It needs to be said: I went into 'Children of Men' with lofty expectations. I recalled perking up in my squeaking, red velvet seat immediately upon first seeing the trailer in the midsummer of 2006. Truth be told, I'm a sucker for stories of the future, particularly those without laser guns and aliens. I prefer my filmed futures dark and meditative, brooding dystopias of the Bladerunner ilk. As if the dusky, fallout-leaden skies of London and its random, seemingly senseless explosions were not enough to entice me, this movie had, at its center, Clive Owen, who is fast becoming the most compelling leading man in the movies. I cannot, though it should be said that I have not put forth much effort, seem to get anyone to say a bad thing about him. He is at that tender, fleeting stage that his countryman Jude Law firted with some years ago: his potential seems limitless, the audience is already his, he can do no wrong.
We first meet Clive on his way to work, as he steps into an if-its-not-a-Starbucks-it-sure-looks-like-a-Starbucks coffee shop for his morning cup of joe, only to learn, in the process, that the world's youngest man has, in a characteristic-of-the-times act of senseless violence, died. Only the world's youngest man is not, as you might assume, an infant, or a wee boy, he is 18. Human beings have, nearly two decades prior, ceased to reproduce. Callous to the world's obsession with the freshly murdered "Baby Diego" he strides out into the murky streets of a nightmarish London, and gets scarcely a quarter block before the coffee shop is obliterated in a jarring, camera-tilting explosion. Welcome to 2027. In a year that has seen two films take on, directly, the events of September 11th, this brief scene may provide the audience with the most immediate contemplation with terrorism as we know it. For what is it that we fear more in the West than this cruel juxtaposition of violence and normalcy? We want our wars fought on battlefields, at sea, on remote islands. The barbarism, and yet the unmistakable power, of terrorism is derived from the fact that it brings the fight, the struggle, literally, to our doorstep. We do not want a suicide bomb with our sugarfree latte. No we do not.
It's a credit to the director, Alfonso Cuaron, that he deposits us so unceremoniously into this messy, unrecognizable Britian. There is no tedious, neatly ordered narration to guide us through the events of the last two decades. My intuition is that the how and the why we've arrived in such an apocalyptic state is better served vague: our imagination, along with a rudimentary understanding of today's headlines, will suffice. Early in the film, Theo (Clive Owen) finds himself kidnapped by a fringe resistance group, bound and hooded he is thrown roughly into a small, poorly-lit room wall-papered with yellowing newspaper clippings detailing nuclear holocausts, the collapse of states, and other such extrapolations on the more pressing problems of our time. In many ways the film seems like a call to account for today's powers, with the implication that the United States has paid more dearly for its sins, than has the UK. As an everpresent propagandist intones "Only Britian Soldiers On!" we are left to wonder what has become, in this new world, of the new world. In a tale filled with biblical paralells, the bits we are privy to seem to suggest that America has gone the way of Soddom and Gommorah. And yet all that is speculation, immaterial to the central thrust of the film, of its brave thesis. It is as if we, from the outset, are in Theo's position, freshly kidnapped: the writing is on the wall, the history, in newsprint, is there for the reading, but we haven't got the time, for there's a story, in the here and now, that's unfolding. And unfold it does. The ragtag group of dissidents, led by Theo's ex-wife played by Julianne Moore, who have apprehended Theo want him to leverage his personal contacts into obtaining transport papers for a young girl, a fugee (short, as with the popular hip hop trio, for refugee). It, apparently, is of great importance that this girl make her way to the sea. We are not told why.
Theo, to his credit, resists at first. This is not your father's immediately altruistic action hero. He must be plied with cash and stolen moments of intimacy with his ex-wife, Julian, the ringleader. It becomes clear, with just a single line of dialogue, just what tragedy could have driven them apart. She says to him "he had your eyes". In a way, this hinted-at disintegration of their marriage, in the wake of a child's death, serves as a microcosm for the larger affliction facing mankind: with the children gone, civilization has collapsed. Its worth it here to go a bit more into just how far down the toilet society realy is. Illegal immigrants stand, locked in crude cages along roads and railways. The only product we see advertised on the ubiquitous flat-screen tv's that line the city, besides the government that is, is an assisted suicide pill, its tagline: "you decide when". We've come a long way since Mad Max.
Theo calls in a few favors and before we know it he's off, with Julian, the mysterious girl, and a few sinister members of the rebel group. They're barely on their way when, along a deserted foresty road, they are subjected to a vicious, riotous attack from a stone-throwing mob. In the midst of their escape, which is acheived by, quite exhiliratingly, reversing at some 60 MPH away from the fray, a pair of particularly nasty hooligans (sporting haircuts inspired by John Travolta's turn in Battlefield Earth) emerges on a motorcycle and fires a gun into the chest of Julian, killing her on the spot. Attempts are made to revive her. They do not succeed. Having seen both the vigor with which Theo defended Juian, and the bitter intensity of his grief, the mysterious fugee girl selects him as her protector. She has glimpsed something basic in him, a wasted fatherliness that she senses she can shroud herself in. Theo is not up for the job. He will need proof that it is deserving of his efforts. And it is proof he shall get. For there in the barn, at the safehouse the group has retreated to, our fugee, amongst the hay and livestock (a deliberate biblical nod to the famed nativity scene, no doubt), sheds her shapeless robes and reveals herself: pregnant, bursting with new life. To this point in the film, we've been so thoroughly immersed in the dreary, hopelessness Cuaron paints for us, that we gasp at the sight of her bulbous belly, if ever a film character so physically embodied hope, I do not remember it. Luke, the sinister rebel (made leader in the power vacuum resulting from Julian's murder) tells Theo, who is newly alit with purpose "Good, now you know what's at stake". Indeed.
Theo is up to the task. Ever the proactive protector, he goes slinking around the safehouse and discovers that Julian's death was a planned hit, meant to elevate Luke, who differed somewhat in ideology with her, to the position of leader. He also learns that to this point he has only been spared by the rebels because of a desire not to upset the pregnant girl. He is approaching the end of his usefulness to these killers, the time has come to flee. I return now to Clive Owen. When I last saw him, in Spike Lee's 'Inside Man' his role was that of the omnipotent judge, something just short of the grim reaper, for, in that film, he dispensed justice, and settled scores from 50 years past. He seemed to move outside fate, impervious to outside influence. He didn't so much operate within, as preside over the world of that film. Oh, what a delicious contrast with the situation we find him in here, being battered around cruelly like a pinball, narrowly escaping death at every turn, utterly vulnerable to a stray bullet, or a miscast glance. 'Inside Man' afforded Clive the luxury of smugness, in this film's particular hell, anything outside of weary striving is an indulgence, and Mr. Owen knows that, and we see it, written across his stubbly face.
With MacGyver-esque derring-do and ingenuity Theo escapes the safehouse with the pregnant girl, and her midwife in tow. Seeking friendly assylum and a shortcut to the sea, he calls on his old friend Jasper, played with twinkly delight by Michael Caine dressed and be-wigged in the bohemian style of a favorite liberal arts professor. He unapologetically smokes weed in nearly every one of his scenes. Jasper lives in a cabin of sorts, off the beaten path, where he tends to his mute, wheelchair-ridden wife. I thought this husbandly devotion touch a bit unnecessary, as if we needed another indicator of his basic goodness, his decency. I like my characters ambiguous, it's okay to have to dig to find the good beneath the superficially misanthrope, as with Theo. The crippled wife is like a big, red, neon sign screaming "GOOD GUY" in an otherwise extraordinarily subtle movie. As it turns out, Jasper is martyred for the baby Christ. He is gunned down by a merciless, singular-purposed Luke, while acting as a diversion that enables Theo and company to leave his woodsy, utopian lair unscathed. For shame. We liked Jasper.
From there the trio heads to a refugee camp, where Jasper has said they can arrange for a boat via a corrupt officer who, we take it, buys certain products from him from tim to time. To this point we have only glimpsed the peripheral awfulness of this imagined future, at the camp, the real horror comes into focus. Bussed in on packed, slaveship-crowded shuttles bearing that ominous moniker 'Homeland Security' on the sideboards, it is as though we are Dante entering the 7th circle. Again, today's sins are there in the margins of the film, writ large. The first stop in the camp, to which we lose the midwife, resembles a latter-day Abu Ghraib complete with dehumanizing pyramid stacks of bodies, firing squads, black hoods and a brutality that seems almost to echo the mid 20th century sins of Europe. In order to earn this promised, spiritual redemption, Cuaron must first give us a full survey of the depravity of man, from the fall to Aushwitz. We recoil obediently. Dropped roughly into a dark, trashcan-fire-lit mess of dilapidated buildings, Theo and the girl persuade Jasper's contact to give them a room for the night, and not a moment too soon. They are barely inside when it becomes clear that Theo, on this night, must deliver the baby. The scene is naturalistic without being brutal. It doesn't shy from the messy, third-rate circumstances of the birth, while still preserving its dignity, its beauty. When daylight comes, it brings with it a host of new dangers. What follows is a virtuoso sequence that tracks Theo, mother, and child as they wind their way through the warzone that has become the camp, to an awaiting boat. Bullets whiz by, Theo must dive and dodge, shield and sprint, and all these things at once. Cuaron films this sequence with a stunning virtuoso single-camera tracking shot. The effect is riveting. Still, the film's most poignant moment is yet to come: at the crucial point, when the tanks have closed in, and hope seems lost, it is, as with the nativity story, the baby who saves. Her cry going out like a siren, quieting the guns, parting the sea of bodies gone still with wonder at this tiny, wailing creature, its pure, desperate sound having become so foreign in those barren two decades.
You'll want to know that Theo dies, and the baby lives, lives and is passed on to a benevolent group of scientists, thinkers (wisemen, anyone?) who are bent on mankind beginning anew. She is taken aboard their ark, to await, we must assume the washout of the flood, what ever form it may take. We won't cry for Theo, as much as we'll envy him. That we all might live, and die in the name of such crystal, clear, unimpeachable purpose. It is, after all, the task that makes heroes out of men. And so I am here to pronounce that Alfonso Cuaron and his excellent cast have made a great film, a burning warning of what might become of Western Civilization, while also a retelling of it's most beloved fable. No easy task.