Children of Men (2006)
THE DIRECTOR Alfonso Cuarón
THE ACTORS Clive Owen (Theo Faron), Clare-Hope Ashitey (Kee), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Luke), Julianne Moore (Julian), Michael Caine (Jasper), Pam Ferris (Miriam), Peter Mullan (Syd), Oana Pellea (Marichka), Charlie Hunnam (Patric)
THE CAUSE Infertility/War/Totalitarian Government
THE STORY "Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle." "The Muslim community demands an end to the Army's occupation of mosques." "The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning. Our lead story." "The world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet. Baby Diego was stabbed outside a bar in Buenos Aires after refusing to sign an autograph. Witnesses at the scene say that Diego spat in the face of a fan who asked for an autograph, he was killed in the ensuing brawl. The fan was later beaten to death by the angry crowd." "Born in 2009, the son of Marcello and Sylvia Ricardo, a working-class couple from Mendoza, he struggled all his life with the celebrity status thrust upon him as the world's youngest person. Diego Ricard, the youngest person on the planet was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old." "Throughout his life, Diego Ricardo was a tragic reminder of the 18 years of infertility that humanity has endured and its effect upon the world we now life in." - Two Newscasters in the film's opening.
THE RUNDOWN Before we start, why don't you watch that trailer up there. Aside from the trailer for Supernova, I can hardly summon to mind a more off-message trailer than the one for this movie. If you've not seen it, Children of Men has none of the trailer's expository dialogue nor its treacly inspirational tone, it's an ugly movie about ugly things and even its moments of hope are arguable.
Children of Men takes place in 2027 in a future uncomfortably reminiscent of the present. War, famine, and discord has overtaken the planet, hatred and violence rule, and the country of Britain has closed its borders, funneling off immigrants and refugees into prison camps where they're abused and tortured. The one fantastical element that doesn't feel like a fair prediction of the state of our world in ten years is the wave of infertility that has swept through the world, causing no babies to be born in the previous 18 years.
Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, an average man who had a political protest streak some two decades ago but now prefers to keep his head down and stay out of politics as the world crumbles around him. Theo is approached by his ex-wife Julian (played by Julianne Moore), who now heads up a terrorist organization known as The Fishes. Julian wants Theo to escort a refugee woman to the coast because she trusts him, but the real reason for this trip that the girl, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), is pregnant.
Children of Men is filled with brilliant character actors and though I have nothing big to say about their performances I must commend Chiwetel Ejiofor, Pam Ferris, Charlie Hunnam, Julianne Moore, and Oana Pella on their wonderful scenes.
Clive Owen is always a gift to me. He's an actor I often forget about, so every time I see him in something I'm reminded how wonderful he is all over again. Theo is such a nothing character: he literally stumbles through the movie, competent only in his ability to keep just out of harm's way through a mix of quick thinking and dumb luck. In any other film he would be a complete drag of a character but Clive Owen imbues him with a rugged and heroic demeanor that make him feel like anything but the foppish nobody he is. Owen makes a character who is boring by design, who reacts to the narrative rather than drives it, seem like a fully fleshed-out and human protagonist.
Kee is an interesting figure as well. I have not read the novel on which this film is based but I do know that the character in Kee's position in the book is closer to Julianne Moore's character in the film. Alfonso Cuarón had the Iraq war on the brain when making this movie and the choice to make the Madonna figure of the story a Ghanaian refugee was a bold one. There's nothing angelic about Kee. There's no way a prejudiced person could see Kee as "one of the good ones", she's filled with the sort of characteristics that people who hate foreigners detest. She swears, she's rude, she speaks deeply accented English peppered with slang, and she admits that she has no idea who the father of her baby is. There's nothing innocent about Kee so you're forced to sympathize with her on her own terms, the movie is making a lot of noise about racism and xenophobia and Kee's characteristics and role in the plot are a meta-narrative on the themes of the film. Of course, It doesn't hurt that Clare-Hope Ashitey is perfectly charming in the role.
Michael Caine does a memorable turn as Theo's friend Jasper, an old political cartoonist who lives with his catatonic wife in a secret cabin in the woods. Caine claims to have modeled the role on John Lennon but it is an amusing turn for someone who has grown into the role of "prestigious character actor" to play a pot-smoking hippie who is fond of pull-my-finger jokes. Jasper is both the funniest and most tragic character in the film and though he has only two scenes he casts a shadow over much of the film. One of the great storytelling moments is a simple tracking shot across a wall of newspaper clippings that tells the story of Jasper and his wife and how she came to be in the condition she is in.
Lastly I have to talk about Peter Mullan. Mullan plays Syd, a guard at a refugee camp who buys marijuana from Jasper. Syd has two small scenes in the film and barely makes an appearance but Mullan makes both very memorable. I can't say if the character was written this way but Peter Mullan plays Syd as an animatedly gruff little man who refers to himself in the third person. Mullan transforms a nothing character into a memorable scene-stealer and his performance may be my favorite.
