I remarked just last week that Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men was one of the few 2006 films I had yet to see that might have altered the face of my ten-best list — and that turned out to be true. Had I been able to see it (thank you, Universal), I would have regretfully dropped Woody Allen’s Scoop to the number 11 slot, inserted Children of Men to the number 5 slot and moved everything else down a notch. In others words, this futuristic look at a dystopian society delivers on the promise of its trailer and on the promise of Cuaron’s last two works, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). It’s quite simply a wonderful film.
I’ve been a few rounds with a friend whose opinion I greatly respect (as long as it doesn’t involve Wes Anderson) about certain lapses in the script, and not only conceded some of those points, but added one. I’m not, however, going to discuss them; in part, because they give away too much about the plot — but more, I ultimately don’t feel they’re important enough to worry about as concerns the overall quality of the film. In the end, Children of Men is too vital a work containing too much brilliant filmmaking for me to stick at the occasional logic flaw.
The story (loosely based on P.D. James’ novel) is set in the year 2027. The world has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed — or so we’re told because everything we see or are told is from a rigidly enforced insular British perspective. The British government (“Britain soldiers on”) has closed itself off, rounding up any non-Brits (called “fugees,” which is short for refugees) and putting them in camps or deporting them. Women have become infertile. No baby has been born since 2009, so the human race is dying out and there is no hope for any kind of a future. At least it seems that way, until disillusioned former political activist Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) is kidnapped by a terrorist group headed by his ex-girlfriend Julian (Julianne Moore) and recruited to help get an inexplicably pregnant refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, Shooting Dogs), past the British authorities to the safety of a ship being sent by the nearly mythical Human Project.
In essence, this is the film’s entire plot — add in a lot of duplicity, character development and what amounts to an extended chase premise, and you have it. But Children of Men is less about plot per se than it is about tone, theme and feeling. To watch the film is to spend a couple hours in the film’s world of 2027 — and a brilliantly conceived world it is. Unlike most futuristic science fiction, the future here isn’t especially futuristic (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) comes to mind as another example), and it’s all grounded in our own present and recent past. The world isn’t filled with splendid gadgets and improbable technical advances. Instead, it’s a grimly drab version of the world we inhabit, and is clearly an outgrowth of it.
Everything we see is uncomfortably familiar — and not just the scenes of refugees being abused by soldiers in ways that deliberately call to mind the images from Abu Ghraib prison, or the words “Homeland Security” emblazoned on refugee transports. Consider Theo’s cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), the head of the government’s art council, who lives with the artworks he’s “liberated” from other countries and now keeps in a personal museum that appears to be the Battersea Power Station — complete with the floating pig from the Pink Floyd Animals album still hovering outside. This isn’t merely a remnant of our own culture, but a remnant of a work that suggested just this sort of future. (What better emblem with its recollection of a chorus that constantly repeats, “Ha ha, charade you are,” for a man who loots the world for his own pleasure and admits he simply doesn’t “think about” the hopelessness outside?)
In common with a good deal of modern film, Children of Men takes much of its tone — it’s cry against apathy — from the ’60s and ’70s political/art movement. It’s certainly not accidental that one of the film’s sagest characters is Michael Caine’s aging hippie. Nor is it happenstance that the film uses John Lennon’s “Bring on the Lucie (Freda People)” as its theme — and it’s more than a little disconcerting to find that this 30-plus-year-old song (rarely considered one of Lennon’s better works, from an album originally viewed as disappointing) sounds more relevant now than it did when it was new. Most of the film’s soundtrack is similarly pointed (though it would be unfair not to note that Wes Craven used Krzysztof Pendrecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as the background for news footage of the bombing of Baghdad during Desert Storm back in 1991 in The People Under the Stairs).
All of this is perfectly apt because Children of Men is an extremely passionate work — fully as passionate as those voices from the last century, and keenly aware of the scarcity of such voices today. It is also an exciting and occasionally shatteringly moving film — its centerpiece scene of hushed reverence (you’ll know it when you see it) is so powerful that it’s impossible not to suspend disbelief over its improbability. More, it’s a technically stunning work on every level — and not just the incredible nine-minute single take near the end of the film (kudos to camera operator George Richmond on that one), but throughout. It’s simply must-see filmmaking all the way around — as art, as entertainment, as social commentary. Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke