Title: Children of Men
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriters: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton
Starring: Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor
If you want to see a display of raw filmmaking talent — not mere technical proficiency, stylistic virtuosity, or storytelling instinct, but a preternatural aptitude for the entire medium — you could do worse than look at the films of Alfonso Cuaron. Best of all, his filmography has something to satisfy most tastes — in the mood for a big-budget blockbuster? Try Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is to its franchise peers what true inspiration is to workmanlike competence; Cuaron found heart and truth in a multi-billion dollar media juggernaut. Prefer indie? There’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, a whirlwind tour of contemporary Mexico that is even better than everyone says it is. If you have young children (or even if you don’t), you might check out the wondrous A Little Princess, surely one of the finest family films of the 90’s. One way or another, you’ll find a film with an uncommon consistency of vision, a deep understanding of its characters, and an incomparable visual flair — the whole package. There’s virtually no one out there who is doing quite what Cuaron is doing, quite this well.
Any of the above movies will treat you well, but Children of Men is as good a place to start as any. From the opening frames, I knew I was seeing something special: the simple image of a group of people — looking ragged, somewhat tired, vaguely harassed — gathered around a television screen made me tense up with dread. With a few iterations of a medium shot of the harried New Yorkers alternating with a close-up of the tv screen showing something so very disturbing, Cuaron creates a world — a world that is shattered seconds later by something I swore I saw coming.
This chilling sequence is a lead-in to a gritty, grimy science-fiction epic, and Cuaron is typically adept at the sort of casual, almost flippant futurism that Spielberg attempted with far more mixed success in Minority Report. This “near future” world is awful in many ways — dirty and impoverished, for one, as well as paranoid and frankly bigoted, with immigrants corraled in cages and, we later learn, sent to an unspeakable ghetto — but it’s not mere regression into the past a la Reign of Fire or something similarly unambitious. The march of technology has continued unabated, and among the misery and dirt we see ubiquitous video monitors peddling anti-immigrant propaganda and, disturbingly, ads for a mysterious product called “Quietus”; impressive computer workstations; a video game with creepy touch-responsive controls; etc. Cuaron’s treatment of technology here is the same as his vision of magic in Harry Potter: a lurking background presence, taking for granted until it becomes significant.
We see a lot of unrest, but the precise contours of what’s happening are never made clear. We learn the main thrust of the story almost immediately — women are infertile for reasons unknown, and the youngest person in the world (“Baby Diego”) has just been murdered; humanity is in danger of being wiped-out. Much of the world has collapsed into chaos; England has maintained a semblance of order by becoming a police state and treating outsiders with a brutality that would make the Third Reich bristle. A fierce underground resistance has developed; a terrorist group called the Fishes apparently blows things up with some regularity, and the fear of violence adds to the general state of distress.
Those are the broad outlines, but we get the sense that there’s much more going on, and the film drops hints that the conflicts raging in this version of England extend beyond what we are permitted to know. The last act of Children of Men is an eruption of violence, and we realize that the problem is not merely nationality, or even class — chillingly, a faction of the rebels waves signs in Arabic. The film convincingly creates a vision of the future that, aside from any parallels to our real-life conflicts, is an intricate and vast setting for the main story rather than just a series of plot devices.
The plot concerns a young black girl who finds herself pregnant and falls into the hands of the Fishes who determine to use this monumental event for their political ends. It falls to Theo (Clive Owen), a largely apolitical functionary, to transport her to the Human Project — a fabled collective of the greatest human minds working for the future at a secret offshore hideaway — in spite of the Fishes’ scheming and the threat posed by the world at large, which would surely discard the mother entirely and hold up the baby as a symbol of England’s triumph. The movie makes brilliant use of conventional thriller elements, including a heart-stopping escape in a stalled car and a series of effective suspense set pieces; it helps that the protagonist is bright and sympathetic, and that the pregnant girl is a real, rational person rather than a hysterical MacGuffin.
Cuaron employs elaborate extended one-shots and multi-layered compositions; this is one of the most visually rich films of the year. The beauty and technical virtuosity of particular shots left me gasping for breath (I dare you to watch the SUV ambush scene and not gasp yourself). There’s a long stretch in the final act that outdoes Spielberg’s hailed Saving Private Ryan beach sequence in chaotic-but-focused attenuation, and its culmination — as all political mandates fall away in the face of something as pure and beautiful as a child — is nothing short of stunning.
I have drawn several paragraphs between Cuaron and Spielberg, and that seems about right. There was speculation about Spielberg trying his hand at a Harry Potter installment, but I can’t imagine a film more in his spirit than Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men, too, has all of his skill and heart with perhaps a little more edge. Spielberg is an established hero of mainstream filmmaking, and Cuaron is proving, as well, to be the real thing. It’s tremendously exciting to watch.