activist days. Julian asks him for a favor: the Fishes have a very valuable refugee—she’s pregnant, a fact the audience knows from the movie’s ubiquitous commercials but Theo does not—who needs a transit pass to get from London to the coast, where she can meet up with the Human Project, a mysterious group of scientists rumored to be working on a cure for infertility. Theo’s cousin, a favored son of the state who secures and preserves international masterpieces, has access to the kind of pass the Fishes need. Theo’s initial response is no.

But once returned to London, he has second thoughts. The movie doesn’t immediately make clear why he changes his mind, but it eventually is apparent that he hopes to respark something with Julian—despite their relationship ending years ago when their young child died. He is able to procure the transit pass, but there’s a catch. He is only able to get a pass for two, and he has to be one of the travelers. Theo meets up with Julian and her fellow Fishes, ready to go on a short journey to the coast. That’s when all hell breaks loose.

One of the great things about Children of Men is that Cuaron isn’t so fascinated by the world he’s created that he stops the story to dwell on the details. From the moment that all hell breaks loose—I’d say more, but I’d be giving away one of the movie’s biggest shocks—Theo, the refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitay), and her midwife, Miriam (Pam Ferris) are on the run from the government, the revolutionaries, immigration officers, take your pick. The taut script follows the same simple formula that made The Fugitive so exciting: give your characters no safe haven, and put them in increasingly desperate, inescapable situations. Few movies have executed the formula as well as Children of Men.

After Theo becomes a fugitive, Cuaron films him differently. Gone are the profile shots that show him walking by the world’s horrors; instead, he is framed by an unorthodox medium shot that shows his face, chest and torso. When he moves forward, the camera moves backward to follow (more accurately, lead) him step-by-step. We only see what he sees after he sees it. The change in how Theo is framed tracks his evolution from a bystander to society’s problems to a shocked witness.

Unlike so many other fugitive tales—even the good ones—there are no tangential stops on Theo’s and Kee’s escape to the coast, no head-scratching lulls like the scene with the toy soldier-maker in Ronin or the lunch at the wealthy information-dealer’s farmhouse in Munich. Every stop on their route makes sense, every stop is logical for a group of fugitives that have no friends or supporters who will help them. A favorite is their rendezvous at a boarded-up elementary school. When Theo is startled by a deer running through its corridors, it’s a potent reminder that in a few decades, the only inhabitants in humanity’s cities will be the animals.

The film’s third act, detailing the fugitives’ final stop before the shore, a refugee camp, is simply a masterful piece of filmmaking. The camp, which seems to exist in the remains of a coastal city, brings to mind both the Holocaust and the Palestinians. Cuaron blatantly steals scenes from Schindler’s List: the piles of refugees’ appropriated suitcases, the soldiers throwing furniture and precious belongings off residential balconies, the cramped and dingy apartments where families crowd six to eight in a room. At the same time, the Arabic graffiti and olive complexions are straight out of Gaza. The scenes in the camp simultaneously suggest a possible genocidal outcome of the Western obsession with “homeland security” and a rationale for Palestinian terror.

But don’t think Children of Men is a leftist diatribe. In the movie’s stunning climactic battle scene between the revolutionaries/terrorists and the British military, the Fishes are as guilty of brutality as the soldiers. The Fishes take cover in crowded residential buildings as bullets intended for them kill civilians. Because the camera only gives us as much information about the situation as Theo has, the Fishes’ pursuit of Theo and Kee through the hallways is terrifying.

Throughout, the film’s attention to subtle detail is magnificent. Pets are ubiquitous, even among the impoverished denizens of the refugee camps, presumably because they provide a surrogate object of devotion in the absence of children. There are repeated shots of smog and smokestacks because if all humanity is going to be gone in a few years, who cares about the ozone layer? Images from Picasso’s Guernica repeat throughout the movie: first we see the original mural on the wall of Theo’s cousin’s grand residence, later we see fragments of the painting as graffiti in the refugee camp. While the original is framed exactly as you would want it, on a well-lit white wall, far from any visual distractions, its presence is grotesque, sterile, because we know so few people will see it; the refugee camp version is little more than vandalism, but it is far more vital because its use is in concert with the artwork’s anti-fascist message.

All this may suggest that Children of Men is unbearably dark, a Blade Runner for the 21st century (is that an oxymoron?). Despite its dystopian vision, there is humor throughout. One of the outward expressions of cynicism is sarcasm, and Theo has plenty of it to spread around. And there are occasional moments of touching humanity: Jasper’s inexplicable enthusiasm for life, the non-English-speaking refugees doting on Kee’s newborn baby, the penultimate scene of grace that’s so powerful you’ll be hard-pressed not to cry. What separates Children of Men from other dystopian and post-apocalyptic sci-fi films is that they more often than not present an irreparably damaged future. In Children of Men, hope—or at least its faintest glimmer—is built into the story’s premise.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2007 10:02 pm

    Did you notice the two or three incredibly long, single-take sequences? Mesmerizing. I’m looking forward to seeing this one again, because there’s so much going on visually, I’m sure I’ll catch things I missed the first time.

  2. January 13, 2007 7:33 pm

    I read somewhere that those sequences weren’t actually one take but used a variety of blending techniques (some digital, some old-fashioned) to make them appear to be single takes. An amazing achievement, either way.

  3. bren permalink
    April 5, 2007 1:48 pm

    So I just watched this the other day and man, I really think this is one of those movies that’s just lost on me, or at least the little things were. It was too much of “the world is shit” and quite frankly I couldn’t wait for the movie to be over after about a half hour into it. Also the movie is quite different from the book, though, there wasn’t an everyone fighting and killing each other vibe to it. I can’t say if that’s a bad thing or not, as I couldn’t get through the book either, despite me liking the premise of the book… That being said, the two things that I liked in this shit infested movie, not unlike the world it portrays, is Michael Caine (has he always been this fantastic or has he really stepped it up in the past 4 years or so) and one chilling scene w/ people stop fighting for those seconds for the baby


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