Children of Men (2006)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writer: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby; based on The Children of Men by P. D. James
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Producer: Hilary Shor, Iain Smith, Tony Smith, Marc Abraham, and Eric Newman
by Jon Cvack
As mentioned in my thoughts on Roma (2018), I hadn’t revisited Children of Men since making my movie Road to the Well (2016) and directing other projects; providing that magnificent experience of grasping how technically phenomenal the story is. Not just from the cinematography, but the art direction, costumes, story, and performances. I think I had seen the movie once or twice before this round. I remembered the masked people in cages, the long take in the car, the Strawberry Cough, and the birthing sequence. For some reason I feel as though I missed it’s connection. I keep thinking this movie was made in 2010, but quadruple checking, I’m surprised to see it was 2006; while Bush was president with record low approval numbers; knee deep in the Middle East, a year out from the Katrina disaster, and rolling out increasingly pervasive intelligence techniques. I was getting more into politics at the time, swinging far and away from my conservative family. In terms of history, the facts are that George Bush approved the torture of prisoners of war and engaged in a counterproductive campaign that killed over 5,500 members of the military and over 150,000 Iraqi civilians; all while creating the PATRIOT Act which has impeded on our fourth Amendment rights.
Children of Men takes place in 2027, when the world has gone infertile due to a pandemic of antibiotic-resistant plagues. The U.K. has become a police state, instituting strict checkpoints to repel and expel any and all immigrants. The film begins in a coffee shop, with a bunch of the patrons watching the latest bad news regarding terrorist attacks. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) waits for his coffee and exits, getting about a block down before the coffee shop explodes. Someone had planted a bomb that could have killed him, though still he continues to go to work, lasting but a moment before requesting to go home where he’s then kidnapped by a group of left wing terrorists named “Fishes”, led by Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore); providing one of the first great - and incredibly simple - set pieces; a small windowed room with newspaper taped up on the glass and a yellow bulb burning bright within. Describing this, it’s only Emmanuel Lubezki who could make such a setting feel so fresh.
We learn that Theo used to be a member of a left wing radical faction; electing to become a regular old government bureaucrat instead; opting to ignore all that’s going on around him. It’s where the role is fascinating, as my memory of the film up to revisiting was a much less advanced world. It’s through Cuarón's phenomenal direction, allowing the camera to take the subjective view of Theo that allows it work. There are the disturbing images of people in cages and violent streets, but it all seems to operate within the background. Theo isn’t interested because he can’t be interested.
Julia offers Theo money in exchange for getting a woman she knows some transit papers. Theo rejects the offer, though makes you feel a passionate concern and desire for the other person, though they only talk for minutes. He goes on to visit his old friend and former cartoonist Jason Palmer (Michael Caine) who now sells pot, grown in a cozy house in the middle of the woods, providing the one bit of escape Theo can find in the crumbling world.
He decides to hit up his government minister cousin who lives an extravagant life in a massive (albeit sterile and claustrophobic) apartment or condo of sorts; eating beautiful food while looking upon an industrial wasteland with a floating pig (straight from Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album cover; not to mention some Banksy art years before his widespread acclaim). The cousin agrees to the transport papers, though they require Theo as an escort; which he uses to leverage even more money. The Fishes agree and discover the woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is pregnant. Grasping the significance, Theo joins Julian, the armed radical Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) as they attempt to have her meet up with the Human Project; an organization determined to solve the infertile pandemic. So begins one of the two of some of the greatest single takes in the history of cinema; as to do this day I have no idea how they accomplished this technically (and I never wanted to look in fear of spoiling the magic).
Riding down the rural road, surrounded by forest, Theo sits in the left shotgun while Julian’s behind him. She removes a ping pong ball and the two play a game of blowing and catching it in their mouths. Soon the ball drops and the two begin making out and the camera pans back to the front of the car where dozens of motorcycles with riders holding weapons cruise by and fire toward their position. Still going, Luke stops and reverses. Julian catches a bullet to the head and dies and Theo fights off some of the motorcyclists, where again in the same take, he opens his door to slam them off their bikes before Luke finally stops the car and the camera - still rolling - gets out from the car with them to decide what to do.
