Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)
“With Inception hitting theaters, we take a look at movies that take a dark view of the future.” So declared the Rotten Tomatoes website today, and in the same spirit, I revisit 2006’s criminally underappreciated sci-fi classic.
Every once in a while, a movie comes out that puts together every aspect of cinema so magnificently that you can’t imagine how it could be better. Such movies don’t remind you why you go to the theater; any solid one can do that. Such movies instead remind you of the transcendental power of cinema, the life-affirming revelation that all great literature, music, and movies can possess when constructed by masters. Children of Men is such a movie. Upon its release, this was the best film to come out since 2004.
Based on the science fiction book by P.D. James, Men is set in Britain in 2027, when the world is exactly like ours but for one crucial difference: humans are infertile. No one under 18 years old is alive. The government passes out suicide kits with the slogan, “You decide when.” With no prospects for long-term survival, anarchy is the rule around the world. Britain arrives at the most successful method for handling the situation by prohibiting immigration, deporting and locking up any illegals, and enforcing a police state. A walk to work is an opportunity to be attacked by a rabid police dog. A visit to a coffee shop in the morning might be your last. Is it the lack of innocent children that corrupts people? Or the sheer fact that there’s nothing to live for?
Clive Owen prefers to play amoral characters, and he has a particular affinity for people who derive strength from destruction occurring around them (see Croupier, Closer). Yet here it is the rest of the world that has fallen apart while he ultimately finds a measure of decency and redemption. He plays Theo Faron, an ex-activist now resorting to mindlessness. He carries too much suffering from his past to be bothered by the death of the youngest person alive, which captivates everyone else. His ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) takes him out of his shell by arranging for him to be the caretaker of Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, solid), an African woman who miraculously is pregnant. The government wants no part of any foreigners, and rebel groups want to use the baby for political purposes, so it is left to Theo to keep her safe and deliver her to the Human Project, an organization dedicated to planning for the future.
The set-up might seem a perfect opportunity to lionize Theo, but the movie never makes that mistake. He’s a broken-down man who fights for Kee because she reminds him of the child he and Julian had together who died at the age of two. Children of Men, though, is less a character analysis than a study of the human condition. Theo speaks to both the ways that society and culture can shape an individual’s behavior and to the extent to which one can forge his own path. Theo, having endured too much pain at the hands of fate, has withdrawn from life at the beginning, but the arrival of a baby transforms him, most notably in a stunning scene in which he delivers the child. But there are also smaller decisions he makes independent of fate, which together are the main reason you walk out of the theater feeling good about humanity amidst the terror and carnage.
In many respects, Children of Men is an adventure story, as Theo and Kee, with a midwife named Miriam (Pam Ferris), have to escape and evade the violence surrounding them, but it is filled with so many rich scenes and tender moments of humanity that it transcends its genre. Though a violent rebel group named the Fishes wrecks their plans more than once, there is no battle against a specific enemy here. This is a battle against the world, against our human flaws, against apathy, against dangers that we bring upon ourselves.
Director Alfonso Cuaron allows us to see small measures of goodness amidst the carnage: how people try to replace children the best they can with pets—dogs, kittens, sheep, roosters, goats, and birds roam the squalid streets and buildings—as though they must care for something. After Kee’s baby is born, it is Theo, not the mother, who knows how to care for the baby; he’s done it before, but no one Kee’s age has even seen a child. And Jasper (Michael Caine, also impressive), Theo’s best friend who deals with the end of the world with strawberry-flavored weed and classic British music, provides some levity but also deeply cares for his catatonic wife, a former journalist who was tortured, probably for exposing the nasty ways of the government. In both the sunshine in his scenes that belies the generally grey and dark blue hues of London and in Theo’s rare laughter around him, viewers can observe how much joy Jasper brings.
None of this, however, can obscure the movie’s darkness. It makes a statement about what would happen with no children to keep us innocent and no accountability for adults’ actions to keep our base desires in check. It’s not political, but the implications of the anti-immigrant policy reverberate, particularly in a startlingly close to home depiction of a refugee camp that would not be out of place in today’s news. In another poignant scene, Miriam explains to Theo what the gradual awareness of infertility felt like, in an abandoned school where the playground is desolate except for the quiet humming and singing of Kee, reflecting her divorce from the rest of society. “I was there for the end,” Miriam says, and Theo, watching Kee swing, replies, “And now you can be there for the beginning.” He wants her to relish that, but this movie informs us that this wouldn’t necessarily be enjoyable if we continued to acted like this.
All the touches from the hand of Cuaron, who collaborated with four others on the screenplay as well, have a revelatory effect: the chilling music that underlies a cold shot of a London alleyway before Theo and Kee traverse it; a camera shot that lingers for a moment on a kitten crawling up Theo’s leg; the high-pitched ringing noise in Theo’s ears, reflecting his proximity to a prior bombing, that ominously plays periodically throughout the movie. Even when you don’t think Cuaron’s doing anything, he is, be it through purposeful background music, a camera splattered with blood, or a vivid, single-shot presentation of a car attacked from all sides using a hand-held camera. He understands the power of creating a world in which you can lose yourself for a couple hours. So many movies fail to take advantage of scenery and background, existing in nondescript places, but cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Cuaron create a London 20 years from now—complete with houses literally barricaded from the outside world, billboards declaring that avoiding fertility tests is a crime, and bone-shattering explosions in coffee shops—that stays with you long after the credits roll.
And the last ten minutes are by themselves more emotionally affecting than most movies taken as a whole, one of the top five most affecting segments I’ve ever seen on film. From the moment when the cries of Kee’s baby silence a squadron of government troops pounding a rebel hangout to the concluding scene in a boat, Children of Men goes from being a great movie to an exceptional one. Hope mixes with despair, as the desires of the soldiers to get a look at the baby are diverted by a bomb from the rebels and as Theo shows Kee how to hold the baby amidst fighter planes lighting up the morose sky. In his face as he carries the two girls away from danger, it is also, once again, apparent that Clive Owen plumbs emotional depths that few other actors can. He resists the natural urge to look sanctimonious, or foolishly proud, or smug; instead, he cares about nothing more than protecting them, and his eyes simply gaze outward, as though looking towards the future. He looks real—battered and bruised but finally stable. For the first time in many years, he’s happy that he opened his eyes in the morning—just like us.