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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Children of Men (review)

A Bang and a Whimper

It’s over. We’re done. This is the world ending with a bang and a whimper. Women — everywhere, every one — are infertile. Or maybe the problem is with men. But this is what it comes down to: No more babies. Ever.

It’s twenty years from now, twenty years after the last baby was born, and on the day when the youngest person on the planet is murdered, that Children of Men opens with a bang of its own: a terrorist bombing on the streets of London. Or is it the British government behind the ongoing bombing campaign (as it is later suggested), looking to justify its ongoing oppression of the British people and its expulsion of all foreigners? As the rest of the world is going to hell (New York’s been nuked, for one), “Britain soldiers on.” But at what price?
There’s so much despair and anger and grief layered just into the background of Alfonso Cuarón’s film that I can’t shake its gray grimness — I’ve been haunted by this film for weeks now, wanting to see it again and almost afraid to, which is almost exactly like how I simultaneously can’t bear to watch and can’t bear not to watch footage of 9/11 again and again. This is a real horror movie, a horror movie for those of us who can’t or don’t want to have to turn our brains off at the movies, and to witness the totally plausible breakdown of everything is soul-crushing. And the layers extend into the deeply personal and hence even more deepy affecting, too, through Theodore Faron, a former social activist now just getting through the day working as a civil servant. He’s walled himself off from the daily nightmare around him so much so that he does not appear overly startled when the coffee shop he’s just left one morning on his way to the office explodes behind him. So much so that he can dismiss with disdain the global outpouring of anguish for “Baby Diego,” the celebrity last baby whose death as a young man, the world’s youngest person, has people sobbing at their desks in Faron’s office (shades of 9/11) and leaving piles of flowers and teddy bears on streetcorners (shades of Princess Diana). You understand why Theo has shut down — it’s the only way to survive. And yet, Clive Owen (Inside Man, Derailed), as our stand-in, is too emotional an actor not to let Theo’s underlying misery and hopelessness bust out in aching flashes: his Theo is not shut off, he’s just pretending to be, trying to be. He can’t, not really, not deep down, and so his misery and hopelessness becomes our own.

Oh man, this is not a fun movie, not in any way, but it is profoundly thrilling in a way that so few films are. It’s passionate without being maudlin, even when it comes to that topic — babies! — about which the sentiment could have been invented. It’s intellectual without being academic: it doesn’t see a divide between being a thinking person and a feeling one. It’s cinematic without giving in to the worst impulses of filmmakers to be purely visceral; Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) gives us one extended sequence toward the end of the film, a pitched urban battle between British soldiers and a citizens’ uprising, that is a spectacular — and spectacularly hellish — example of filmed terror, of an artist’s mastery of his medium, of the joining of riveting action and immensely tender emotion. I want to cheer Cuarón for making a science fiction movie that defies all the asinine stereotypes of the genre as it typically gets depicted on film — this is the rare instance where the movie is actually better than the book it’s based on, the novel of the same name by P.D. James. But mostly, I want to cheer Cuarón simply for making a movie, of whatever genre, that so brilliantly condenses many of our fears and anxieties of today — about overreaching governments, about the public’s willingness to cede hard-won freedoms, about our own relationship as a species to our environment — and deploys them in a story that’s close enough to reality to feel like a kick in the gut and fictional enough to make us (hopefully) take a step back and say, Hey, are we doing the right thing?

And then the final genius of Children of Men is that it is not without hope. Theo comes to his own awakening of hope when he gets caught up — via his old activist friends, including his long-estranged ex-wife (Julianne Moore: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Trust the Man) — in a mission to ferry a young girl who may represent a new beginning for humanity to a mysterious organization called the Human Project. Does the Human Project even exist? Is the girl’s promise a fluke, or is it something that the rest of the planet can share? Children of Men offers hope… but it does not offer easy answers, and even any answers, except that to give up, to not fight till the very end, is the worst way to face the end.


MPAA: rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • Claire

    Yay MaryAnn!

    I’ve been dying to read your review of this…dammit I knew you liked CoM ’cause I saw where you ranked it among ’06 films.

    CoM knocked me out as no movie has for a long time (and I say that in a year that boasted The Departed and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and The Science of Sleep and…). I needed some solidarity here ;-) Thank you! XXXX

    Seeing Clive Owen up on the homepage as the latest BF gave me a distinct thrill…we sisterhood of connoiseurs. Ain’t it wonderful Owens wasn’t Bond so he could do CoM?

    I’ve been half in love with Cuaron since A Little Princess anyway – Y Tu Mama Tambien and PoA sealed the deal. But even so I was not prepared for the brilliance of this film. Cuaron takes your typical movie genres – dystopian future sci-fi, chase flick, action pic – and blows them to pieces. Cuaron’s kinetic camera just won’t let us off the hook – there’s so many layers of reference and context, so so much happening around and through and beyond every frame that it feels like it’s happening to US at the same time it’s happening to Theo. I have to see this again, ASAP. I agree with you – this is the rare case where the film is better than the source material. Thank God somebody still makes movies for smart people.

    I’ve always loved Clive Owens but his work here is something special. I ain’t ashamed to say I was a a tearful wreck at the end of the movie.

