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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Children Of Men" (2006)

A few years ago, I took a class at film school called Visual Analysis. It turned out to be a three hour weekly time-killer in which we studied two films shot-for-shot and studied the techniques the director used to tell a story visually. We’d watch the movie once all the way through, then spend the next several weeks dissecting it in 15-minute increments with the sound turned down. The discussions became quite comical and absurd, but never without merit. After all, that’s what great art should do, right? In case you’re wondering, the two films that semester were “Blue Velvet” and “Rear Window.” It wouldn’t surprise me if years from now, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” ended up on such a syllabus.

It’s a film that defies description. It’s futuristic, but in the same way Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” is futuristic, in that everything seems to have gone backwards. It’s a thriller, but it has more on its mind than just giving the audience a thrill every fifteen minutes. It’s a drama about a man who lost his passion and zeal in the face of absolute nihilism, but that only undermines the bigger story of what’s at the heart of such a stoic philosophy lurking within the crevices of the dilapidated society in which this film exists. It is a work of poetry in the purest sense, but the poet at work here composes his verses with so much more than just a camera and a few good lines of dialogue.

The movie takes place in England, 2026 and women the world over have become infertile. Nobody knows why and the movie wisely sidesteps trying to explain it. The entire country has been put on lock-down and immigrants get taken away and put in camps. When the youngest man in the world dies, everyone mourns. Everyone, that is, except maybe for Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), who remains haunted by a death in his family from not too long ago. His ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who belongs to a group of renegades, tries to enlist Theodore’s help with something having to do with a group called The Human Project. Because Theodore works as a bureaucrat for an institution that can help out this group, he becomes a natural target of interest.

Theodore reluctantly gets caught up in Julian’s cause, but his priorities shift when the cause becomes clearer and clearer. They have found a pregnant woman named Kee (Claire Hope-Ashitay), perhaps the only pregnant woman alive, who must be taken to the Human Project in secret. If the government finds her, they would likely take the baby away. They enlist the help of an old friend, a hippie in the outskirts of London named Jasper (Michael Caine), who has many resources and knowledge about how to avoid trouble from trigger-happy soldiers and unwanted government officials.

That’s all I really want to say about the storyline, except that it should be noted that animals have no trouble procreating and the movie makes it known in subtle ways (particularly through a reference to a certain Pink Floyd album cover) that they will soon be taking over. In fact, progressive rock becomes a recurring motif as radio DJs play old songs from 2003 and Theodore and Jasper get high while listening to Radiohead. It’s just one of the many ways in which the movie perfectly depicts a world that can’t possibly move ahead even though it would like to. It’s a statement on our own culture when you think about it. How many more radio stations that favor ‘80s music do we really need anyway?

But the movie has more on its mind than that and I’ll leave it to you to see the movie first and pick it apart on your own, lest I should give more away than I already have. Cinephiles will have lots to discuss in terms of how Cuaron and his crew shot the film. Cuaron has demonstrated in the past—particularly with “Y Tu Mama Tambien”—that he knows how to construct a long single-take shot without being obtrusive or a show-off about it. With this film, he becomes an absolute master at it.

Four shots in particular stand out. The first occurs at the very beginning, the second in a car, the third in a dilapidated room where a major turning point occurs and finally a stunning sequence that takes place on the streets and in a building while bullets fly, explosions rock the earth and characters get separated. It remains, quite simply, the most astonishing sequence I’ve seen all year (the shot begins in a tunnel). Miraculously, these shots only jump out if you stop to pay attention to them. They somehow occur subtly and without an ounce of pretentiousness. I walked out wondering “how the hell did they do that?” But I don’t ever, ever want to really know. Why risk ruining it?

Such flourishes with the medium make Cuaron an undisputable talent and one of the true visionaries working in film today. His enthusiasm for filmmaking comes through with every movie he makes, even a lesser effort like “Great Expectations.” With “The Little Princess,” he took what could have been a sappy kids movie and turned it into one of the most eloquent and moving films of the 1990s. With “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he took one of the most beloved franchises in recent memory and rescued it from innocuousness by giving it the edge and the visual look it so desperately needed. With “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” he took a coming-of-age drama and used it to explore the dichotomies between the rich and the poor in Mexico. With “Children of Men, he has created a completely original work that defies convention.

Of course, he doesn’t do it alone. Clive Owen gives such a complex and moving performance that could be the highlight of his career so far. He’s a perfect choice to play a hardened and deceptively empathetic, reluctant hero. Theodore’s sadness and interest in this world shows no matter how hard he tries to conceal it. As the pregnant Kee, Claire Hope-Ashitay gives the movie some warmth as well as a sense of humor. Likewise, Michael Caine, with his long hair, slouching body language and wisened face gives a sense of hope and safety, while looking as though he’s been wanting this part for years.

“Children of Men” does what great movies do. It shows you a world you’ve never seen before while holding a mirror up to the world you know too well. It engages the viewer with characters whom you’d like to know in real life while making you feel involved and compelled by the drama. It’s thrilling, it’s humorous when it needs to be and the payoffs will linger in your memory long after the film has ended. It showcases a director at a peak in his career and actors who work wonders with a flawless screenplay. It’s also a visual wonder that’s worth returning to and studying years down the road. Also, I never thought that my favorite film of the year would feature Michael Caine playing air guitar. What would they make of that in film school?

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