In Which the Future May Pass Us By
When I wrote about Southland Tales I made note that that movie got a whole lot of mileage out of surprising prescience. What seemed to be absurd nonsense in 2006 turned out to be prophetic articulations of culture in 2021. It’s what saves that movie from just being puzzling, now it’s an odd duck that has an idea, a claw into what life would become. Unfortunately Southland Tales is a mess, a sluggish block of concepts that don’t congeal beyond thinking about them later. Southland Tales is more interesting than it is good.
But that doesn’t always have to be the case sometimes you can marry a high concept with an in the moment exciting movie, which brings us to today’s topic. The elegant, beautiful, thrilling, and frustratingly oh so well aged Children of Men. Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 sci-fi epic that feels less like a guess about what’s going to happen down the line and more like a postcard from an inevitable dystopian future.
Indeed much of the discussion now about Children of Men leans heavily on how well the film has aged (granted it has, unfortunately, aged amazingly well) and less about the actual movie itself. Yes there will be those film Twitter types who will remark upon the many elaborate and technically thrilling long takes (which each earn their plaudits), but even this I think scrubs away something important about this movie. For as prescient, depressing, thoughtful, and technically intricate Children of Men is, it is also a cracker jack piece of action filmmaking. A movie that gets by on thrills as much it does on concepts.
This dichotomy, between the film buff production and blockbuster instincts, is in some ways the heart of Cuaron’s career as a filmmaker. If we were put the Three Amigos on a spectrum of tone, than Cuaron would interestingly pull from both sides of his compatriots, Inarritu with his love of muscular camera moves and heady concepts, and del Toro with his penchant for both pulp and back row crowd pleasers. Despite their connection and success being little more than coincidence, it is interesting how each of the three’s aesthetics can lean from one to another.
This balancing act presented by Cuaron is almost comically well displayed by the early section of his career: almost cleanly split between movies about sex and movies for children. That’s not to say there’s no aesthetic through-line from A Little Princess to Y Tu Mama Tambien to Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuaron hipped to roving tracking shots early and never let them go, but that it also shows that there was always two sides of his interests. One that probes deep on heady themes, and one trying to get an audience of all inclinations onboard for what he’s trying to accomplish.
These counter features of his filmography then come together beautifully in Children of Men, a film of ridiculously high concepts and penetratingly intricate world building that is also shockingly light on its feet. A movie that stuffs whole thematic realms and whizzing action into a dense 100-odd minute runtime without feeling overly breathless. Children of Men’s true achievement isn’t that it has grand ideas, but that said ideas are delivered in such a contained, easy to manage package.
That’s because Cuaron and the five credited screenwriters hit upon something smart. While their world might be complicated, keep the narrative incredibly simple. Indeed Children of Men almost operates under the structures of a Mad Max movie. Our hero needs to go someplace while being chased by a variety of enemies in a dystopian environment, the details of which are filled in with background information and implication.
In the role of hero we have Theo (Clive Owen) a weary government bureaucrat drifting through life on the precipice of extinction. It’s 2027 and no new human child has been born in 18 years, so Theo spends his day mucking around and hanging out with former political cartoonist turned pot dealer Jasper (Michael Caine). Until one day he’s roped in to political upheaval by former lover and fellow activist Julian (Julianne Moore) who tasks Theo with protecting Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who is miraculously pregnant. Theo begrudgingly agrees, and eventually has to help Kee traverse battered Great Britain while being chased by both the government and disgruntled rebels who hope to use Kee to kickstart their revolution.
This is a story of a two people going from one place to the other, and Cuaron keeps that as the actual plot mechanics in the film. It is never more complicated than Theo and Kee being tracked down and chased by different groups on their way to a specific goal. Yes there are some betrayals and setbacks along the way, but nothing that mucks up the narrative more than it’s straight line form. What this allows Cuaron, and cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanual Lubezki, to do is to create a world and invite the viewer to really bask in it. Unburdened by the complications of an overly intricate plot we are open to take the time and look at what is happening on screen. What is revealed is a sumptuous attention to detail that invites the viewer in to construct the story of the world from the visual elements presented.
