Japan / U.K. / U.S.A. • 2006 • directed by Alfonso Cuarón • 109 minutes
At a time when we have grown weary of colossal orc battles and starships flying through space, here is a film to astonish us. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is one of the most stunningly realistic films I have seen. To say that it is realistic when it is a dystopian science-fiction thriller set in the future is not a contradiction. I mean simply that I believed more deeply and more completely in what I was seeing on screen during this film than at any I have been to in many years. This is a picture to see and let resonate.
Based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel, it imagines the year 2027, when the earth has been stricken with an inexplicable wave of infertility. No babies have been born in 18 years, and humanity, within sight of its own extinction, has turned to violence and despair.
Most of the globe has crumbled into anarchy; only Great Britain remains a functioning state. There, illegal “fugees” from everywhere else in the world are rounded up, held in cages, and carted away to camps. There are whispers of government bombings to keep people afraid, and of a shadowy human rights organization called “The Human Project.” Clive Owen plays the ashen-faced Theo, who is pulled into a plot to protect a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashite). Kee may be more important than anyone can imagine, but those assigned to protect her may have hidden agendas. What follows is essentially a chase movie, but done so intensely and with such spare exposition that it doesn’t for a second feel like a conventional action thriller.
Cuarón has said that he wanted to immerse the audience in the character's experience, and, by extension, in their world. By cutting as little as possible, and by not shying away from things more typically seen at a distance (at one point, blood spatters onto the camera lens), Cuarón compels us to care for Kee and her story as though it were our own. “With editing, you manipulate time,” Cuarón has said. “Here, you have just the constant flow of a moment. I believe heartbeats get connected in that moment.”
There are several minutes-long single takes in the film, not the least of which is a sense-stunning six-minute battle sequence in which Owen ducks and darts for cover amid tank fire, but the most thrilling moment for me was a scene of childbirth. To watch this shot, which must last at least two minutes, is to be consumed by the magic of the movies, as without a cut we watch a live baby seem to be born before our eyes. It’s been a long time since I have asked myself “How did they do that?” at the movies, and not been able to answer.
Many filmgoers will not be so preoccupied by technique while watching Children of Men, but they will be moved. When we are unable to dismiss what we see as obvious smoke and mirrors, we begin to believe, and that is the secret strength of this film. Its lack of didactic commentary grounds it in its story––and in Owen, who locates a weary hope and conviction reminiscent of Bogart’s turn in Key Largo. And because we are pulled in so close, we are invited to realize, perhaps, how familiar the pervasive unease in this future world may feel. The 21st century has heard more talk of the apocalypse than any other era so far, from Y2K to September 11th. There is something wearying about each new car bombing headline, and with baby boomers entering their 60s it’s no wonder that our present has a lot in common with the parched despair of Cuarón’s future.
James has said that she wrote her original novel to answer the question, "If there were no future, how would we behave?" What may be more disturbing than this film’s answer––which is “horribly”––is how closely its world without hope already resembles our own.