By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Children of Men,” Universal Pictures, 2006]
I am jealous of you, reader. You haven’t seen “Children of Men” yet, and you don’t have any idea what’s in store for you. “Children of Men” is a great movie and I plan to see it again, soon and often. But nothing will compare to my first viewing, when I didn’t quite know what to expect and didn’t realize the raw power of the movie I was about to watch. You still have the opportunity to have that rush of excitement that comes so rarely at the movies, when you truly and totally fall in love with a film, and for that I envy you. The way in which surprise and shock factor in on the impact of “Children of Men” makes my job here somewhat difficult: the more I reveal about the film, the less effective it will be. Even hinting at its ability to shake up a viewer diminishes its potential to do so. So I will step lightly.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón and shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, “Children of Men” is at once one of the most technically complex and emotionally charged movies in recent memory. Rather than subverting character or story to the whims of his effects team or resigning himself to a talky, unimaginative intellectual exercise, Cuarón and his four co-screenwriters fashion a complete world, both of action and of thought. Their chillingly relevant future world contains the one crucial ingredient necessary to all effective dystopia: an air of inevitability which suggests that we’re already on the road to the damnation depicted but we don’t yet know it.
To that end Cuarón name-checks a potpourri of issues of the day, from flu pandemics to immigration rights to refugee camps to human rights violations in wartime prisons. The central sci-fi element of this dystopia, that at some point in the near future humankind will lose the ability to procreate, is really just the icing on the cake of what was already a pretty shitty world to begin with. As our reluctant hero, Clive Owen’s Theo Faron, notes, “It was already too late before the infertility thing.” The apathetic Theo who’s taken up smoking to try to hurry up the dying process gets roped into helping an immigrant woman by his ex-wife, played by Julianne Moore. Quickly all of their lives are threatened by a variety of forces.
Cuarón peppers “Children of Men” with violence, not to titillate or entertain, but to keep the audience in a constant state of dread. He and Lubezki further ratchet up the air of paranoia by filming much of the movie in long takes where seemingly innocuous events are interrupted by explosions or gunshots. Soon the audience is as paranoid as Owen’s Theo I began wondering who, if anyone, could be trusted, from Moore’s activist to Michael Caine’s kindly old pothead scientist.
Lubezki’s long takes, particularly during the film’s two major set pieces, will astonish you, not only for their pure skill and audacity but for the way they enhance and enrich the drama. The climactic sequence, which follows Theo through a battlefield, is like an embedded dispatch from the frontlines of Iraq or some other war zone. Few science-fiction films have ever been as committed to inventing a true sense of earthy realism, though that is always the secret to getting an audience invested in a fantastic premise.
Saying any more endangers the film’s ability to blow your mind, so I’ll stop. Even though I want to compare “Children of Men” to specific films including one by Alfred Hitchcock I can’t, for fear of revealing too much. Go have that great first screening. Then we’ll talk. I’ll be happy to; I haven’t shut up about it since I saw it.
“Children of Men” opens in limited release December 25th (official site).