Friday, October 16, 2015

Watch This: Children of Men

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Children of Men (2006)
Co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón

The past decade has seen an increasing number of dystopian visions of mankind's future make their way to the silver screen.  Some of these have arrived in the form of film adaptations of young adult science fiction novels like the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and the Maze Runner series, while others have been directly targeted at an adult audience.  Despite this sub-genre's potential for trenchant social commentary, imaginative plots, and remarkable visuals, only a handful of these films have really stood out (recent entries such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) come to mind).  However, no recent dystopian film has been as powerful and affecting as Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 masterpiece Children of Men, a gritty, visually-stunning portrait of humanity in decline.

Adapted from a novel by the acclaimed English mystery novelist P. D. James, Children of Men is set in Britain in the year 2027, at a time when nearly two decades of total worldwide infertility have resulted in global chaos and widespread despair.  Great Britain has avoided many of the atrocities that have plagued the rest of the world, but a strict, military-enforced ban on all immigrants has led to violence in the streets and a precarious social and political situation.  As the film opens, the world's youngest person, an 18 year-old South American youth still known as "Baby Diego," has just been murdered by one of his fans after refusing to give an autograph.  We learn of this from a news broadcast in a London coffee shop where the film's protagonist, government bureaucrat Theo Faron (Clive Owen), stops for his morning coffee on his way to work.  Just after Theo leaves, the shop is demolished by a bomb explosion, and a shaken Theo decides to take the day off and visit his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a former political cartoonist and activist who now spends his days growing marijuana in his small, well-hidden country house, where he lives with his catatonic wife, Janice.  Theo, it turns out, was an activist in his younger days, but became disillusioned after the death of his son during a flu pandemic and the subsequent break-up of his marriage to fellow activist Julian (Julianne Moore), whom he has not seen in nearly twenty years.  Theo makes his pessimism clear in his conversation with Jasper, stating that even if a cure for infertility is discovered, it's too late to save humanity, which was already a mess even before the infertility.

The following morning, Theo is kidnapped by an underground insurgent group called the Fishes, who are dedicated to fighting for the rights of immigrants.  Theo's ex-wife, Julian, is revealed to be the group's leader, and she asks him to use his government contacts to obtain transit papers for a young immigrant woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who must reach the coast.  Theo succeeds in acquiring the papers, but they state that Theo must accompany her, so he sets off in a car with Julian, her Fishes comrade Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Kee, and Kee's caretaker, Miriam (Pam Ferris).  On a remote stretch of forest road, the car is suddenly attacked by a large gang, and Julian is killed.  It is only after they have narrowly escaped and made their way to a safe house that Theo discovers Kee's secret: she is eight months pregnant.  As the selfish and lethal motives of the new Fishes leadership become clear to Theo, he decides to escape with Kee and Miriam and find a way to get them to the seaside refugee camp of Bexhill, where they can meet a ship belonging to the Human Project, a group of scientists working to cure infertility.

Children of Men offers a frightening depiction of a society on the brink of collapse, as the aging population faces its impending final years.  Immigrants are rounded up and kept in cages along the streets, awaiting their transfer to a refugee camp and their return to the atrocities in their homelands.  A product called Quietus, which promises a painless death by suicide, is made available to the populace with government approval.  The streets are strewn with trash and rubble from numerous past bombings.  There seems to be a gray pallor over everything, as though the gradual disappearance of children from the world was accompanied by the leeching of bright colors and sunshine from the landscape.

In such a setting, Theo's early pessimism is understandable, especially after we learn about the death of his son.  In a scene midway through the film, we hear Jasper talking to Kee and Miriam about the relationship between faith and chance, and how Theo lost his faith in the world and his own future after his son died of the flu (a chance event).  However, Theo's outlook begins to change after Julian's death and the revelation of Kee's pregnancy, and Kee's trust in him galvanizes him into action and restores his sense of purpose and hope.  It is this story arc, Theo's gradual progression from dispassionate pessimism to renewed faith and resolve, that underlies all of the film's harrowing drama and high-stakes action, creating a far more moving hero's journey than one usually finds in cinema.

Everyone involved with the film, both in front of the camera and behind, is working at the top of their game.  The script is brisk and intelligent, allowing the circumstances of the film's setting to be revealed organically rather than via heavy-handed exposition from title screens, narration, or superfluous dialogue.  The cast is uniformly superb.  Clive Owen suppresses some of his natural charisma to make Theo a more relatable everyman hero, and Michael Caine shines as Jasper, whose pull-my-finger gags and stork jokes grant the film a welcome dose of levity.  Alfonso Cuarón's assured direction keeps all the filmmaking elements, from the technically dazzling visuals to the top-notch acting, in perfect balance, and it feels impossible to find fault with any of his choices as director, co-writer, and co-editor.

But what really elevates the film, more than any other element, is the outstanding work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  The film's washed-out color scheme contributes immeasurably to the film's bleak tone, and the frequent use of a handheld camera from a slightly low angle places the viewer right in the middle of the action.  Many of the film's key scenes (the coffee shop bombing in the opening scene, Julian's shocking death during the forest ambush, the birth scene, and the extended gunfights between insurgents and military forces in the Bexhill refugee camp) are shot using single takes, and this decision pays off not only in added intensity for these scenes, but also in feelings of awe on the part of viewers, who might wonder how these shots were achieved.  The forest ambush scene, which consists of a single shot taken from inside the car, forcing the viewer to share the passengers' panic, stands out in particular as a remarkable example of Lubezki's immersive visual style.  Throughout his career, Lubezki has proven himself adept at working in just about any visual aesthetic, from the sumptuously-photographed period look of A Little Princess (1995) and A Walk in the Clouds (1995), to the edgier handheld style of Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and Children of Men, to the dreamy visual poetry of director Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011).  His work has become even more recognizable over the past two years, after back-to-back Oscars for his virtuosic work on Gravity (2013) and Birdman (2014), and if the immersive visual aesthetic on display in the trailer for his soon-to-be-released film The Revenant (2015) is any indication, he may well be on his way to a third consecutive Academy Award.  Lubezki is quite simply the best cinematographer working today, and Children of Men may be his finest hour.

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