January 2, 2007 > Children of Men
Children of Men
By Jeremy Inman
Good science fiction, whether it's a movie, a novel, a comic book or a video game, all starts with the same question:
Blade Runner asked: What if we couldn't distinguish artificial life from the real thing? In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrik asked us to consider the possibility that the sum of human achievement might be the result of an extraterrestrial agenda. Halflife, one of the great all-time sci-fi video games, imagines a world in an unspecified future where a totalitarian alien force occupies our planet. Brian K. Vaughn's hit comic Y The Last Man (from mature publisher and DC subsidiary, Vertigo. It's good, pick it up!) envisions a world where the entire male population of Earth simultaneously dies as the result of a massive plague. All but one man, that is...
All of these stories succeed beyond certain common misconceptions of the genre because they begin with the question - what if? They then thoroughly and believably take the viewer/reader/player through a series of logical steps and plot points to make realistic assumptions about the world in which the story takes place. A world is established that operates according to specific rules and conditions, with strict adherence to these rules; otherwise they sacrifice believability.
In other words, everything makes sense because the filmmakers/authors/developers have thought long and hard about a world which would be a logical result of their "what if?"
Of course, there are the Star Wars and the Fireflies and the Star Treks, who begin their stories on a basis far removed from reality as we know it and who tell equally valuable and entertaining stories. But, like Children of Men, most good sci-fi starts with the real world, then throws in an x factor which changes the way the characters (and the viewer) see the world around them. Back to the Future is the real world with an x factor of time travel. Jurassic Park is the real world with an x factor of dinosaurs, etc. The Truman Show is a good example of this idea: what if a man's entire life was a scripted, controlled television show and he didn't even know it? Another is the recent Stranger than Fiction, which uses the premise of a man who begins to hear a narrator in his head accurately describing his everyday life raising questions about fate and the need to feel we are in control of our lives. Even Bill Murray's Groundhog Day fits this category.
The challenge is to imagine how the real world would have to change and adapt to these new factors; how people would respond. How would this affect society, politics, and everyday life?
Most importantly, is it worth asking? Star Wars, thankfully, is far more than just "what if people flew spaceships and fought with swords of light a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?" Although the "Holy Trilogy" doesn't rank as high on the social relevance scale as films like The Truman Show, Pleasantville, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or even the first Matrix film (I like to pretend that the second two were never made), it still has a few things to say about our inner struggles with good and evil. It examines our tendency to rebel against a chosen path, and the belief that all people are inherently good, even the Dark Lord of the Sith - definitely more relevant than anything you'd find in such pulp sci-fi as Chronicles of Riddick (the Vin Diesel stinker).
Children of Men is perhaps more relevant than all of these. By far it is the most effective, relevant and emotionally charged piece of motion picture science fiction since 28 Days Later.
Children of Men asks, what if the human race was suddenly incapable of reproduction?
The answer is a frighteningly believable portrait of the possible future without the presence of children. It is 2027 and the youngest human being alive is 18 years old. That's 18 years with no new births anywhere on the planet. With no hope for a future, every major country has fallen into anarchy except England. Refugees from around the world pour into the last civilized place on Earth only to be treated like scum. They are literally packed into cages and shipped off to prison camps to die from malnourishment or disease, or to be killed outright by fellow prisoners or corrupt and sadistic officials.
A small minority of freedom fighters struggle in vain for these refugees against a ruthless government that imposes regular fertility tests and encourages the use of over-the-counter suicide drugs. More important, though, is their chance discovery of a young Fuji girl named Kee, the first pregnant woman on the planet for the last 18 years. Their goal is to deliver Kee and her unborn child to a secret group of scientists in hopes of providing mankind with a future.
Enter the reluctant hero Theodore "Theo" Faron (Clive Owen), a tired, disgruntled and disillusioned government employee with the right connections to help a refugee pass the numerous security checkpoints out of London. The odyssey which ensues is perhaps the most literal battle for the future of mankind ever displayed on screen. Theo and Kee must traverse the dilapidated landscape surrounding London, including numerous hostile zones where the military is in constant battle with freedom fighters and terrorists, with the hope of meeting a secret group which may or may not really exist.
The film benefits immensely from the gorgeous direction of Alfonso Cuar—n, the man behind the most recent Harry Potter and the highly popular Y tu mama tambiŽn. Cuar—n masterfully composes the most intricate and well-choreographed long takes throughout the film, bringing the audience right up next to Theo as he embarks on his quest. One shot follows Theo, without ever cutting to a different angle, across a war torn street where a military armored division is advancing on a group of freedom fighters. The camera moves with Theo as he runs from cover to cover, advancing on a building where Kee is being held. A tank approaches and fires several shells into the face of the building, blowing the faŤade off the first couple of floors.
As this is going on, Theo and the camera scramble frantically across the open streets and straight into the front of the now-destroyed building. He passes injured fighters as sounds of the fight continue outside. As he passes a window on one of the upper floors, the tanks outside can be seen advancing up the street. Still haven't cut. All the while, missed shots ricochet off the wall just inches from Theo's head, fighters and civilian alike fall to fatal wounds all around; the intricate battle plays on in its precisely-choreographed script. Without giving any more away, the shot goes on for about ten minutes without ever cutting away, displaying the prowess of the filmmakers and pulling viewers into the believability and immediacy of the story.
Cuar—n doesn't just wow us with a shot like this once, but over and over again. Aside from its more technical impressive attributes, Children of Men boasts a fine supporting cast, including Juliane Moore and the great Michael Caine as Theo's marijuana harvesting political cartoonist pal. Moreover, little touches like context-sensitive jokes between characters or Theo's antiquated t-shirt from the 2012 Olympics in London serve to paint a vivid and believable image of the near future. You'll see no flying cars or laser beams in this movie, just realistic technology (mostly in advertising) that is being developed today.
As with any great science fiction story, Children of Men takes one idea for a possible future and carries it as far as it can logically go given the world its filmmakers have crafted. In addition to a believable depiction of the future, the depth of the film is further expanded by a wealth of intricate and endearing characters and an underlying emotional drive. It is understood that every action taken is in the pursuit of nurturing and protecting the most sacred species task, the ability to create new life.
Promotional material for this film has been scarce at best, so if you haven't seen the trailer (check it out at Joblo.com in the trailers section!) or if your only knowledge of the film is this article, go check it out. You won't regret it. While quite an emotional ride, it's ultimately fulfilling and uplifting, a perfect example of the narrative and emotional impact even science fiction can have when given the chance.