10-Year Retrospective: Children of Men
By Ben Gruchow
December 20, 2016

Before dystopia was cool

This retrospective was initiated on September 25th, 2016. On September 24th, a story from the Washington Post made its way to me. It was about the most-recent coordinated Russian-Syrian air strike on the Syrian city of Aleppo, done within the context of a fragile cease-fire partially brokered by the United States. A quote from the article, from the head of Aleppo's branch of the Syrian Civil Defense, lifted itself out of the body of the article and has stayed with me since:

”There are dead people in the streets, and fires are burning without control. People don't know what to do or where to go. There is no escape. It is like the end of the world.”

The direct, academic tone of this statement doesn't represent the totality of its impact - it is certainly evocative, in the most horrifying way - but it's the aspect of the statement that struck me most immediately. There is no shock or surprise left in that statement, no tint of emotion. There are the bare facts and their conveyance, delivered by a sense that there is no real choice or opportunity left in the matter, only the inevitability of watching the remaining horrific events play out.

This same tone, above all else, is what animates and singles out Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 dystopian film Children of Men among even its (otherwise) equals. The actual events of the film (which I'll get to in just a moment) are less significant for what they are than for how they are - thoroughly disruptive passages of physical and emotional upheaval. This temperature forms the subject of this year's retrospective: a seminal, game-changing instance of narrative cinema's power in its rawest and undiluted form. That's a lot of hyperbole to issue all at once; no film since has earned it more.

The movie takes place in Britain, in the year 2027. For reasons unknown to us, no child has been born in 18 years. For obvious reasons, this spells doom for the human race; other nations around the world have fallen to chaos and riots in the face of an extinction arriving sooner than anyone thought possible. Only the United Kingdom has survived, seemingly by succumbing to its darkest, most isolationist and nativist elements and transforming itself into a police state. Population is tightly controlled, and would-be immigrants are turned away (that we never see the effects of this scenario on another country, and have only the grey reality of London to refer to as the apparent pinnacle of civilized life, is one of this movie's more invisible insinuations). Refugees found within Britain (dubbed “fugees” in the vernacular of the film) are rounded up by police and placed into deportation camps, generally referred to by the names of the cities they used to be.

We are introduced to Theo Faron (Clive Owen) in a cafe, surrounded by people watching TV, as a newscaster remarks on the death of “baby Diego” - so nicknamed because, at 18 years, he was the youngest person on the planet. How did Diego die? Stabbed by refusal to give an autograph. Theo walks out of the cafe, unmoved. Then a bomb goes off inside the café, blowing glass and shrapnel and dust out onto the street. This is our introduction to the London of this world. Later, Theo receives a message from Julian (Julianne Moore), leader of a notorious rebel group calling itself the Fishes. The Fishes are endeavoring to transport a young black refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) away from London before she can be captured and deported, and they need Theo's help to secure the proper papers. It does absolutely no good to proceed without revealing the central hook of the movie's storyline (the trailers in 2006 spoiled the hell out of it anyway, so it's not like it was much of a closely-guarded secret), which is that Kee is very pregnant, and the goal of the Fishes is to get her to a secret organization called The Human Project. The Project stands to allow Kee to give birth and raise her child in peace, without becoming a science experiment or prisoner of the state.

All of this takes place against a crumbling, grey world that has utterly given up. The basic infrastructure of society still operates, but its operators are joyless in ways that suggest personal ruination; scarce is any hint that the film's occupants enjoy much in the way of hobbies or activities. The only pastime given much opportunity for explanation is Quietus, a drug that induces painless suicide (the box, glimpsed in the background and foreground of several scenes, denotes “You Decide When,” in a gallows-humor take on the ethereal marketing ethic of the pharmaceutical industry). What levity there is to be found in Theo's life is found via smoking marijuana and listening to music and jokes by Jasper (Michael Caine) at his cabin deep in the woods, but the pervasive reality of the world outside hangs over even these scenes like a cloud just out of frame. Insofar as we meet new individuals, they seem designed to make us write off this iteration of humanity - not because we want to, but because they're ready.

It's easy to forget that, at the time of its release, Children of Men was at least somewhat novel in its aesthetic and how it approached its subject matter. Here is a contemporary major studio film - the budget was $70 million, less than half of what the average tentpole cost back then while still being quite substantial in its own right - that is unabashedly grim and unfussy in its presentation of a murky and joyless world. Batman Begins had popularized the aesthetic of the “gritty” tentpole film the year before, but Children of Men represents what it looks like when taken to its most logical extreme. That it is not actually a nihilistic story - that it's a hopeful film, cloaked in an absolutely convincing outer shell of horrific remove - is a testament to Cuaron's grasp of tone.

The risk the movie takes of tipping over into conceptual silliness is less pronounced now than it might have been at release… and that is putting it mildly. Since 2006, we've been exposed to elements of isolationist nativism that now threatens to seat itself into positions of political power pretty much the entire developed world over; technology and social trends since 2006 have advanced to the point where the most inward-turning of sentiments toward outsiders are not just readily findable, but easily and frequently and repeatedly amplified. This needs no science-fiction context in narrative to hit us where we live. The world of Children of Men, where every action and word - seemingly every advertisement and occupation - is couched in weary resignation to running out the clock, may have relied upon a single apocalyptic event to drive its outlook, but the sentiment depicted is really just around the corner.

It is a narrative feat more remarkable than we might initially think that the people who live in this world are not grey and depressed ciphers but individuals still very much capable of reason and rationality and altruism. There is never a point in the film where this is not in evidence if you know where to look, but the first time the film's unique combination of future-shock cynicism and quiet, resistant hope comes into some evidence is a brief dialogue - fairly early on - between Theo and Julian. We find out that the two are estranged, formerly married, and they exchange what passes in this world for small talk: she heard about Theo's mother, and expresses her condolences. He asks if her parents were in New York “when it happened”; we saw earlier a state-sponsored propaganda video clip, briefly showing a shot of the Manhattan skyline with a mushroom cloud rising from it, and we understand that although the entirety of the film is set in a desolate Britain, it is not shy about communicating how utterly wasted the rest of the world is by comparison.

Theo is at first reluctant to help Julian and the Fishes smuggle Kee out of England, and in the context of their brief argument Julian educates him on the ringing sound he heard when the bomb went off in the café earlier. We know it as tinnitus; Julian, poignantly, describes it as the sound of cells dying. Once it's gone, he'll never hear that frequency again. “It's like their swan song,” she says. It isn't until later that we hear that ringing again, during a pivotal event in the film, and we realize that the sound is tied not to bombing, but to death and trauma.

And yet Julian's short speech, apocalyptic as it is in its own sense, conveys explicit character motivation for the first time. Moore has never been better than she is in the short amount of time she's on-screen here; she gives the rebels, an abstract concept until that point, a face and identity; more importantly, she earns our sympathy.

Owen, for his part, sells Theo's transformation from disaffected and dispassionate citizen to rebel mostly through facial expression. His dialogue is almost entirely functional, mostly unreflective, and that we come to understand the depth of his feeling and what each development implies is down mostly to nonverbal cues.

In fact, nobody in the cast falls down when it comes to character, although that'd perhaps be hard to do with the talent assembled here: Jasper (Michael Caine) and Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are the next most consequential to the story, with Miriam (Pam Ferris) following closely behind as midwife, both in the world before the crisis and to Kee herself. Ejiofor and Ferris, in particular among the supporting characters, get moments of startling dignity and emotion as the movie winds toward its final events; upon repeat viewing of the film, we see how organically they've constructed three-dimensional individuals out of little moments and observances.

Still, this is above all a director's exercise in storytelling more than an actor's, and Cuarón fulfills this role by packing Children of Men front to back with one of the most distinctive and total visual identities and evocations of time and place I've seen in any film, science fiction or otherwise. The fascinating thing about this distinction is how much it sneaks up on you. Most of the movie takes place in immediately recognizable and almost-contemporary setting, after all: London is very much a dilapidated incarnation of its real self, but we are still looking at a city that operates on the familiar rubric of commercial zoning, residential zoning, urban cores, and vehicle traffic. Other scenes take place in wooded homes, in run-down schools, in urbane and modernist settings that we can easily recognize as ours.

Yet, there are ancillary details and side stories and clues in the corners of almost every significant sequence in the film: confused and frightened refugees packed tightly in caged queues, like animals; endless reminders of surveillance and population control; backstories told quickly, judiciously in the context of simple and pointed newspaper clippings. Cuarón shoots on film, using available light and mostly location shooting; certain parts of the film, like Theo's apartment, may be constructed on sets, but the illusion of a contiguous and organically decaying civilization is flawless on the basis of production design alone.

Cuarón employs two more directorial tricks, one high-impact and one deceptively low-key; working with cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki, the deceptively low-key decision is to shoot the entire film at a fixed focal length of approximately 50mm, or roughly the way the naked eye perceives the world. This is the same thing that Cuarón did with 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There it was more of a stylistic choice; here, it's another element of the set dressing in the way it draws us in to a used-future setting with the clarity and authority of a documentary rather than a major studio feature.

The high-impact trick employed is the use of long, long, long takes, at four crucial points during the narrative. Two of these in particular stand out, both as jaw-dropping feats of technological prowess and as armrest-clenching sustained passages of intensity and violence. These are not wholly organic long takes, it's true; in both cases, they're digitally stitched together from a half-dozen shorter takes. It doesn't matter. The aim seems to have been to exploit a concept - that a cut from one shot to another represents a psychological moment of relief for the viewer, because it allows the mind to re-establish the proceedings as a make-believe construct - and to refuse the viewer that break. At this they are all too successful; not only do these sequences hold up to close scrutiny a decade later, but they never for a moment exist outside of the delicate fabric of the narrative. This balancing act between raw visual and total narrative integration, succeeding even after all this time, is as impressive as anything else.

Only in its final act, when the story proceeds to a refugee camp in the real-life city of Bexhill-on-Sea, does Children of Men let go of its tenuous connection to readily-identifiable settings and descend fully into a hellish war zone. This leads to an unrelenting cat-and-mouse game through bombed-out streets among the pops of military rifles and mortar blasts, and the intensity maintains itself for so long that it becomes exhausting. It's a fitting directorial exploit, then, that our defenses are mostly down during the film's climactic moment. It mostly involves a slow escort, with only a few short words of dialogue punctuating it, and yet it is so powerful in the combination of emotions it unlocks in us as the audience that we are simply overwhelmed.

There is much more I haven't covered. I could go on about the score by Sir John Tavener, which finds a haunting vocal repetition that becomes as much of a leitmotif as the swan song of those lost frequencies. I could go on about the way the film deftly and invisibly depicts how hopelessness in civilization breeds intra-population suspicion and contempt, and how easy it is for basic altruism to still break through it in the end. I could go on about the violence in the film, and how it never once shies away from the acts on-screen or glorifies or cheapens them - an act which is not quite as rare now as it was in 2006, but still lends itself to an entirely different rhythm from most violent films. I could go on, and on, and on, and lose the forest of the film's greatness in the trees of delineating every aspect of it. And this is a great film, one of the best ever made; try as I might, I cannot think of any aspect of it that does not somehow transcend its genre trappings. That a film with this degree of ruthless clarity came from a major studio is shocking; that every single aspect of it still soars ten years later includes it into a very selective club: those films that are wholeheartedly works of art, top to bottom, that only resonate more deeply with time and repeat viewings.