What is presented is distressing in both it’s bleakness and possibility. In the face of almost guaranteed annihilation the world has turned to violent nativism and unrest to try and force stability into a rapidly decaying world. Great Britain has legalized the forced detainment and expulsion of immigrants, and the government has a heavy hand in both continuing this practice and promoting a variety of mood altering drugs and suicidal assistants.
What makes the movie sing is that this information is never blatantly stated by characters to each other. Instead they talk as if it’s the world they live in, and not to audience. Jasper notes the comedy of allowing suicide pills but not legalizing weed. We see constant ads about deportations and the strength and unity of Britain, and when Theo walks home we are greeted with the grim visage of refugees in cages begging for their life.
The conceit of world wide infertility is also clever. It is its own piece of sci-fi speculation, but also a rich soil for different analogies and metaphors to be covered with stepping into any one thing in particular. The thematic heft is behind the concept of a society that knows that one day there will be no future. Whether this can be tacked onto such topics as climate change, forever wars, pandemics, or whatever of the moment existential threats haunts society doesn’t really matter, they all can connect to the story as presented without weakening either the metaphor or narrative. Without the possibility of moving forward we are just as likely to fall back to our worst instincts as a collective.
Cuaron’s knack for the long take only helps this sense of fear and dread that permeates the movie. Take the masterful opening shot as a group of people watch the news of the youngest person alive being killed in a coffee shop. We see Theo enter, order his cuppa, and head out onto the street, only for the store to explode from a bomb behind him. It allows us to feel what living in this world is like moment to moment. The tedium of doing quotidian activities like ordering coffee, the terror of stuff like the explosion, and the underlying fear of where the world is at. All there, all in one shot.
This leads to the obvious standout sequences of the movie. The sequence in the car where Julian dies, and the final daring escape from the refugee camp. Both of these sequences were accomplished in staggering one-takes, but both are also just exciting action scenes in and of themselves. The maneuvering of the battlefield, the consideration of bodies in space, and the obvious skill and will to make these things exist. The tension both exists in the frame, and out of it, as we witness a feat be accomplished on screen and on set.
So even with this it’s notable that Children of Men was mostly rejected in its time. It generally got accolades from critical communities, but was blanked on the awards circuit and didn’t generated enough revenue to make back its $75 million budget. This initial shrug adds weight to the film’s ever growing reputation. A warning shot from the future ignored at the time to our own peril, that it’s own tenth anniversary correlated with both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump make it’s statements even more eerie in their foresight. Cuaron was able to construct the movie of the future in his current present, and no matter what else has happened in his career he will always have that achievement to look upon with wonder.
Odds and Ends
- Cuaron’s Best Director wins for both Gravity and Roma are both reasonable enough in their own regard, but once again I must think that it is a bit of a make good from completely blanking this film.
- Clive Owen has always had an odd career. In the mid 2000’s it felt like he was going to become a huge star, and he just kind of didn’t. Maybe it was the fact that he didn’t get the Bond role he was rumored to be in the running, maybe his big movies (like this) didn’t hit right, who can say.
- Speaking of which, this is one of Caine’s best turns. His jovial nature turned into a bleak coping mechanism for the world writ large. He makes “Pull my finger” both funny and tragic.
- Also shockingly good soundtrack movie what with tunes from Radiohead, King Crimson, and modern classical composers.
- Though Owen has been directed by Inarritu as well for The Hire series of commercials.
- Favorite detail from the scene with the newspapers plastered against the windows. The headline that reads “Kazakhstan Annihilated.”
- Whoever saw Y Tu Mama Tambien and thought “give that man Harry Potter!” should get a raise.
Next Week: Let’s keep the Clive Owen train going with 2006 heist flick Inside Man.