10 February 2007

Children of Men

Grade: A+
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Written by: Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby

Aren't you glad that George W. Bush is the President of the United States? No, of course not! But you might just be, at least momentarily, tempted to think so after seeing Children of Men; after all, without the vicious blunders of Falluja and Guantanamo to inform its sense of doom, Alfonso Cuarón may never have had the inspiration to make one of the best goddam things I’ve ever seen up on the big screen. I worry about overselling the film, that perhaps it was more bewitching than great, but I’ve decided to follow a maxim once writ by A.O. Scott: “overpraising good work is...a more forgivable sin than underpraising it,” and so I cautiously concede to you, readership, that Children of Men may not be one of the best movies ever made; it may not even be the best film of the decade, though surely at least it's the best film of the year. What’s undeniable is that it’s one of the most rewarding and harrowing cinematic experiences I’ve had since renting Vertigo as a teenager. (Will this feeling subside? Will the film slip down to a mere A or A- in my mind? Impossible to tell, though just watching a six minute clip on YouTube left me breathless.)

Cuarón’s vision of the near future is bleak, which is evident even without the expository information culled from P.D. James' novel—global infertility, civil war, perpetual terrorism—by the chronically wet, gray, dirty, graffito-ed streetscapes of 2027 London that are either clogged with sad faces or entirely desolate. So what keeps anybody going? With the help of state-supplied anti-depressants, they, as a marginal character named Nigel says early in the film, “just don’t think about it.” A worldwide pandemic of psychological infertility and political impotence has destroyed the world.

Theo, a career-defining performance from Clive Owen, seems to get by with the help of his self-prescribed anti-depressant
an ever-present bottle of scotchas well as by smoking, frowning and unwinding with an old pal, Jasper, played endearingly and masterfully by the increasingly avuncular Michael Caine, bedecked in his John Lennon Halloween costume. Theo is the classic Bogartian hero, an indifferent bureaucrat hardened by age in a carbonite shell of cynicism, but compelled to action by forces around him greater than himself. He’s bestowed with the honorable duty of transporting the first pregnant woman in nearly twenty years to safety, and he’ll have to it largely alone since he can’t trust the rebels and certainly not the government.

Children of Men is an action movie, a generic hybrid of war movie, chase thriller, and Nativity story. It’s many opposites at once—topical & timeless, grim & hopeful, political & religious, simply accessible & intricately complex—as well as being unbearably intense and unmercifully relentless from its opening scene that literally sent chills through my nervous system to the final set-piece, the greatest battle sequence in motion picture history (eat shit, Saving Private Ryan), that left me in tears. Cuarón, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (previously responsible for the gorgeous visuals in, among other films, The New World and Sleepy Hollow) create a sense of devestating immediacy by not cutting away in the most fervid sequences and by operating with a handheld camera. The experience is more palpable than could've been had by even having been there yourself; the theoretical concept of "suture" is the idea that, according to Wikipedia, the filmmakers can "engage the viewer with the narrative events onscreen; the viewer is subjectively sutured into the narrative by the filmmaker(s), in order to keep him or her invested." It has never been more deftly and astounding accomplished, and as such the film will be best experienced in the theater, on a large encompassing screen. Don’t allow yourself to miss the experience! The emotional thrill ride is unstoppable, not even pausing to wipe off the blood that’s spattered onto the camera lens; I haven’t had such a visceral experience with moving pictures since I watched the Allies’ footage of the concentration camp liberations.

Cuarón allows his camera to linger in the settings after his characters have left, like Antonioni with his temps mort, but instead of investigating depopulated landscapes, Cuarón more closely examines the people and action within the nightmarish deathscape he’s wrought. The film’s own concentration camp conspicuously resembles the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib of photographs, but is more affecting than even a real time documentary of the abuses that occur/occurred in those places could be. Cuarón and his team are in total control and get all the details right, though it isn’t as though they linger to make political points. The camera barely finds the time to look around before it’s shoved forward by the film’s unstoppable momentum that spurs, horrifyingly, forward.

It can be read in several different ways, for example: a Mexican director’s polemic in which an illegal immigrant is turned into the savior of humanity,
an argument that the use of immigration issue is a political red herring, a political critique about the failures of both the left and the right, an appraisal of the contemporary cultural fear accumulated through attacks by phony terrorists. As grim as it sounds, it’s also genuinely and surprisingly hopeful. Things are going to get a lot worse, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get better. The first thing you can do, readership, is go see this film. Right now.

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