In the future, one child makes all the difference
BY JASON BLAIR
CHILDREN OF MEN: Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Written by Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based upon the novel by P.D. James. Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Music, John Tavener. Starring Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Universal Pictures, 2006. R. 109 minutes.
|Clive Owen and Julianne Moore in Children of Men|
Whatever else might be said of it, Children of Men solves the problem of setting movies in the future. Instead of hovercrafts and jet packs, which years ago felt nostalgic — more 1950 than 2050 — Children of Men assumes more modest transformations: The future happens to look a lot like right now, only dirtier and with uglier cars. In fact, Children of Men is so visually credible that it plays like a documentary of the future, which makes its premise — a global infertility epidemic — that much more terrifying.
According to the film, set in 2027, the last recorded childbirth was in 2009. That's a lot of empty playgrounds, but it's much more dire than that: The world has begun to destroy itself through civil war, terrorism and nuclear attack. The world is a cold and filthy place. Britain alone seems to be coping — "The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on." — if by coping you mean rounding up and killing the refugees arriving daily from neighboring countries.
Within this totalitarian state, former political activist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) maintains his composure with regular swallows of whisky and the occasional visit to Jasper (Michael Caine), a jolly old hippie living in secret in the woods. Jasper, looking like Santa without the suit, grows marijuana for various customers (which, fittingly, is still illegal). One of Jasper's clients is an immigration cop, which comes in handy when Theo gets paid to escort Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to the coast. The film doesn't conceal Kee's important secret, but it's worth withholding for those who don't discover it right away.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who gave us the fine Y tu mamá también, Children of Men is the type of important film — dare I say vision? — we used to expect from Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys). Children of Men blends elements of apocalyptic fantasy and dystopian reality while asking, simply: What if the fate of the world fell into the hands of an average Joe? What would happen then? Like Gilliam, Cuarón understands that without humor, survival is impossible. Children of Men, for all its gloom, is one long lesson in comic relief.
Visually, the film is subtle and coherent and has already won three prizes for cinematography. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses color to denote everything from trust and morality (gray is evil, dark, decay) to innocence and purity (Kee, who's black, is perfection, health). Narrative details are relayed not by dialogue but through the imagery of television, graffiti and newspapers. There are at least two extended scenes in Children of Men that were shot in a single take, one exhilarating and one exhausting.
Unfortunately, once Theo becomes Kee's escort, the film mutates into a chase-and-escape picture, losing some of the liveliness and novelty of its first half. There are profound moments late in the film, but as our protagonists darted from rock to rock and building to building to avoid one bullet after another, I felt the film lose its footing and its scope. Children of Men begins to feel like Saving Private Ryan: beautiful but brutal, gigantic and overpopulated. In the end, Cuarón has created a triumphant film about an unlikely hero at the end of the world, but it's a film that stumbles somewhat as it lurches toward a finale.