Children of Men
What a magnificent movie this was on so many levels, and completely underrated. The “Academy” saw fit to award it Best Editing and Best Cinematography, and it’s comforting that they were able to at least recognize the movie’s highlights. But they again demonstrated their cluelessness by leaving it out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories altogether, even though it was better than any of the competition (“The Departed,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Babel,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and “The Queen.”)
Clive Owen plays Theo, a jaded ex-revolutionary everyman in the dystopian future world of 2027, in an age that shows modern civilization crumbling as humankind has inexplicably become unable to reproduce itself, the last birth taking place 18 years before. He is abducted by his ex-wife’s (Julianne Moore) anti-fascist revolutionary group and charged with a mission, to obtain travelling papers and escort Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety outside of Great Britain. He finds out later that the entire plan revolves around her being pregnant, the first such case in 18 years. As such, she represents a beacon of hope for humanity and can be used or exploited in countless ways according to whichever politician controls her. Theo’s only goal is to get her to safety aboard the wandering ship “Tomorrow,” a boat that may be just a fairy tale.
First of all, I must dedicate a small paragraph to Clive Owen, who brings an unlikely bad-assedness to the role of the disgruntled, worn-down and somewhat pathetic coward of an ex-revolutionary. He is perfect, and I haven’t seen him so impressive since “Croupier,” or possibly “Sin City.”
After Owen, you have the fascinating story itself, coming from P.D. James’ 1992 novel of the same name. It is not only a realistic science-fiction adventure, but it tackles themes such as human frailty, hope, and the desperate struggle to survive in a decaying world. Cuarón’s photography helps realize this vision fully, shooting in a very gray, grimy London with bleak colors. The handheld camera gives everything a gritty appearance, and his predilection for using continuous shots over extended action sequences gives the events a compelling quality, and a relentlessness. The whole thing feels real, and thanks to Cuarón deemphasizing the technological aspect of the future, Theo’s environment really looks like something that could exist in 20 years.
So there’s a compelling story, solid acting, and an excellent tone for the film, but the real magic happens with the action sequences, which are so shocking in their immediacy that they leave you gape-jawed as a viewer. The first one occurs not 5 minutes into the film when the café that Theo has just exited blows up behind him as he’s spiking his recently-purchased coffee with liquor. The explosion is sudden and loud, and it’s not a mountain of flames like in a Michael Bay flick, it’s dirty and dusty and smoky, and you jump out of your seat.
One of the other major setpieces occurs when they’re driving to the countryside and the car is ambushed by some sort of ruffian group, two of which are on a motorcycle and end up shooting Julian (Moore) before Theo trips them up. The entire sequence is shot with a rotating camera that seems to be sitting in the front seat of the car, and in one continual shot (it was actually two takes but then graphically edited to create the illusion of a single shot). The effect is staggering — you are watching the action unfold around you as an observer in the front seat might be, without any cuts or slow motion. You are effectively a part of the action.
The last noteworthy scene is one of the most amazing sequences I’ve ever seen. (The only other long take that has made such an impression is the staircase fight in “The Protector” a.k.a. “Tom Yum Goong,” but it’s not nearly as polished.) It involves Theo, in a concentration camp for refugees, attempting to escape with Kee and an old woman during a battle between rebels and the government military. Then Kee gets abducted and Theo must hunt her down in a building that is being seized by government forces. Though this was shot in several takes, as with the ambush scene, Cuarón edits them together to give the impression of one continuous shot which lasts for over five minutes.
At one point some blood from one of the gunshot victims splatters onto the camera lens and it remains there for almost a minute. The intertwining action and choreography required for the sequence is mind-boggling, and the effect on the viewer is simple awe. The first time through you may not realize that it’s happening. All you know is that the tension is hiked up to an unsustainable level, and there is no break, it never stops because the camera is always following Theo as he moves, or it’s turning to look toward the tanks that are bearing down, or it’s tracking as the abductors are pulling Kee away. It is just masterful.
On top of this all, the film is loaded with historical, theological and even literary references that I never would have picked up had I not read the wikipedia site. What becomes clear the more you read about the production of the film and Cuarón’s reasons for his directorial decisions is that the man is a visionary. This film was the only evidence I needed to come to that conclusion. This is not just an action movie, and it’s not just science fiction. It is a drama about the fate of humankind and what you must do to preserve hope. Beyond that, it’s a movie that stays with you, haunting you, for long after you’ve seen it. This is one of the marks of a great film, maybe even a classic.
You need to see this film, period. If you want to write this film off and just assume it’s not for you, that’s your prerogative. But in that case it will be my prerogative to say that you suck.
27 March 2010