Children of Men

The theme of 2006 could have been “Children of Orwell” — not just on the world stage but in cinemas, which gave us such bleak visions as V for Vendetta, The Road to Guantanamo, and Children of Men. The latter is a technically virtuosic, if slightly overpraised, parable in which futuristic Britain “soldiers on” despite worldwide infertility. It’s 2027, and the maternity wards have been silent for eighteen years; the last human to have been born has been knifed to death, and the world mourns, though one character pegs him (probably accurately) as “a wanker.” Still, as hope goes, so goes the world, which has collapsed into general chaos. But then, from the throngs of illegal immigrants, emerges hope for the future: a pregnant woman.

Children of Men has been streamlined from P.D. James’ elegantly composed novel into an action-thriller that speaks the abrupt, clattering language of war movies and dispenses with the usual flashy dystopian visions. This is “soft” science fiction, beginning with a dire premise and avoiding hardware in favor of the humanity affected by the premise. Our stubbly hero, corporate drone Theo Faron (Clive Owen), is content to shuffle about, lukewarm coffee in hand, as the universe disintegrates around him. Fate, and the plot, have different designs in mind for Theo: he’s pressed into service by a revolutionary group — whose number includes his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) — to help deliver the aforementioned pregnant woman, with the rather on-the-nose name Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), to safe harbor.

As directed by the gifted Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the movie scarcely pauses to take in its own depressed trappings; the clutter and violence are never rubbed in our faces — they’re just part of the texture, taken as a given. Such shout-outs to the current age as Abu Ghraib hoods and vans marked “Homeland Security” are only glimpsed, providing a backdrop of dread. But the story, whittled down by Cuarón and four other writers, ends up not saying much about the world it presents. It sprints with enviable momentum — it certainly never gets bogged down. But it feels like a hunk of fat-free narrative carved off of a larger and more thoughtful vision.

That said, Children of Men offers a wealth of diversions, starting with Michael Caine, happily tucking his scenes into his shirt pocket, as an aging hippie with an abundance of weed and a box of government-produced suicide pills called Quietus, just in case. Caine’s final, slyly defiant scene is all the more effective for unfolding entirely in long shot. Alfonso Cuarón’s technique here is to hide his technique. Many critics have justly geeked out over the phenomenal sequence set inside a car during a particularly brutal and bloody chase; most of it is over before you’re aware that the whole thing has been captured in one unbroken camera move. Cuarón works hard to deromanticize combat, giving us the random pops and cracks of a war zone, the bullets spiderwebbing the soundtrack with an angry hum. Even during the movie’s most overtly redemptive sequence, we can still just barely catch a rapt onlooker in the background as he or she falls to a stray bullet.

I think I prefer P.D. James’ quieter take on the same material, but Cuarón’s Children of Men is its own rough beast, slouching towards a literal Bethlehem where the first infant in eighteen years emerges into the world limp, as if acquiescing to the hopelessness of her surroundings, and then shakes herself alive and emits a sound no one has heard in a generation. This sound even hushes soldiers in the midst of battle (Cuarón handles this deftly; it isn’t the Shawshank Redemption “everyone stands around speechless and looking stupid” moment it could’ve been). Children of Men is a taut story well-told, a perfectly good movie mistaken for great by critics who’ve been deprived of perfectly good movies all year. Don’t let them oversell it or inflate it: it does the job, it does it well, and the fact that it’s being called a masterpiece for doing so speaks unwell of the current state of movies.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, science fiction, war

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