By Christian DiMartino
Children of Men is one of Alfonso Cuaron’s greatest achievements. Note the term “one.” Some may tell you it is his greatest achievement, I remain on the fence, because here is a filmmaker whose best work (this one, Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is so singular and diverse from one another that it’s sort of difficult to compare one to another. I just know that they’re all great in their own ways, with the key ingredient to each one being Cuaron’s craftsmanship.
It had been a good seven years since my last viewing of Children of Men, and while it was really good, I suppose I felt that after the initial set-up, most of its intriguing ideas sort of went away, and the film became an “escape” film. New me wants to slap old me, let’s just say that. Even after Children of Men becomes a tale of escape and survival, the seeds planted from the film’s setup are so intriguing that they linger in the mind. Perhaps 2013 Christian DiMartino spent just a wee bit too much time on his Android (again, I have moved up) to see the big picture.
The film’s setup is an ingenious one, and a frightening one. Nightmarish even, and Cuaron’s film takes its dystopian future to even more nightmarish heights the deeper you get into it. This time around though, the vast majority of the film I saw wowed me. As per usual, I have said too much, and too little, so I’ll get on with it, and explain later.
The film is set in 2027 London (the way 2020 is going, don’t be surprised if the world is this scary in 2027), and boy, does it look like hell. Where most futuristic worlds feature flying cars and what not, the world depicted in Children of Men doesn’t look too different than the world we know, except it’s run-down, grim, groggy and gray. From the start, we learn two things: one is that women, for whatever reason, have been infertile for over a decade (so basically we’re looking at the last of the population), and two, the youngest person alive (in other words, the last baby born), nicknamed “Baby Diego,” has just been killed because he failed to sign an autograph. Cuaron’s grim future never holds back, with the last of the population unveiling nothing but constant chaos.
Clive Owen’s Theo is a government bureaucrat of the sorts, but nothing about his job looks as fancy as it sounds. Theo, as we learn, was a former activist who had a baby with a former lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), but judging from Theo’s current state, neither one of them are necessarily in the picture. Julian re-enters Theo’s life soon though, in need of government connections. The reason why: Julian is currently sheltering an African-American woman named Kee, who is pregnant, and the last hope for civilization. Seeing as Theo is the only one that Julian and Kee trust, Theo and Kee flee to a boat that will protect Kee, while Theo has to guard her with his life or else civilization will remain lost.
Owen’s performance here is honestly pretty perfect. The motivations of this character are pretty interesting, in the way that he has nothing to lose, but also everything to lose. Michael Caine is also pretty fun (there is a mild glimmer of fun here) as Theo’s friend, who spends his days getting high with his wife, who is in a vegetative state (okay, not too much fun). The performances all around are excellent, but this is very much a director’s movie.
Yeah, I once felt the way that I did, and it is a chase thriller. Yet my initial critique is false because the ideas that led before it are of such magnitude. Not to mention, it’s not like the film stops delivering the greats. Children of Men, from start to finish, is an astonishing knockout. It’s a film of an ugly future that manages to look beautiful, and a film that looks cheap but also fabulously expensive. The production design is really intricate in that sense, because in making a set that looks so rundown and dirty, one would imagine that it couldn’t have cost much, but also, it left me wondering: how the hell did Cuaron pull this off?
Then, there’s the cinematography, which is practically the second star of this film next to Cuaron. Emmanuel Lubezki provided the camerawork here, and funny story about Lubezki: he received Oscar nominations for this film, Cuaron’s A Little Princess, Sleepy Hollow, The New World, and The Tree of Life, all of which are breathtaking to behold. Yet he didn’t win, but he won his first Oscar for Gravity in 2013, and was followed by Oscars for Birdman and The Revenant in 2014 and 2015. This wasn’t just because they were deserved (which they definitely were), but also the Academy probably felt as if they had to make it up to him (so far, they are making it up to Roger Deakins too, but that’s another story). Lubezki’s work in this film is marvelous. Not just because of the way that he makes even dull colors like white and gray look gorgeous, but because of those long shots.
Yes, those long shots, and here, they are, and deserve to be, the talk of legend. Take, for example, an exhilarating sequence early on in which Owen and Moore are in a car together. The camera movements in this scene are extraordinary because it feels as if you are in the car with them. There is also, to an even greater affect, a sequence towards the end in which Owen is practically in the middle of a war zone, and I’ll be damned if the camera doesn’t cut once. These scenes, particularly the latter, are a masterclass in filmmaking. The precision and effort that went into them- the time, the effort, etc. One person screws up, they have to start all over again, and that Cuaron can keep everyone in line, particularly during such a chaotic sequence is something to acknowledge.
Children of Men was a film, like Cuaron’s near Best Picture winner Roma, that I had been itching to revisit for some time. After seeing Children of Men, it was brought to my knowledge that the general consensus of people thought it was a masterpiece. After revisiting it seven years later, I must admit that the people are correct. Because Cuaron is such an awesome filmmaker, Roma is another film that deserves revisiting so then I can realize how wrong I was. One step at a time, I guess.
Now Streaming on Showtime
3 Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography