Monday, January 14, 2008

Children of Men

"Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men."
Psalm 90 (89): 3

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
T.S. Eliot "The Waste Land"*

You can do a lot of things with science-fiction...or speculative fiction, if you'd rather. You can take a common problem, take it out of your world or your dimension and force people to look at it with a new eye, empty of pre-concieved visions or prejudices.

And you can do this in the movies, too. Couch a radical concept in a chase movie...say, "The Road Warrior," and you immediately wake millions of people up to the concept of non-renewable resources. Al Gore knew what he was doing making "An Inconvenient Truth."

So does Alfonso Cuarón.

Cuarón started his career with the charming "A Little Princess" and a not-too successful modernization of "Great Expectations." He broke out a few years ago with a very entertaining film out of Mexico called "Y tu Mama Tambien" about a pair of immature teen boys (read: your target audience), hooked them up on a road-trip with a worldly-wise older woman and, amazingly, created an art-house hit that went mainstream in this country. The fact that it was entertaining, engaging and highly sexual was the several spoonfuls of sugar that would occasionally make Cuarón's political detours go down when he would stop the film (cold) to make them. His next film was the third film in the "Harry Potter" series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which managed to shake the non-magical dust off the series, streamlined the story and seamlessly integrated the elaborate effects more fluidly into the mix. It felt more like a film than the stodgy musical adaptations the previous films seemed like. The reward for showing less respect to the sacred Potter text was the opinion of high-priestess J.K. Rowling that it was the best of the films.

Fans of P.D.James'**1992 novel "The Children of Men," should have the same respect for Cuarón's distillation for he's made it both more complicated and slimmed it into a hellish chase film that keeps one on the edge of their seat and keeps one guessing every step of the way, while at the same time turning James' version of man's last gasp into something more relevent in a post-9-11/post-Iraq invasion world. James' basic concept and characters are for the most part there, but Cuarón and his army of scriptwriters fashion a future on the eve of destruction: Babies are no longer being born and mankind is facing its last generation...ever. A global flu pandemic may have been the cause, but whatever happened there is no new generation for a world on the brink. When the Earth has no future, what happens? Global destruction, and as billboards around London proclaim "The World Has Collapsed! Only Britain Soldiers On." Literally. The cities are police states. Illegal immigrants are caged and thrown into gulags run by Homeland Security, and the world mourns as the last child born..."Baby Diego," now 18, is gunned down for not giving someone an autograph.

It would be more horrific if it wasn't so familiar. It would be funny if you hadn't already seen it happen.

On November 16th 2027, Theo Fallon (Clive Owen) sees the "Baby Diego" story on the 24-hour news station at the coffee shop, and as he exits, it explodes. He's left with a constant ringing in his ears ("It's your cell's last swan song," his ex-wife, now an revolutionary, tells him. "Enjoy it while it lasts."), and for his pains is given a mission to obtain "letters of transit" for a cargo wanted by the revolutionaries and probably anyone else wanting an edge: a very pregnant woman named Kee, who in this world is looked a miracle. Fallon has been put-upon to to see to the safety of madonna and child. Echoes and echoes of stories we've heard before run through this movie as we follow Fallon and his miracle try to reach a group called "The Human Project" via a ship called "Tomorrow."

It sounds precious. But in Cuarón's telling its horrific. And any lapse into sentimentality is seen as relief. Much has been made of the (apparently) continuous takes of "action sequences" takes place inside a car travelling in reverse...and they are jaw-droppingly marvelous things (and all the more effective because there's no editing to be seen, and events happen in seamless "real" time). There's also a sequence that has to be the slowest chase scene ever filmed, but is just as nerve-wracking because of it.'s not so overwhelming that questions don't come up. Much is made of Fallon's being irresistable to animals...but that would mean the animals are still being born eighteen years after the last human child was born. Maybe it's that flu thing not crossing species, but that the question comes up means you have the time to think about it. I also wondered why no hell-bent revolutionaries would think of shooting out car-tires. FarmerScott wondered if British cars in the future had dome-lights...or for that matter, key alarms. Little chinks in an otherwise armored-up film adaptation that has extraordinary cinematography, production design (as much work went into this vision of the future as in "Blade Runner" but seems much more real) and stunt coordination. And terrific acting by Michael Caine, Julianne Moore (less neurotic that usual), Chiwetel Ejiofor (who's in every third film I see these days) and Clive Owen as the man who has big shoes to fill.

It's an amazing, hard-hitting, relentless, passionate, smart film. But I can't say I enjoyed myself.

"Children of Men" is a full-price ticket.

*Both "The Waste Land" and "Children of Men" share the last line "Shantih Shantih Shantih"

**(she of "
Commander Dalgleish" fame)

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