I'm probably wrong but I feel like Children of Men was where the fetish for long uninterrupted camera shots came from. The film boasts three-such shots though two are actually cleverly edited throughout. By all accounts though, the penultimate scene where Theo runs into a building under siege to rescue Kee was all one shot and took four takes to get right. Even if it was cleverly cut rather than one single shot, it's an amazing bit of graphical storytelling.
All the long shots do an amazing job of conveying the panic and chaos of a real traumatic moment. The way people stumble and shuffle around, particularly Theo, in a haphazard daze as they deal with the violence springing up around them. The scene of Theo walking out of the building with Kee is a calm moment peppered with small moments of violence as bullets occasionally ricochet off walls or hit people standing in the background. The movie makes impressive use of backgrounds in general as there's something happening behind the driving action in nearly every scene, bits of storytelling that may go unnoticed on one viewing will become apparent on a rewatch. If nothing else, Children of Men is a triumph of beauty and visual storytelling.
It would be enough if the movie simply looked good, but the way Children of Men handles its narrative is as impressive as its visual feats. Theo is as much an observer as a protagonist. For a movie so filled with action and spectacle, Theo barely ever fights anyone and he never even touches a gun. The movie has a distinctly on-rails feel as we travel from one event to another winding through scenes of chaos and heartbreak broken up by moments of philosophizing and discussion. With the exception of a small discussion between Theo and Jasper at the film's beginning and the opening voice-over with the two newscasters (which is a trope so prevalent in doomsday movies that I almost never have to pull my "The Story" section from any source other than the movie itself) there isn't much in the way of exposition and it's actually quite easy to lose your understanding of what's going on if you're not paying close attention to the film.
Everything from this sentence on is a spoiler so skip down below the next picture. According to IMDb's trivia section on the movie, Alfonso Cuarón set out to make a movie that doesn't end with the credits, rather one that begins when the credits roll. And that's definitely what happens here. As I stated, Theo is a nothing protagonist; his only contribution to the story is keeping Kee safe and getting her to her destination. At the fringes of the movie is an organization called The Human Project. Supposedly The Human Project are a clandestine organization of scientists operating independently of all the world's governments who are trying to solve the world's infertility problem. The thing is that The Human Project is so secretive that it is assumed to be a myth and though Julian claims there's a ship waiting to pick up Kee and her baby, Theo finds out midway through the film that Julian never directly spoke with anyone from The Human Project.
The film's penultimate scene ends on a note that would be the ending of any other movie. Theo and Kee leave the besieged building as onlookers stare on in dead shock at the first baby born in nearly two decades. The warzone is suddenly silent, only for shooting to resume after the three of them are out of the way. In the film's final scene, Theo and Kee get on a boat and Theo reveals that he has been shot in the torso, Kee promises to name her daughter Dylan after Theo and Julian's dead son and Theo slumps down as a ship arrives. The ship bears the name of the fishing boat which Julian said was a secret ship of The Human Project and Kee declares "We're safe now." But are they?
Now, assuming the happiest possible ending, the ship is The Human Project and they're going to take Kee away and solve the infertility crisis and the inspiration of Dylan's birth will cause the world to unite and end all the wars. Just for good measure, lets say Theo was unconscious (he didn't fall completely over, after all) and he survives his gunshot wound and helps usher in a new generation. But there's a wrinkle; we still have no proof that The Human Project even exists, Julian stated it was a Human Project ship but she never spoke directly to anyone from that organization and since The Fishes had her assassinated so that Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) could take over and use Kee's baby for some undisclosed plan involving political gain, any information that Julian was fed is suspect at best.
So it's much more likely that the fishing vessel simply belongs to The Fishes, not The Human Project. But even if it does belong to The Human Project, who's to say that Kee isn't simply an anomaly? Even if they can derive some sort of blood serum to restore fertility to the people of the world, is there any point? Nuclear war, disease, famine, and all other sorts of issues are hinted at through the movie. It's strongly implied that everywhere outside of Britain is even worse off than Britain itself, Theo himself says it's too late and that within 50 year the human race will be dead and he's probably right. Baby Dylan will be an inspiration to the world, certainly, but so was Baby Diego, the 18-year-old whose murder was the subject of the opening narration. Could Kee and Dylan be the key to the survival of the human race, and more importantly, should they be? Whatever the case, the fact of the matter is that the real story, that is the story of Kee and her baby and how if at all they bring about the return of humanity, has only just begun.
Children of Men easily belongs in the great lexicon of dystopian genre films. It's like a funnier 1984 or a more serious Brazil, and the parallels to our modern world are genuinely chilling to behold. The cast is fantastic, the visuals and cinematography are magnificent, and the story is compelling and smart. It's not exactly a controversial opinion to lavish praise on this film which netted three Oscar nominations, but it's worth saying that it deserves all the accolades it has attained and more.
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