Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is the most realistic dramatic look at apocalypse I’ve seen in years.
Though it may not be the most realistic demise of humankind 1 — sudden global infertility without any discernible medical culprit — the film is definitely the most gritty, taut scenario of future shock.
Clive Owen’s activist ex-wife Julianne Moore is involved with some clandestine group called The Human Project, a scientific effort to save the planet. Clive is some sort of ex-activist-turned-government bureaucrat. She enlists his help in smuggling a woman across the immigration unfriendly borders of Great Britain.
Children of Men‘s title itself sheds a lot of light on the story. The “men” here have declared martial law of the worst order. They have cracked down on illegal foreigners. They have turned the government into an Orwellian police state. They are trying to quell the riots and return order.
The “children” of the title have inherited this existence, one of little hope in a future humankind. The youngest child of this generation, 18 year old Diego Ricardo, has just been killed by a mob. The whole world is glued to the TV, watching memorials to his death on the scale of Lady Di’s.
Mob violence and insurgent uprising is increasing. One gets the sense that humanity is on the very verge of insanity, it’s last 50-year long death rattle.
In trying to convince Owen to join their effort, Julianne uses the analogy of permanent hearing loss. That high-pitched tone you hear in your ear every once in a while? That’s the swan song of that frequency. Enjoy it while you can still hear it.
There are three scenes of particular vérité power that are amazing. The first is early on when Owen is riding a city train. The camera seems to be sitting in the seat across from him and also captures the background commotion, a mob about to vandalize the train. You peer over his shoulder with dread as they hurdle bricks at the cars, all while Owen is oblivious to the impending attack. You feel the need to warn him to duck.
The second is a master work of brilliant editing and photography. It takes place in a compact car, packed with 5 people. The camera appears to be mounted somewhere near the windshield, spinning around the car watching each of the characters, including Clive’s and Julianne’s. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose in a matter of minutes, just as violent acts tend to happen. And that amazing fly-on-the-windshield view continues to pan around the car, taking in all the freight and horror. What’s truly amazing about the shot is not only the impossibility of the camera’s perspective, but the length of the shot. It’s one very long take, expertly choreographed. The amount of action external to the car is dizzying.
The third scene is one of war journalism caliber. Again, the audience follows Owen’s character as he runs for cover dodging bullets and mortars in the underbelly of England’s war-torn district. There are tanks blowing holes in buildings. Though this might sound invigorating, Cuarón doesn’t glorify the violence. It’s tense, nail-biting stuff, one long uncut scene of dread and primitive survival. At this point, Cuarón cleverly uses a high-pitched tone in the film’s soundtrack as a reminder of that impending sense of loss.
One of Owen’s contacts is played by Michael Caine, who looks positively like the old aging hippy that John Lennon would have become. He elegantly explains to Owen’s confidants how the man’s convictions have waned over the years. He explains that while some people find comfort in a higher order, there are those that have obviously lost their faith in such dire times. They believe solely in chance. The two appear to be mutually exclusive: faith — the belief that everything, even the irreplaceable loss of future generations of people, happen for a reason; chance — the belief that nature makes its own decisions, with or without our best intentions at heart.
Caine seems to be a loose believer in both. Though he pays lip service to divine purpose, he is grounded by the way things are. His is a “faith in praxis,” a faith in chance.
Julianne’s, and then finally Owen’s, struggle clearly represents an aversion to chance. They are fighting for the survival of humanity on the surface, but against the randomness of chance subconsciously. The breakdown of social order that results in this apocalypse is yet more chance that threaten their struggle.
How will it all end? Does humankind contain enough stamina, enough faith in itself, to rise against the life-threatening chance of nature? Cuarón’s Children of Men is a brooding study of these tenuous ties that bind us, and our core beliefs, together.
- according to Wired this version of apocalypse just wouldn’t happen out of the blue