Title: Children of Men (2006)
Director: Alfonso Cuáron
Lead Actors: Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofer, Claire-Hope Ashitey
Score Composer: John Tavener
Length: 1 hr., 49 minutes (109 minutes)
Rating (US): R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In 2027, in a chaotic world in which humans can no longer procreate, a former activist agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea, where her child’s birth may help scientists save the future of humankind.” (IMDb.com)
Reason for Beginning: The concept intrigued me, and it showed on TV.
Reason for Finishing: It sucks you into its world so completely that you forget your own exists.
Movie Re-watchability: Boy. Well, yes, in the sense that I’ve watched it twice and each time it was near impossible to tear my eyes away. But it’s a very dark, painful film. It ends with hope, a beautiful, wonderful hope, but only after a violent, nightmarish journey. I could watch it again, especially to show it to someone else who might appreciate it, but I’d have to be in a special mood for it. It’s not relaxing. It’s not “entertainment.” It’s not one you watch often, or have playing in the background while you do laundry, or anything like that.
Director Re-watchability: Of Cuáron’s films, I’ve only seen this and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which was the first Potter film to realize the potential of the series and maybe the only one to successfully stand on its own apart from the book. His other famous film, Y Tu Mamá También (2001) does not appeal to me at all. But I like that he uses very long, single takes at every opportunity in Children of Men, and that he understood how to use silence and ambient noise for the quieter moments in Azkaban. He’s an immensely talented director, and I’d be eager to see his future work, depending on the subject matter (and content rating).
Recommendation: If you are willing to watch a long, hard movie, with sudden and brutal violence, that never lets up, that plumbs the depths of dark despair and breaks its characters to the uttermost and only at the end, at the very end, offers up as a flickering candle the distant sound of hope…then watch this. Experience it. I warn you, it is emotionally exhausting. It’s harsh. It subverts a lot of our expectations about “action movies.” It’s an “anyone can die” movie. It’s not for everyone. Don’t watch if you get nightmares, or are very sensitive to evil shown in movies.
When the end credits began to roll, I sat still for a few minutes, breathing slowly. When the credits finished, I got up and walked around my house, touching familiar objects to reassure myself that yes, it is still 2010, and no, the world has not fallen into general anarchy due to all women being suddenly and mysteriously barren for the past eighteen years.
This is an immersive film. Few others have created so convincing a world, so frightening in its apparent plausibility, that its main plot line doesn’t even have to concern itself with warnings against xenophobia or authoritarianism or the sacrifice of freedoms for security, because everything in the background shows clearly their destructive effects. In fact, the plot is essentially a series of tense, extended chases. Our protagonists pass by crowds of non-British-born people being herded into cages and detainment camps, for the British police state believes that the only way it can survive, and not fall into chaos and violence with the rest of the world, is to enforce a strict quarantine against all immigrants. It’s not racism, quite – as long as you were born in Britain, you’re okay. But if you weren’t, or if you snuck into the country, you face the detainment camps, which are rat-infested shantytowns surrounded by barbed wire and mean-spirited military police who deal out beatings rather freely. Our main characters have considerable warmth and depth, but the world around them is cold and dying. With no births in eighteen years, there are no more children in the world. No more schools, no more daycares, no more children’s TV, no more happy little faces at Christmas. Many people have already lost their grip on morality, decency, and compassion.
Theo Faron (Owen) makes an unusual hero, and I like him a lot. He’s not a fighter, for one thing; he commits probably one or two violent acts in the entire film, all in desperate defense of others, and never once touches an actual firearm or weapon, even though they are all around him. Look at this shot (left) from the movie’s first few minutes. He has just bought his morning coffee, and no sooner has he walked out then a terrorist bomb blows it up. A normal action hero might throw up an arm, or flinch, or even immediately leap bravely to help the wounded. But Theo’s reaction is the natural human reaction. He throws his coffee, scrambles back, utterly terrified, and runs away until he gets to the office where he works. It’s not that he’s a coward, but that he is just as vulnerable to the dangers of his world as we are to ours. Because of this, we are immediately afraid for him. He’s not protected by the usual Hollywood clichés.
