As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle IP’s #5 pick, Children of Men (2006, Cuarón)
I’m not going to lie, the beginning of the aughts was not a good time for science fiction. By this time, The Matrix had already killed its goodwill with overtly explanatory monologues by Col. Sanders in sequels, Tim Burton had butchered a classic Planet of the Apes remake by subbing in Mark Wahlberg for Charlton Heston, and for some reason we adapted an Isaac Asimov story starring Will Smith sporting Converse. There were a couple of bright spots but they seemed to fade quickly.
Then in 2006, like a lighting bolt, sci-fi returned. Without a doubt, the biggest release and Christmas present to viewers everywhere was Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. 10 years from the release, the precise accuracy of the predicted direction of the world makes it an even better science fiction film and all the more important.
Cuarón was a curious choice to direct the film as this point in his career, as he’d only directed much smaller and intimate movies like Great Expectations (1998) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001). Knowing this was a whole different scale of film, he developed it for a very long time (starting in 2001!) and even made his first attempt at blockbuster filmmaking with the 3rd Harry Potter film. All the time in pre-production really did help give the movie an epic and well thought out feel. Alfonso Cuarón and team really wanted to deliver a unique experience.
One of the most surprising facts about the film is the size of the team of writers credited on the final product. There is an old rule of thumb when it comes to films that for each added writer, the quality of the film goes down. Children of Men has five writers: Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, and Cuarón himself.
Those five, however, manage to set the perfect tone of a good sci-fi world. They knew the basic rule: don’t over explain. It’s the death of a good sci-fi if you get too bogged down in details. All the best examples like Blade Runner, Terminator, or 2001: A Space Odyssey just throw you into the world and let you figure out the building blocks of their universe. It always makes for a much richer experience if the viewer feels like he or she has cracked the code of what makes a world work.
The world of Children of Men is set in the United Kingdom during 2027. Eighteen years prior, civilization went through a crisis when all females became infertile. Humanity is rapidly deteriorating when the film starts as humans are on the brink of extinction. In an eerily similar move to the modern real world, the UK has decided to isolate itself from the rest of Europe and the world. Immigrants are no longer allowed in the country and are actively persecuted by the government by being placed into Nazi-like refugee camps. When Brexit happened, this movie was the first thing to spring to my mind as it felt all the more real. It’s all about baby steps to apocalypse!
Amidst the impending doom, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) a former champion-of-refugees-turned-bureaucrat, lives a jaded booze-fueled existence watching the world crumble. Eventually he gets kidnapped by militant refugee activists called the Fishes headed by Julian Taylor, his former wife. Julian wants to use Theo to help shepherd humanity’s last hope, a pregnant girl named Kee, out of the UK. Of course, things fall apart and soon all eyes are on Kee as the team tries to escape a web of lies, paranoia, and racism.
The escape is so captivating largely in part because of Cuarón’s consistent collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, aka Chivo. Fellow Idle Timer TyrannofloresRex wrote about Chivo in his The Revenant article and he does a much better job explaining the beauty of Chivo. For me, upon release, this was my first time really noticing Chivo as a true cinematic force. The tension in this movie would never reach the highs it manages without his camera blocking. His long shots have become the stuff of legend and I believe his two best are contained in the film.
The first is the car scene where the camera manages to move all around the inside during a simple conversation. The long take and the movement of the camera makes you worried and for good reason; eventually the car gets attacked and all hell breaks loose. The camera moves outside of the car as a character looses her life and you really feel like all the chips are down. From this point onward, no one is safe and Chivo reflects that in his shots and movement.
The long shots dominate the film from this point on as you never know what will come into frame, building a true sense of terror and bonding agent with the characters. Eventually, Theo has to move throughout a war-torn refugee camp in a collapsing city. We see his journey in one single seven-minute take that still manages to take my breath away.
While all these long takes make the journey much more tense, the movie wouldn’t be anything without a huge depth of great performances. At the center, Clive Owen really does a fantastic job as Theo. Most of his exposition comes from other people but the meat of his performance comes from simply watching him react to the world around him and the people he cares about. A deeply broken and bitter man, you see how he struggles with himself while trying to save Kee.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the movie, you see Theo eavesdropping on his only friend Jasper (Michael Caine having the time of his life) explaining to Kee how Theo lost his son. Jasper describes how it basically broke Theo and you get to watch Clive Owen react to the entire story in another long take. The heartbreak in his face as the story progresses is just a master class in acting. You can follow every beat in his eyes. Owen apparently did a lot of story consulting on the film too and you can see it’s a very personal project for him and it pays off tremendously.
The whole film is just a wonderful product from a group of people who really wanted to make something unique. Time has only made the film look even better. It’s a story of what hope can truly mean for a broken society and it’s even more powerful today. It shows exactly the power of a good science fiction premise and how the genre should always evolve to showcase what the future holds. For me, it’s one of the gold standards for modern science fiction and I am eagerly waiting for something to take its place.