Easy to watch and hard to shake, Children of Men is an action-adventure film/socio-political nightmare. The fuel that makes the engine run is a dystopian conceit about human infertility on a sudden, species-wide scale — and the violence and despair that ensues. The opening sequence depicts a terrorist bombing of a coffee shop, followed by a woman wandering out of the smoking rubble carrying her severed arm, just before the title card appears on screen.
Children of men indeed. Poor buggers. The film suggests a happy ending may yet be in store for the sad lot that makes up this human race. (Then again, maybe not.) But it has a dim view of our nature. Bereft of children, who symbolize hope for and investment in the future, the world indulges its worst tendencies toward terror and self-destruction. Suicide pills are a mainstream pharmaceutical. Gangs roam the countryside, chucking rocks and bottles at passing trains. A montage of video images shows Paris in ruins, Kuala Lumpur in flames, and downtown Manhattan under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. “Only Britain soldiers on,” reads the on-screen title, and that has to be a dark joke on behalf of the Empire. Looters outside your window got you thinking about choking down that suicide pill? Lie back and think of England, dearie.
The British themselves seem largely huddled inside a security blanket of xenophobia, rounding up foreigners and interring them in chicken-wire cages in the city, or bussing them off to isolated-but-bustling prison camps with their own fucked-up social structure. (John Carpenter nailed that riff in 1981 when he turned Manhattan into a maximum-security prison for Escape From New York, but it’s still an effective motif.) The anti-immigrant rhetoric, with accompanying imagery depicting hooded refugees being tortured and murdered under the banner of “homeland security,” is a clear reflection on contemporary politics and especially Abu Ghraib. And the virtuoso third-act set piece takes place in a war zone that could be one among any number of real-life battlegrounds.
Minor spoilers begin here.
Story: Listless Theo (Clive Owen) is recruited by a rebel organization led by his one-time girlfriend Julian (Julianne Moore), to shepherd the pregnant (!) Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) into the care of something called The Human Project, a legendary (or mythical?) offshore sanctuary of scientists working to find an answer to the biological riddle bedeviling these last years of humanity.
After the outstanding sex comedy Y tu mamá también and a subsequent flirtation with J.K. Rowling, director Alfonso Cuarón has put his Serious hat on, and he leverages his formal chops to bring a striking and unnerving versimillitude to this uneasy yarn. Long and uninterrupted takes generally go a long way toward that you-are-there feel, and Cuarón has the long take of the year: a car chase through the woods that unfolds in what appears to be a single shot of nearly four minutes in length. Digitally augmented or not — I can’t detect any likely spots for an invisible edit, but who knows? — it involves an always-moving camera that swivels easily around the interior of the car to take in the characters within and the action without, finally gliding outside to survey the carnage left behind. The action beats are breathtaking, involving visuals, stuntwork, and narrative in perfect proportion. You can only imagine the scrambling that went on behind the scenes as the car’s seats, passengers and windshield were folded up, down, in and out to get them out of the way of the smoothly moving camera. (Perhaps emboldened by his world-beating efforts on Terence Malick’s The New World, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki now seems confident enough to have his crew try anything.) It’s an exciting, hugely impressive scene.
In fact, the first half-hour of Children of Men is almost mind-blowingly grand — disturbing and enthralling in equal measure, and one of the best, most-sustained examples of sheer bravura cinema I’ve seen in ages. But as I settled in for the long haul, waiting to have the experience deepened and enriched, I was left wanting. There are quietly touching scenes, like the one that takes place in a school building now lost on the world of men and women, or the one where rifles and tanks are shocked into temporary silence by the presence of a squalling baby, that verge on greatness. There are swipes at the comforts of bureaucracy, like the government functionary who has appropriated Guernica as part of his dining-room set. But there’s little of the kind of dot-connecting, either in terms of theme or character, that would amplify the impact of Cuarón’s impressive mise-en-scene. “I cannot stand exposition,” Cuarón told a recent interviewer. “I prefer participation.” Fine, but there should be room for story even without resorting to the evils of talking heads and prattling voiceover.
Serious spoilers begin here.
With Cuarón providing little explicit context for the miraculous human birth at the heart of his film, it’s hard to read the subtext as anything but Christian. Kee herself jokes about a virgin birth, before making it clear that she’s laying no claim to such purity. But the baby has a birth scene befitting a full-on nativity story. (The little baby birthed on screen — in a continuous shot without edits, natch — is very clearly an animatronic-and-CG creation rather than a real newborn. This mediocre visual is a misstep in an otherwise splendidly realized film.) And it seems clear that, whether or not this child is the object of divine intervention, he will indeed be a messiah — a life-changing symbol of hope for a society that badly needs to become hopeful.
Even as the baby arrives, Theo starts to get the idea that his presumed connection to The Human Project is a tenuous one. Nobody has made direct contact with the group — instructions have been relayed via a large-scale game of telephone, and Cuarón even allows one of the characters to voice doubts that the Project exists at all. It’s at the film’s end, when Theo reaches the end of his journey with Kee and her baby — floating out near a buoy in the water and the fog just off the coast — that these explicit doubts become important. Theo slumps over, apparently dead of his injuries, just before a boat bearing the inscription “Tomorrow” drifts slowly out of the mist. It appears that the film has a happy ending after all — the cheering voices of children at play accompany the end credit scroll, strongly suggest that many more children are yet to be born. But I was left disquieted, and it took me a few minutes to figure out why.
The entire story is seen from Theo’s perspective. The film begins with Theo, entering that coffee shop. We don’t learn who is responsible for the attack in the woods until Theo discovers their identities. We only see the fate of Theo’s old friend Jasper (Michael Caine) because Theo is watching from the road above his house. And so the timing of what happens in the film’s final scene is significant. Theo dies — OK, maybe he just loses consciousness due to his injuries, but what Owen does on screen sure seems like universal cinematic shorthand for dying to me — on the boat. Then, and only then, do we see the Human Project ship emerge from the fog. If that’s Kee’s salvation, it’s an unconvincing one. (In business terms, we might call this kind of barely happy ending “a sop to the marketplace.”) In the only narrative mode that makes sense, the ship arrives in Theo’s head as a wish-fulfillment hallucination as he departs this world. In the movie of my mind, Kee is still out there, floating in the water as she waits for a world-saving rendezvous that may never happen.
Pretty bleak. In this light, perhaps Children of Men can be seen as a despairing rumination on the absence of God. Or maybe it depicts God’s ultimate punishment for all the children of men — simply pulling the plug on the human race. There are no fewer than five credited screenwriters on this thing, plus novelist P.D. James, whose book served as source material, which is maybe why it lacks the coherence and concision — or even just a strong point of view to complement the cinematographic calisthenics — that could have made it a great film. What’s left is a terrific succession of highly choreographed set pieces set against a backdrop of non-specific political commentary and Christian allegory that never fully connect with the characters or the action, and with an ending so highly anticlimactic as to induce depression. Maybe that’s appropriate for a movie that roots its fears for the future of all our children in the frightening present day — but the gut punch Cuarón was trying for never connects. B+