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Children of Men
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma and Laura Eldred, © 2007

Format: Movie
By:   Alfonso Cuarón (Director)
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   December 29, 2006
Review Date:   January 16, 2007
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

Andrew Kozma: Do you have children? Do you know some men? Then get off your arse (even if you answered no to both questions) and go see this movie. Is the acting good? You betcha. Is the story good? Yeppers. How's the film look? Like every shot is handcrafted. What's it taste like? Peppers.

So.

If you weren't thinking about going to see Children of Men, or haven't even heard of it (as some of my erstwhile, so-called friends claim), then you need to go. If you're reading this website, flagrant SFness isn't going to put you off your peanut butter and, really, that's only an issue people will have before going to see the movie. Even though Alfonso Cuaron's movie is set twenty years in the future, this vision of the future has no truck with crazy pulp predictions of the past. No 1950s writers envisioning a 70s with continent-spanning moving sidewalks or day trips to the moon.

Laura Eldred: And thereby instilling false hopes. Every time I'm in my car for more than two hours, I get miffed that we can't teleport yet. Damn you, Star Trek, damn you!

Anyway, Children of Men: it's 2027, and the world is fast becoming a pile of crap. In 2011, for mysterious reasons, women stopped being able to bear children. The youngest people in the world are 18 years of age. With the extinction of the race approaching, the world has turned chaotic; only Britain, stalwart Britain, maintains the appearance of civilization. That veneer of order, however, comes at a high price; the British state has become authoritarian and overbearing, and has set up enforced Refugee (or Fugee, for short) camps as places to shuttle the stream of people trying to escape the chaos raging just outside England's borders. Not everyone in Britain is pleased with this development; resistance groups exist, one being the Fishes, and they try to work toward revolution with any tools they can find. Of course, the state and the media label these groups as "terrorists."

In this complex political world, a young fugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) finds her saviors in the Fishes group, in their leader Jules (Julianne Moore), and her ex-boyfriend Theo (Clive Owen).

Future Present

Andrew: The future here is definitely the future: a double-decker bus has a flat panel computer screen all along its side that runs animated ads; the cars are believable updates from the present, strange enough to be new but not outlandish. What Children of Men presents is an evolution of the present world, a prediction of what the world will look like as a result of social forces more than technological ones. This fits, when you realize the movie was based on a book by P. D. James.

How, you ask? (Ask.) (Please?)
Laura: Oh, great Andy, please tell us!

Andrew: Because, according to an irrefutable source (my mom), James is known for writing mysteries, yet the book The Children of Men is clearly science fiction. Non-SF writers often turn to science fiction for political commentary since it frees them from a certain literalness that generally defines more mainstream genres of fiction. Science fiction becomes a mask you can hide lightly behind, sure that people will know who you really are, what you really mean.

The movie expresses this political viewpoint extremely well, and mostly because the politics are not the movie, but are the clothing it wears. We follow Theo, a lost soul only concerned with himself, as he is drawn more and more into experiencing the violence that makes up the world. Because we are so focused on his journey, the political reality -- -such as the hatred for refugees, the Nazi-like camps of the British government, the abyss-like gulf between the plebes at the aristocrats -- -- bleeds into the viewer's consciousness as part of the world. Afterwards, you might realize that all of these aspects are what make Theo's world what it is, what crafted its current state of misery.

Depth of field

Laura: What I found most remarkable about the film was the depth of the world created by director Alfonso Cuaron. Details will repay your scrutiny. The filth, despair, and decay of Cuaron's London is impossible to ignore; it reaches out and grabs you throughout. And that vision of urban decay is artfully done. Several of the graffiti pieces are by noted urban artist Banksy, who is well-known in Britain for such work. The mise-en-scene is carefully planned: from the poignant touch of an abandoned stroller at the bottom of a filthy Tube access point to the sci-fi fun of a digitized newspaper stand, Cuaron creates a full-fledged universe into which to drop his unsuspecting audience.

It's not just an exciting adrenaline rush. Certainly, the plot starts up quickly and never lets up until the end; you become invested in Theo's desperate quest to get Kee to safety, and Cuaron never gives you breathing room. For that reason, I think people who like action sci-fi in the Independence Day vein will also like this film. But Children of Men is more than that: it's carefully conceived, lushly detailed, and artistically presented. And that's why your thinking sci-fi fans, of the Blade Runner variety, will really love this film. The film is full of tidbits that call out to the educated viewer. The repeated lines, "Shantih! Shantih! Shantih!" are not only the ending to an Upanishad (poetic dialogues on Hindu metaphysics; shantih means peace in Hindi), but are also the final lines of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land -- -- another arresting work devoted to contemplating a world emptied of fertility: a world on its last, teetering legs.

