It would appear that selling one’s soul to the devil of commercial filmmaking can in fact serve a purpose, assuming of course you do so with a ruthless pragmatist’s eye. For that is exactly what one of Mexico’s most adored modern auteurs, Alfonso Cuaron, did with his introduction to English-language cinema in his one mercenary venture, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (no slouch as a film on its own, incidentally). For the success he had with big-budget tentpole cinema not only made a boatload of money (and made a franchise legitimize itself in the process, after two unflaggingly hum-drum entries beforehand), but it paved the way for one of the finest films of its decade, 2006’s Children of Men. If the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise only existed to validate the existence of this one film, well, it would be a job well done, for Children of Men is exactly the variation of cold-brewed, home-spun, plaintive sci-fi we don’t much see anymore, and exactly what the world of cinema circa 2006 needed.
First, let’s pay our dues: Children of Men is not what the world of 2006 needed because of its necessary, albeit overly pandering political commentary. Admittedly, it is at least worthwhile and notable that the film doesn’t much seem to know what its commentary is targeting. There’s something floating around vaguely about Bush-era government oppression, and the War on Terror is stewing about as usual for a 2006 film. I am certainly not the first to comment on the film’s wide distance away from subtlety, but Children of Men makes it easy to demote it on these grounds. I also don’t much buy its apolitical nihilism where-in leftist rebels are as vicious as the totalitarian government (there is a serious case to be made that the rebels’ cause is entirely justified and fair, and the film doesn’t much entertain this). But the thought of explicit rebel-bashing is not insisted on and the two factions mostly serve as amorphous background entities to fit the film’s fable-like demeanor about two people in a harsh, unforgiving world.
But, and here’s the thing, political diatribes are not this film’s DNA. At a base level, it is not meaningfully any sort of film about politics in the real world. It is instead a fable about no specific time, a plaintive worrying gasp that blankets time more generally and calls all moral quandaries under its elemental vision. It is social science fiction of the highest order, built upon parts that all fit under the umbrella of highly specific, contextualized filmmaking. But the film itself isn’t specific; it is a classically timeless parable of humanity’s distance from itself, relentlessly bleak and shot through with sorrow but knowing just well enough a small but profound humanist streak so as to wave away a distressing case of the miserables.
In the film’s future of 2027, humanity has lost the ability to reproduce (thankfully not explained, for in an age of mirthless boredom why would any one still care about the reason?). Naturally, without a new infusion of lifeblood, an increasingly diminishing population causes panic and hopelessness and, somewhere down the line, the degradation of society. Few governments are left standing, with Britain’s being the only major power left, and even then a totalitarian government has taken over. Within, Theo (Clive Owen) skulks and slumps his way through a life he doesn’t particularly care to continue living, having never recovered from the embittered loss of his child twenty years prior. He wanders through life without purpose. One day he sees his ex-lover and mother of his child Julian (Julianne Moore), who requests his involvement in a special project of hers, which he accepts as a form of unstated personal redemption. We soon learn the nature of the project: a human, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitay), has for the first time in twenty years, become pregnant. The problem: pregnancy, being as rare as rare gets, becomes an increasingly hot commodity once discovered, and both the government and a band of rebels, now aware of Kee’s pregnancy, want to use her for their own purposes. Julian knows of another path, and asks Theo to deliver Kee to a mysterious group of individuals outside the grip of those seeking to use her.
A dreary fatalism pervades Children of Men, yet cinematic life bubbles underneath. The absolute highlight of Cuaron’s vision, outside of some of the more perverse touches and the clear showpieces – Emmanuel Lubezki’s long takes that take on narrative import in and of themselves – is the sheer economy of narrative and Cuaron’s propensity to show rather than tell. And barely show at that. We learn little things here and there, but the film intentionally keeps us at a distance to reflect the cruel, distant world these people live in. Many of the characters are simply trying to survive, and they’re less interested in expository news than in finding their next meal. What use would they have for painstaking discussions about the state of the world? And for Cuaron’s film, what use do we have?
Everything we do learn comes from an ever so slight camera movement of a small detail left rumored about in the background, giving the film an uncommon visual depth that helps it acquire the luster of a true world-building exercise with an uncommon confidence to showpiece only what it needs to for its push forward. All the background details about the world itself are left for us to decipher, for the characters in the film have long stopped caring. These are people who live life with blinkered vision, having long ago given in to the more horrid details of the world, and they don’t fixate on the shock of anything around them. It’s all numb to them, and Cuaron recreating this aspect of their worldly view in his mise-en-scene gives the film a profoundly personal air.
If the film’s characters keep us at a distance, Cuaron does everything in his power to draw us into their adventure, if it can be called an adventure, as a director. This film is nothing short of a tour-de-force of cinematic camera movement. Cuaron’s greatest decision is to link us to Theo throughout, and “link” is a word that needs new meaning after Children of Men. Late in the film there’s a monumental sequence where we follow Theo through a decrepit city as guerrilla warfare wages around him. It’s all shot in one take and we never leave his side, observing little details in blur exactly as Theo would when running for his life. Earlier, in an even more impressive sequence where a car full of people is attacked by foes riding motorcycles, Lubezki and Cuaron instill a sense of culpability in their fates as they pan the camera around and around from inside the car. We see it all on the characters’ faces: fear, confusion, hopelessness. Through our placement in the car, we become one of them watching as they struggle for their lives and find themselves helpless to do anything about it. This is a grim, merciless future, and Cuaron makes sure we feel every bone-crunching bit of it.
The camerawork isn’t merely a showpiece (although it is that) for its own sake; it is the very texture and meat of a film about people whose lives push forward with unending formlessness and refuse to cut. It is the means by which Cuaron chooses to tell his story, to express his characters’ emotions, and above all, to make us a character. When the camera follows Theo through a war-torn city, it shakes with all the exasperation of a human rushing away from, and to, certain doom. When it circles around the inside of a car, watching attackers pass to and fro, it huffs and breathes with anxiety, never able to remain still for fear of what could be behind it. Arguing that Children of Men’s camera overtakes its characters, as some have implied, creates a false dichotomy between the two. It implies that Cuaron’s/Lubezki’s camerawork is merely an add-on to a scripted narrative, not the very core of its life in celluloid. The camera doesn’t just make or break its characters here; it is one.
Ultimately, as with most of Cuaron’s films, the ending is comparatively upbeat in relation to the rest of the film. For all its depression and bitter despair, the film refuses to conform to the modern-day trend of nihilism for nihilism’s sake. It’s ultimately a humanist parable about the value of life and its end follows suit. But it doesn’t soften the blow of what the characters have to go through to get to that point, nor is its ending free of questions. One child has been born after an eighteen-year drought, but what does this mean for society? Children of Men rightfully doesn’t know, but it can quiet itself for once in a glowingly mythical final shot that sends the film’s pitch-black bedtime story to society off to sleep with much to think about, and more to dream for.
It’s one of the film’s many disconcerting moments of ethereal beauty (most of the others speak for themselves, such as a cheeky surrealist throw-in of an image lifted wholesale from Pink Floyd’s Animals cover – an implicit reflection of the film’s awareness of its own fictional qualities – matched to King Crimson’s “The Court of the Crimson King”). But Cuaron is a filmmaker particularly adept at finding visual beauty to distill confused emotion in the face of rampant melancholy. He went on to spend seven years pooling his pure visual craftsmanship again, this time to wholly more populist results, but for those in search of something with a little more of a crumpled gait and a lost soul to its step, look no further than one of the finest narrative films of the 2000s, Children of Men.