His ex-wife Julian (Moore) meets up with him; or rather, has him kidnapped and brought to her. She’s part of an anti-government organization called The Fishers, that focuses its complaints on the brutal treatment of immigrants. Sometimes they engage in terrorist activities, but Julian assures Theo that they are now non-violent. She wants his help. There’s a particular immigrant girl, a black Fuji named Kee, whom they want to transport safely to the British coast, where she’ll be picked up by a special ship. But they don’t have the transit papers that will help them get her there, and Theo has some political connections. He reluctantly agrees to get the papers, and he tries unsuccessfully to convince himself and the audience that he’s only doing it for the money.
He gets the papers from his political cousin, but with the condition that he be the one to escort the girl. Again, he reluctantly agrees to do so, but only (he says) for more money. He knows it’s dangerous and illegal to help Kee, but only after she reveals her pregnant belly to him does he begin to comprehend his role. The Fishers are debating what to do with her: some say she could be rushed to the coast and the ship’s rendezvous spot, while others say it is safer for the girl to stay with them. Still shocked from having just been informed about the miraculous pregnancy, Theo’s instinctive reaction is so telling: he insists that she get proper medical care ASAP.
It’s this natural, unrelenting compassion for other people in need that makes Theo so compelling and sympathetic, and that ultimately gives him his other virtues over the course of the film. Without this element the film would be so cold and distant as to be unbearable. Both the script and Clive Owen’s acting are exceptional at revealing this compassion without outright stating it or becoming too congratulatory of him. In the first part of the film, we see Theo try to avoid responsibility and situations that force him to care for others. He’s hiding from his own compassion, perhaps from being hurt in the past (we learn that he and Julian had a son who died young). But when others come to him for help, he has to do something. Kee always trusts him implicitly while they are on the run, and when he asks why she does, she says “Because Julian said to trust you, no matter what. So I trust you.” Even his ex-wife seems to trust him more than she does her own colleagues in the Fishers. I think that it’s because she and Kee trust him so much that he is able to become more sure of himself, more courageous about doing the right thing despite whatever danger.
Another reason to like him is his name. It’s Greek: theo meaning “god” and faron means “lighthouse,” so Theo Faron is really “God of the Lighthouses.” This could refer to Theo’s role as the one who guides humanity’s hope, the pregnant woman, to safety, as a lighthouse guides a ship into port. It could also refer to the idea that the only way any of them can make it out alive is by the guidance and providence of God Himself, whose light shines in the darkness (John 1:5). The movie doesn’t dictate one application of the meaning; the point is that Theo does the right thing rather than the easy thing, and once he realizes the stakes he does it without reservation.
I haven’t even dwelt on the sharp, quick violence and nail-biting tension. There aren’t gun-battles of the kind action and sci-fi movies usually have, but of a saddening, terrifyingly realistic kind: cold-blooded murder, sometimes for no reason at all, and other times ruthless battles between government soldiers and rebel guerrillas in bombed out cities. Our characters run in and out of these battles, never taking part, but sometimes becoming casualties, sometimes escaping. It’s harrowing. Nearly all chases are filmed in very long, unbroken shots, which heighten the sense of reality. When you see a jump cut in a movie, when the editing stands out, you are always reminded that it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie. Harder to do that here, when even the camera gets blood on it (right) during a long run through streets turned to rubble.
So it’s hard to watch. There’s one sadistic Scottish guy in particular who is a total loose cannon, who any time he is around the protagonists might laugh, casually swing his gun toward someone and pull the trigger. Boy, I hate that character. He gets what’s coming to him, but this film isn’t concerned with comeuppances. There are evil people, but no true villains in the narrative sense – only the race against time to get Kee safely to the rendezvous point. The ship that they hope will be there is part of a secret, almost mythical group called The Human Project, who are rumored to have a secret base where they have the world’s best scientists working on a cure for human infertility. The story is about having the courage, determination, wisdom, and compassion to win the hope of a happy ending. Fighting skills won’t do it, nor will rashness, nor selfishness, nor flashy heroics. Only love and self-sacrifice.