The brand name of the suicide kit offered by the government, "Quietus," recalls Hamlet's lines in his "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy: "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely. . . When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin?" And the floating pig outside Nigel's office duplicates the scene on the cover of Pink Floyd's album Animals, which is appropriate as Pink Floyd has long been the band of urban British decay and failure.

Andrew: That floating pig pleased me so much when it appeared, though it also was depressing to see that dark vision realized. In addition to Floyd and the other cultural references, there are ones more directly religious. The Fishes' moniker seems most directly related to the apostles and their position as "fishers of men." The terrorist group arises from the oppression, prejudice, and bigotry of the government and struggles to gather people who are willing to work for change. Theo's name, shortened from Theodore, puts him at the center of the struggle since in Greek it is a prefix meaning god; of course, as a prefix, it only has meaning when attached to something else, just as Theo becomes attached to Kee's deliverance. Not that etymology is as exciting as a giant pig in the sky.

Laura: Speaking of animals, this film is chock full of them. It might have been titled Children of Men: Theo's Ark. There are dogs, cats, kittens, chickens, birds, deer, and various other beasties. In a world that otherwise so emphasizes decay, death, and infertility, the exuberance of the animal presence in the film could seem odd. I'm not sure quite what to make of it myself, other than that it suggests a world outside the human that is operating just fine; if cats can have kittens, and everything else can breed, then this infertility is a human-only problem, and something likely caused, in some way, by human actions. It thus, I think, sharpens the focus on humanity's flaws, its inability to focus on the long-term good for all people, and to suggest that human infertility is only a reflection of human inhumanity.

B-movie Love

Andrew:The movie, outside of the main quest, becomes a parable for what happens when individual concerns outweigh those of society. And not all animals are so lucky. In the countryside there are a number of shots showing piles of cows that have been killed and set on fire. Most possibly, this is related to Mad Cow disease which could be a reference to the madness of people. Cows are so tied in to our civilization. When civilization gets sick, they do as well.

Here I just have to say that in the past few years Britain has been putting out some amazing science fiction, horror, and fantasy films. In addition to Children of Men, there has been Dog Soldiers, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead. Even Reign of Fire was pretty decent. Granted, the output rate isn't that great compared to Hollywood's adrenalized production schedule, but, then, most of those H-movies just aren't that good. These movies hook you in with style, engage you throughout (while adding more hooks), and leave you satisfied (even if you have to take out the hooks yourself).

Laura: Ditto on that, Andy. All hail the Brit Sci-Fi! People won't be mistaking this for your average Hollywood sci-fi romp. It's more ambiguous, and thus perhaps less narratively satisfying. That said, I hope that viewers won't see this as a weakness. After all, so much of this film is an extrapolation from our own contemporary culture, that the film would lose its power if Cuaron wrapped it up with a big, pink bow. Any improvement in our lives and our government is hard work, and the outcome is uncertain. That doesn't mean it's unimportant.

Andrew: That view is highlighted by Cuaron's use of long takes. The entering of the Bexhill Refugee Camp is haunting for its Holocaust imagery, but also because it is unrelenting, fast-paced, and, as with much of the movie, so much is happening at once. An uprising in the Camp (also reminiscent of the Warsaw uprising) is documented in a seven-minute long take that represents the chaos and pathos of the event much better than a hundred sharp cuts would, especially because of that aspect of overwhelming detail.

Look for the small moments: whenever the movie directs your attention to a miracle, there's always a bystander being hit by a stray bullet just at the edge of the screen. Even so, the short cuts are equally as powerful. Early in the movie, after a terrorist bombing, Theo turns to the aftermath. For less than a second you can see a woman walking from the rubble, holding on to her own severed arm as if to say, "What happened?"

And this is the important question we're left with: What happened? What happened to our world to make it that one?

Laura Eldred's rating: 10 out of 10

Andrew Kozma's rating: 10 out of 10


RevSF Staff Writer Laura Eldred and RevSF Assistant Film Editor Andrew Kozma are not children, nor are they men. One of them isn’t, anyway, and knowing is half the battle. Of the sexes.

 
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