Luke decides to take them to their terrorist outpost in rural London where through another brilliant use of the camera, Cuarón allows us to join Theo as he sneaks around the house; soon hearing that they plan to kill both Theo and Kee once she has the baby in order to use him as leverage in the pending revolution. Theo decides to act quick, waking up Kee in the middle of the night who escapes, providing another thrilling moment, which is straight out of a first person shooter game; as we remain with Kee and Theo while they bounce from car to car looking for keys, all while hearing some terrorist guards having a discussion throughout the complex. In a wide, Theo and Kee ride in a car down a hill while the others chase them down the hill, hoping to catch up before they can start up the vehicle and gain some speed.
Theo drives on to Jason’s to help buy some time, though it’s not long until the terrorists catch up. Jason gives them their car and points them to a way out. Later distracting the terrorists with his charming self, then getting shot dead and Theo suddenly realizes how close he is to all he’s been ignoring.
They’re led to an abandoned school where Kee’s water breaks; later meeting a Romanian woman Marichka who helps them with the bird; who, by this point, we assume has the worst intentions. With the revolution launching an offensive against the British she leads them to a dingy apartment where we watch the full action of the baby coming out, which seems a bit too much until you think of how good it looks. Later they meet a man named Syd (Peter Mullan) who learns of the bounty on their head, who attempts to turn them over to the Fishes until Theo clobbers him in the head with an old car battery.
Nevertheless, the fishes catch up to them, stealing the baby as British soldiers close in on their position and so begins one of the most impressive - if not the most impressive - single take ever captured on video, which I somehow completely forgot about while getting sucked into the story. The Fishes led by Luke kidnap Kee and her baby at gunpoint as gunfire pours in from all directions. He works his way through the labyrinthian urban streets as Fishes lead the soldiers onward, ending up in a rundown apartment complex and heads onto a public bus to take cover where someone gets shot. Blood covers the camera and Theo exits, discovering a British tank dialed in on the Fishes position; blowing up the entrance and Theo heads inside, up the stairs, searching for Kee and then finding her next to Luke.
The greatest long takes function as some of the greatest passages in literature or even the greatest scenes from film; in which they transcend language by pushing the craft to its very brink; where most can agree of their beauty. A scene like this is something where I assume even the below average movie watch would find it incredible, even without ever realizing its marvelous technical feat
Theo survives the ordeal, escaping with Kee and the baby through the sewer system, though getting shot along the way. They make it to The Human Project. The baby survives but Theo doesn’t; sacrificing his life for another as a result; the way those closest to him did as well. It expresses such a poetic message - that in a time when humans can no longer procreate, to sacrifice one’s life to amend the problem is the greatest gift someone could provide.
My friend watched this film about a year ago, just as Trump’s immigration debate started up once again. Most have now forgotten how disastrous the Bush administration was. They look past Katrina, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and its torture policy, the PATRIOT Act, and the failure to get Bin Laden or end Islamic Radicalism. We now remember Bush as a decent man who upheld the office and the whole criticism seems so weak. I’m sure most of us wish we could pass on candies to former political opponents in order to gain the respect of all. So we see elitism, and like Theo’s cousin, those who live in guarded communities and in the high rise tower are completely detached, watching the world burn below.
Trump’s radical immigration policy best connects to this story. Many ask what they themselves would have done if they were in Germany during Hitler’s rise. The sad truth is few of us are doing anything now. People say they are burnt out and tired of the endless scandals (this entry was written two years ago); hoping for 2020 to arrive so things can return to normal, and refusing to accept that Trump has demonstrated how frail our country is. What scares me isn’t Trump, but what Trump is showing other evil geniuses; that our institutions can be corrupted and the checks and balances can easily fall into line. The question is what happens when climate changes make a more dire impact and millions of refugees flee from the inhabitable desert, or if another global financial crisis hits - if the wrong person is in charge what becomes of other people’s rights and how much will we care? It’s wonderful to imagine we’ll change like Theo, but then I think of how many other people he knew who never changed at all; who kept watching the world crumble. I’m not sure when a setting like Children of Men will occur (if ever, of course), but minus the infertility, of all dystopian tales, this seems like the most prescient.
BELOW: Cinema at its finest
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