That’s basically all you need to know about the plot of “Children of Men”. It’s 2027, there hasn’t been a human birth in 18 years and, in the first moments of the film, we learn the youngest person on Earth, “Baby Diego” has died tragically. Then BOOM! We’re thrown further into this post-apocalyptic world, unlike any we’ve ever seen because. ironically, it’s actually not all that different from where we’re at now. There are just more terrorist attacks, more social unrest, more brutal repression of illegal immigrants — plus the whole no kids thing, which translates into a lot of abandoned schools and playgrounds and a general sense of despair in the face of this incomprehensible new reality.
One of the numerous genius moves Alfonso Cuarón and the writers with whom he adapted P.D. James‘ novel made was to never cut away from the protagonist, i.e. no flashbacks, no exterior context and no parallel action. Whatever exposition we get is through the people Theo Faron (Clive Owen) meets and a few background newscasts. This makes for succinct, gripping storytelling with little to none narrative fat. Everything is pretty much established in the pre-title scene, a bit later on Theo pays a brief visit to an old hippie friend (Michael Caine), then BAM! he gets kidnapped and marshaled into repeatedly risking his and others’ lives for a greater cause.
If I specify that at the outset Clive Owen is very much in noir mode, bitter, cynical and generally more drunk than suave, and that he’s jerked out of his brooding complacency by a militant ex-girlfriend (Julianne Moore, mysterious and somewhat daffy à la Maude Lebowski, but played more straight) who needs him to help her get transit papers, no doubt you’ll be thinking of Casablanca. But while that’s as good a place to start as any, don’t expect the film to follow any kind of expected story path. The twists keep piling up and there’s a constant sense of urgency and uncertainty, as anything seemingly can and will happen to the characters.
This fact is becomes fully clear at the end of the first act, during what has to be referred to as THE shot. Right there, you know the film, Cuarón and virtuoso cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have earned their place in cinema history no matter what comes next. Technically, this 5 minute long unbroken shot is a masterwork of action filmmaking, but what makes it even more breathtaking is how it utterly changes your perception of what kind of film you were watching and dramatically raises the stakes. What follows is a series of chases nearly as relentless as Apocalypto, always moving forward through more and more chaos and violence, with our reluctant hero ultimately finding himself in the line of fire between fascist government armies and terrorists leading a refugee camp uprising. And yes, this sets up an even longer and more elaborate (if not as shocking) unbroken shot at the climax.
“Children of Men” is filled with death and confusion, which makes the few bursts of hope and beauty all the more moving. And, rather surprisingly considering the harsh subject matter, the film also possesses a wicked sense of humor, most apparent in the scenes with Michael Caine and Peter Mullan. In addition, the cast includes Claire-Hope Ashitey, bringing an edge to what could have been a merely symbolic part, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who arguably steals the show with his ferocious performance. Also of note is Cuarón’s embrace of prog rock, not only on the soundtrack (Radiohead, King Crimson, Franco Battiato covering Ruby Tuesday, etc.) but in how an early scene actually recreates a classic Pink Floyd album cover!
“Children of Men” is like “1984” or V for Vendetta had they been directed by a truly visionary filmmaker — specifically, Spielberg. Indeed, the film is full of what seems like direct nods to not only his recent sci-fi sorta-trilogy (A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds) but also to the historical horrors depicted in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. You’ll want to watch it over and over.
The miracle the whole world has been waiting for
“Over and over”, I said above. Having now actually watched the film again, I mostly agree with that statement, though it didn’t seem so at first. For the whole first half of my second viewing, while I was still appreciating the undeniable qualities of the filmmaking, I was nowhere near as enthralled. Without the surprise element, which is so crucial in a story with so many unexpected twists, my involvement was rather passive. More so, I was noticing that the first act was a bit exposition heavy and that some of the flourishes were kinda odd.
But gradually, as the storytelling gets more and more hectic and relentless, I was fully hooked in again. In fact, by mid-movie, it became even more brilliant, rich and emotional than the first time. Peter Mullan’s Sid is probably my favorite character, as every scene he’s in feels electrically unpredictable even if you know what’s coming. He’s also one of the key figures in the long plunge the film takes into man-made chaos and horror. Once we go into the refugee camp and as it literally turns into a war zone, “Children of Men” is endlessly scary, sad and disturbing.
Making these sequences even more poignant than those in other war pictures is how we experience it along with a regular bloke in flip-flops and, especially, a pregnant woman. Again, even though I knew what was coming, I was on the edge of my seat, teary-eyed, excruciatingly worried as Kee had contractions, broke her waters and eventually gave birth, in what might be the best scene in the whole film… Though I also adore the one a bit later on when they go down the stairs of a bombed out building with the baby and everyone is awestruck and stop killing each other, if only for a few minutes. Genius.