Alfonso Cuarón’s films to date have centered on widely ranging themes in widely ranging genres, and the gripping Children of Men represents yet another new direction. This makes it harder to pin down a characteristic directorial style: In a blind test, I doubt I would have correctly identified him as the film’s maker, through either visual style or theme.
In fact, if there’s one thread connecting A Little Princess (1995) to Y tu mamá también (2001) to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, and the best of the four Harry Potter entries), it’s children and coming of age – precisely what’s conspicuously absent from his first film to use the word “children” in the title.
Children of Men is set in 2027, nearly 20 years after the human race has mysteriously lost the ability to reproduce: One day, women just stop getting pregnant, and, nine or so months later, babies just stop being born. The ramifications of the sudden disappearance of any significant demographic are immense, almost incalculable, but the impact here, of course, goes far beyond that. No children means no future: essentially the end of the world (from a human standpoint). Why bother to build things? Why bother to do anything when time, for all practical purposes, is coming to an end?
Not surprisingly, the world has fallen into chaos. For whatever reason – probably because P.D. James, author of the original novel, is British – England is the last bastion of civilization. (In passing: in many regards, James’s book sounds like a cleverer variation of Damon Knight’s earlier, and likewise excellent, novella World Without Children.) As a result, the island is being flooded with immigrants, here called “fugees.” The government is apparently already militaristic and fascist – not surprising, in an End Days scenario. Much energy is expended rounding up fugees and deporting them.
Theo (Clive Owen) is a former activist, now minor bureaucrat, basically a figurative zombie, who has never recovered from the death of his five-year-old son. (It’s interesting to wonder whether the world’s barrenness amplifies or diminishes his grief.) His only genuine human contact occurs on visits to the countryside home of Jasper (Michael Caine), a seventysomething unreconstructed hippie. (Just seeing Caine in this role is a blast.)
One day, Theo is contacted by Julian (Julianne Moore) – the mother of his child – who is now a honcho in an underground pro-fugee political group called The Fishes. Briefly we’re on Casablanca turf: Julian wants Theo to obtain special transit papers for Kee (Clare Hope-Ashitey), a young woman on the run, from his cousin (Danny Huston), who appears to be part of the upper crust power elite.” Theo – either for the money or because of some hope of reuniting with Julian – agrees.
Right after things go terribly wrong with their plan, Theo learns that Kee isn’t merely another refugee: She is, miraculously, pregnant … and very near to term. She needs to reach an offshore humanitarian group, to avoid being turned into a propaganda tool of the government or, worse yet, a laboratory guinea pig.
Theo’s reaction to the sight of her pregnant belly is that of a witness to a miracle: His deadened soul is suddenly reawakened with the hope Kee represents. Soon they’re on a desperate odyssey to get her to the offshore group, while avoiding police, the Fishes (who have their own propaganda agenda), and the thousand dangers of a desperately decaying society.
As much as humanly (and, in two cases, seemingly inhumanly) possible, Cuarón stages the action sequences in long, uninterrupted takes. I was knocked out earlier this year by the four-minute, four-story single take in Tony Jaa’s The Protector, but what Cuarón does here trumps even that. First, there’s a 12-minute shot from inside a crowded car, with action happening within and without; logistically it’s hard to figure out how it was accomplished, even when you learn that they invented a new kind of camera rig for the shot.
Even more amazing is the big chase near the end. Theo and Kee, sometimes together, sometimes separated, run through block after block of streets and buildings, bombs going off, bullets whizzing everywhere, while huge numbers of extras and several other major players enter and exit and enter again. There is, I think, one disguised but perceptible cheat, where two takes were spliced together, but the whole thing is nonetheless an accomplishment of extraordinary complexity.
I’ll readily admit that I have a film geek’s love for long, intricate single-shot scenes, simply for their own sake. But in both cases here, they serve a wonderful purpose: In the first, the claustrophobic sense of being trapped in a besieged car is palpable. In the second, the sheer terror of running through a war zone, searching for someone while a single stray bullet could take you out, unsure if there’s any safe zone at the end of your flight, but with no other choice than to keep moving – none of this would have been conveyed as effectively in edited-together bits.
Like so many other recent films, it’s impossible to avoid connections to real-world events. At one moment, the accents of old fugees being herded into crowded facilities sound almost Yiddish, invoking World War II; the next moment, Cuarón tracks by people kept in Guantanamo-style cages and then ever so briefly shows us torture scenes taken directly from the Abu Ghraib photographs.
But the political aspects that reflect the current world – the immigration upheavals, the xenophobia, the instinct toward a repressive, fascist solution – constitute only one of the levels on which Children of Men operates. Even more interesting are the cultural/psychological aspects – the ways in which one simple but monumental change impinges on literally every aspect of our lives.
Our acute awareness of the absence of children makes them as central here as in Cuarón’s other films … but with the difference that, where the others were from young people’s POVs, here we are, by necessity, confined to an adult perspective. Among the clever touches – never made a big deal of – is the omnipresence of animals. In a world without children, cats and dogs have taken on an elevated importance as surrogates for frustrated parental urges (much as they do for some childless adults today).
Cuarón also nails the way the civilization’s complete lack of hope conflicts with the individual’s survival instinct: People are turning into animals – and not nice ones, like the domesticated doggies and kitties above – but survival is still a stronger urge than despair.
Yet hope is still magical. And, without going all gooey, Cuarón sets up a situation that gives the most nonreligious viewers an insight into the power that religion has over believers – Kee’s pregnancy makes no sense. It’s a miracle, and for a moment you don’t care about the sense of it. The story – a man and a miraculously childbearing woman on the run – unavoidably sounds like another lightly disguised Nativity parable, a notion that is acknowledged and dispensed with, in a single lovely joke.
Children of Men. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby; based on the book by P.D. James. With Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Clare Hope-Ashitey. Opens Mon.