Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has become one of this fall’s most highly anticipated releases. This is due in no small part to the director’s previous effort Children of Men, a 2006 apocalyptic thriller that earned a spot on many critics’ year-end top ten lists and scored an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (it’s loosely based on a novel by P.D. James). The movie certainly contains some of the most riveting action sequences seen in recent years, but when it comes to exploring the political and social ramifications of its high-concept premise, the film is never quite as compelling.
The year is 2027, and it’s been 18 years since the last baby was born. The entire human race has been rendered infertile for reasons that are a mystery, and shall remain a mystery for the entirety of the film. In the face of impending extinction, most of the world has descended into anarchy (New York, Paris, and Moscow have all been nuked, presumably by terrorists), but the United Kingdom stands as one of the last remaining stable governments in the world. As a result, England finds itself inundated with refugees, or “fugees”, who are quickly rounded up and literally thrown in cages, in a none-too-subtle jab at the UK’s current immigration policies.
In the midst of this, we meet Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned bureaucrat who spends most of his days wallowing in drunken self-pity. But that all changes when he’s abducted and brought to a meeting with his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). They broke up twenty years ago when their son died, and Julian now belongs to a pro-fugee group of activists who call themselves the “Fishes”.
At her request, Theo uses his family connection to a government minister to acquire “transit papers” for a special African refugee named Kee. Theo and the group make their way to the coast, but they’re soon ambushed and Julian is shot and killed. This turns out to be the handiwork of a dissident faction within the Fishes that hopes to spark a violent uprising against the government, and use Kee as a propaganda tool. You see, Kee is pregnant, and the first woman to get pregnant in over 18 years.
With Julian dead, it’s up to Theo alone to keep Kee (and eventually, her newborn baby) out of the hands of the Fishes, and turn her over to a group called the “Human Project”, which sounds like something George Costanza made up, but which is supposedly a scientific group dedicated to curing infertility.
The film is full of top-notch action scenes that despite being meticulously planned out, still come off as chaotic and unpredictable. Cuarón shoots most of these scenes like a combat documentary, using handheld cameras and natural light wherever possible, and most notably of all, including several lengthy single-shot sequences.
The most well-known of these long unbroken takes happens during the ambush where Julian is killed, inside a moving car that was specially designed with seats that could slide in and out of the way of the camera as it gives us a full 360-degree view of the attack. There’s also a lengthy sequence where Theo runs in and out of buildings, and up and down stairs, all the while avoiding gunfire and explosions while trying to rescue Kee.
Thankfully, the technique doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself. The only people who will consciously recognize these as single continuous takes are big-time film nerds; but for the rest of the audience, these shots still provide a visceral, first-person point of view, making us feel like we’re in the middle of the action as bullets fly and bombs go off.
Though, a lot of these seemingly continuous shots are not truly continuous; plenty of digital effects were employed to blend together multiple takes. But even Alfred Hitchcock faked up a long unbroken shot, so Cuarón is in good company.
While the action is unparalleled, the movie stumbles when it delves into the larger geopolitical context. If you’re looking for a deep examination of what happens to the human race as it stares extinction in the face, this is not the movie for you. Some references to the end of humanity are tossed off here and there—Theo wonders why his minister cousin would bother to rescue Michelangelo’s David when no one will be around to see it in a hundred years—but ultimately, the underlying event that creates these post-apocalyptic conditions could just as easily have been any man-made or natural disaster.
Given the concept, it’s a bit of a letdown that the film is mostly about criticizing the anti-immigration stance of western countries. Clearly, this was a subject of deep importance to the filmmakers, but here, it feels awkwardly shoehorned in. Instead of dragging the last fertile woman on earth across a battlefield, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply turn her over to the government? The only explanation we get here basically comes down to “government bad, immigrants good”.
But still, the race to rescue Kee is harrowing. After the shocking murder of Julian earlier in the film, you’re constantly waiting for one errant bullet or one bit of shrapnel to take down Kee and end the entire human race as we know it. As far as action movies go, the stakes don’t get any higher.
The exact reason for the human race becoming infertile is never explained in the film. This was a bone of contention for some viewers, but I’m perfectly fine with this being an open-ended question. If the movie explained that it was something like, say, vaccines, would that really make it a better movie? When the end of the world comes, will it really matter what caused it? (Actually, the film does mention the “2008 flu pandemic” that killed Theo and Julian’s only son; as an explanation for global sterility, that works about as well as any other.)
Thanks to this, the Harry Potter film he directed, and early raves for Gravity, it seems Cuarón has now been claimed by the geek crowd as one of their own. It’s amusing to think that the director of Y Tu Mamá También and a Dickens adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow has now become some sort of sci-fi icon, but he’s definitely the type of gifted filmmaker the genre needs.