Classy, sophisticated science fiction movies are a rarity these days, even in the more liberated but budgetarily limited independent sector. Thankfully, we’re lucky to be receiving at least three this year: The Fountain, A Scanner Darkly, and Children of Men. Although Alfonso Cuaron’s latest is not as SF an experience as I’d hoped, it’s a far more impressive film than I could have dreamed of.
Loosely based on P.D. James’s rare excursion into speculative fiction, Children of Men is set in Britain in 2027, a despondent place given that women have been unable to conceive children for the last twenty years (I’m glad the trailer avoiding Mr Voice intoning “in a worrrrld… where women… can’t have babies”). Bored office worker Theo (Clive Owen) is unexpectedly recruited by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), now the leader of a terrorist group fighting against an increasingly oppressive government. Theo must escort a teenage girl, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to the coast where she can be taken to the Human Project, a near-mythical organisation devoted to the preservation of humanity. Theo soon discovers that Kee is the first woman in twenty years to become pregnant.
James should be applauded for fashioning such an ingeniously simple science fiction conceit, but Cuaron is less concerned with the ‘how’ than the ‘what next?’ Children of Men may feel so little like SF due to its spectacularly integrated futurism; this is a plausible future landscape free of pomp and circumstance, and the portrayal of near-future technology advances today’s innovations without being overblown, thus fitting in nicely with the very contemporary – albeit heightened – urban dystopia that Britain has become. The welcome lack of exposition makes this future even more credible.
Even so, the film is very coy about its SF roots, but this is forgivable given the realism and power that puts most films of any genre these days to shame. This is just a superbly made film, notably for the incredible camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki that even a technical neophyte like myself can marvel at. His work is not only gorgeous to look at frame-by-frame, but the one-take shots that populate Children of Men are awe-inspiring in their ambition and emotional effect. The action scenes are given a punch of immediacy by the camera’s refusal to cop out and make a cut, as Lubezki moves around inside cars, jumps out of them as policemen are shot, and then gets back in again as the characters escape. The race-against-time sequences here are the most nail biting I’ve watched in a long time, largely due to the bold camerawork. Plus, the approach works for more dramatic scenes, as Michael Caine’s reclusive political cartoonist reveals some of Theo’s past to Kee while unbeknownst to them Theo stands at the foreground of the shot, listening around a corner, and we must juggle the movement at frame right and Owen’s stone-faced reaction at left.
This culminates in the film’s staggering climax during an uprising, captured in a single take of what must have bee 10-15 minutes as Theo pursues Kee amid a raging street battle. Bullets fly and embed in walls, missiles explode tanks in front of us and show us what little is left, explosions rock buildings in the foreground – it’s a stunning achievement in modern cinema that must be seen to be believed, as Cuaron revolutionises the somewhat gimmicky single take experiment by filling with such action and devastation that is so realistic that the lines between captured-on-film, miniature work, and CGI is blurred completely. See the film for this sequence if nothing else. This believability extends to an incredible simulation of childbirth, the first time I’ve seen it on screen in fiction, no doubt since no-one has been able to re-create it sufficiently until now.
Owen doesn’t strike any new notes here, but he’s such a fine Everyman that he carries this effortlessly, contributing greatly to its realism. Claire-Hope Ashitey is tremendous as Kee – she has the other major part in the film despite the publicity, and she’s more than up to the task. Michael Caine is a hoot as former political cartoonist Jasper, his long grey wig helping him disappear into a role for a change. Although he’s a laugh, one of his scenes mid-way through is utterly wrenching in its mix of tragedy and defiance, one of the most affecting scenes of its kind that I’ve seen in a while.
Where Children of Men doesn’t succeed nearly as well is its engagement with the political and social issues that the scenario sets up. The dialogue rarely gives us many avenues for discussion, which sensibly restricts Cuaron from explaining the cause of the infertility crisis, but otherwise hinders the film’s topicality. Plus, it portrays a Britain seized by xenophobia and crackdowns but is still nowhere near as politically bold as V for Vendetta, although Children of Men is more plausible and frightening in its lack of theatricality. A more credible future, yes, but not as a thought-provoking a one, sadly.
Even so, Cuaron crafts very subtle characterisation and the lack of Hollywoodism – no exposition and no characters giving sassy reactions under fire or ending scenes with a disbelieving one-liner – marks this as a film for grown-ups, and more satisfyingly, an SF film for grown-ups that serves as an excellent example for the endless naysayers of what speculative fiction can do. And the climactic single-take battle – the most visceral and astonishing of its kind since Saving Private Ryan – will almost certainly go down in history for immersing us in a war zone with unflinching intimacy.