I liked this movie. Quite a bit, actually.
When I first saw the trailers, I must admit that I didn’t want to see Children of Men. It looked like it was going to be a simplistic movie dystopia about a world that finally gets its first pregnant lady in 18 years, but with a chase thriller written in. I was worried that it would fetishize children to the point of nausea. At the same time, I was amused by the ad that promoted Alfonso Cuarón as the director of Y tu mama también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as if those movies were similar from a very surface Hollywood point of view -- a point of view that doesn’t include themes of the budding sexuality of youth.
Then the reviews came out, and it started showing up on certain respected top-10 lists, and I suspected that the movie was deeper and more interesting than the trailer led me to believe. Combine that with the promise of a miracle birth at the end, and it became my must-see movie for Christmas Day.
Children of Men opens in the year 2027. It’s been 18 years since the last pregnant woman has successfully given birth. No explanation is given for the drop in birth rates. I couldn’t help but think of it as a new version of Biblical flood, but instead of rising water the planet’s population was being wiped out through attrition because no more babies are being born.
As it turns out, it isn’t really a Christian film (nor is it an anti-Christian film), though in our culture those are the easiest allegories to jump to. Looking to Wikipedia (and who doesn’t these days?), I see that eschatology is the branch of theology that studies end-times mythology in all the great religions, from Buddhism to Hinduism to Christianity to Zoroastrianism. Heck, even my Viking gods believed their world would be destroyed and a whole new generation would come after it. The movie is bigger than just one religion.
Without the crutch of Christian allegory in his adaptation, Cuarón had to work a little harder to realize the world of his film. He succeeds thanks in no small part to his protagonist Theo (Clive Owen), a world-weary former idealist who thinks he’s given up hope. He reminded me of Humphrey Bogart or one of the hard-boiled, alcoholic heroes of the ’40s, but with a more modern acting style that requires him to emote a little more. Theo gets drawn into a plot to escort a pregnant refugee first to a radical group called “the Fishes” (another Christian allegory? Stop me now!) and then to a boat that will take her to “The Human Project,” a utopia created by scientists and scholars that is so secretive it may not even really exist.
Politically, the movie references the cultural xenophobia of developed nations through Britain’s anti-immigration policies. Refugees are locked up in cages until they are transferred to camps that indulge in torture methods similar to those in Guantanamo. Also, in these end times, a wide variety of religious groups, anti-religious groups, political groups and other militant organizations have popped up. Some of them are for refugees’ rights, others think that moral (or amoral) living will start the birthing process again. The world is a mess.
It all could have gotten heavy-handed if it wasn’t for the character of Theo. Clive Owen does a magnificent job in making an essentially anti-social character likable. In a world without hope, he’s just getting by. He takes the random bits of violence and constantly streaming news feeds for granted. And as an actor, he lets the desire to connect with others show through his cracking façade, along with a long-buried need to believe in something bigger. He seems to be living in that world, surprised by nothing, and because of that he makes the film that much more palpable.
Then Theo goes to visit his dad? mentor?, played by Michael Caine. If Owen is the soul of the film, woken to hope by being given a mission that is bigger than him, Caine is the heart. Taking care of his wife, a photojournalist who is catatonic due to wartime torture, he earns money by selling pot to the immigration officials based nearby. He is hilarious, and bypasses the pitfalls of a character who could have been there just to give the audience a little backstory by laughing world events off with a puff of his special blend “strawberry cough” marijuana.
Before seeing the movie, I was reading a debate about whether Cuarón’s use of long takes was distracting, effective, or just a filmmaker showing off. If I didn’t read about ’em before seeing the movie, I’m not sure I would have noticed the long takes. You see, instead of being part of smooth crane shots and elaborate choreography, like in Touch of Evil or I Am Cuba, they are buried in shaky handheld scenery. Also, there’s no doubt that Cuarón was able to use the best of multiple takes and seamlessly join them with the new technology, so the intellectual thrill of a long take doesn’t mean as much anymore… but still. There were only two scenes where I noticed the length of the take: One during the battle where he jumps on and off that bus and blood gets on the lens, and the other during the birth where the baby looks a little CG to me. For me, it was the blood and the baby that nearly took me out of the movie, and not the length of the shots.
I haven’t seen Soderbergh’s The Good German yet, I’ve only read the reviews (which totally makes this an unfair comparison), but something tells me that Children of Men better captures the spirit of a ’40s wartime film despite its social sci-fi trappings. And for that I thank Mr. Clive Owen.