    Of course, the probelm with making movies for smart people is that A) some people are too dumb to get it (“it’s depressing”, “there’s no character development” and my favorite “it’s too formulaic- there’s no surprises”) and B) even your own studio doesn’t know how the hellto market your movie.

    CoM is apparently getting overlooked during awards season, and that’s too bad – not because I think Oscars et al mean anything but because it would be nice to nudge the BO a little more. OTOH, maybe CoM will open wide better than I think.

    Just an aside – I suspect you will find the upcoming Amazing Grace a bit too earnest to love…but I thanked Michael Apted at the Heartland FF just for putting Ioan Gruffudd, Rufus Sewell and Benedict Cumberbatch in the same movie (amongst Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and Ciaran Hinds.) Some years, I love the movies.

    Keep up the good work. I’ll send money again if I ever have any.

    Happpy movie 2007, Claire

  • OK, just WHEN does this movie open in anything other than “selected” cities – and who selected those cities, anyway?

    I’m afraid this gem is going to disappear before it had a chance to appear, wind up on some cut-rate DVD release here in the US, and become a “cult classic” before it has a chance to show the studio that we want more movies like this – films where you don’t check your brain at the door.

    (Imagine a scream of frustration here.)

  • MaryAnn

    COM opens on 1200 screens tomorrow, Friday 1/5. That’s still a fairly small “wide” release, but it will get to a ton more cities.

    This movie needs to be see at least once on a big screen — especially that urban combat scene I mentioned — but I can’t wait for the DVD, because there’s so much going on in the background that it scream for the crystal-clear pause capabilities of DVD. Ads on the sides of buses, newspaper headlines, all that kind of stuff — Cuaron created an intensely rich world here, and I want to explore every inch of it, even if I wouldn’t want to live there.

  • Danielle

    CoM is in town finally this weekend. A friend of mine in England insisted on torturing me by mentioning that it was in theatres there “months ago!”. So anyway, I’m stoked about seeing it tomorrow night.

  • Aaron

    I agree, this is a movie that makes you ponder for a while after you see it. I was also impressed by it’s genre defiance. I think the urban combat scenes were just as intense as anything I have seen since Black Hawk Down, and that is impressive considering it is not a war film. I’d comment more, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. However, I will say this. I was somewhat annoyed by its heavy handed “in your face” political statements in the beginning, but it is still a great film.

  • Ah. Just saw it last night. While my daughter and her best friend saw Pursuit of Happyness, which I could not bring myself to watch because of the hardness of life I knew would be in most of that movie. Well I wonder if I would have seen COM if I had known what it would be like. I hope so.

    I haven’t seen many movies that removed me from my immediate surroundings and perceptions to the extent this one did. Afterwayds, seeing the mall security guys blocking the way back into the mall (now closed) made me feel vulnerable. “You can’t stay in the entrance. You have to go outside or go into the theatre!” Many of us post-movie-watchers seemed to be wandering around the foyer in a no-man’s land, me trying to text my daughter to tell her my movie was over, but mainly because I needed to know she was all right for some reason.

    Out in the car, I wanted to talk to someone about the movie and went through the list of names in my phone, but the only person who was a possibility didn’t answer. I was thinking “Wow, I’m really glad I saw this movie, but I don’t think I could watch it again.” But I’m already considering it. Not many movies these days impact me to this extent, probably because I’m less impact-able.

    Gosh, it was lusciously ugly and achingly understated and sweet and suspenseful and tragic. There’s a lot to ponder here in the idea of No More Children. The despair, heartbreak, and insanity that consumes people in this movie are conceivable responses. I wonder how much of our conception and belief in eternity and the immortality of our souls, and hope, in general, is tied into the reality of and underlying urge for perpetuation of our species. Not only is children’s laughter gone, but when someone has a true smile in this movie, it is like a startling ray of light. So when you see it, it has meaning of archetypal proportion.

    I agree that the big screen is a big asset to experiencing this movie. There’s so much to notice, I’m sure I missed a lot, but what I saw was revealing and meaningful, informing of the culture of that humanity. I would say something about Clive Owens but I don’t have the togetherness of mind at present. But as to his character, I think it is remarkable that this was a hero without a gun in the midst of perpetual weaponry, and you don’t see that often. Okay, I’m probably going to see this film again.

  • MaryAnn

    I wonder how much of our conception and belief in eternity and the immortality of our souls

    Well, I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife or supernatural soul, and I’m still completely distressed by the thought of the human species coming to an end someday. I place MORE hope in the here and now, and in the survival of humanity into the distant future precisely because I don’t think there’s anything else waiting for us when we die. Who and what we are will live on only through our children and through what we do while we’re here, and if there’s no one to live on and no one to remember us and no one to ponder what we did, then it does seem that everything is pointless.

    I think it is remarkable that this was a hero without a gun in the midst of perpetual weaponry

    MAJOR SPOILER BELOW (if you’ve been able to keep from hearing too much about the film):

    That’s an excellent point. Theo is “heroic” not because of physical strength or superior firepower but only because of his character as a human being. And maybe even as a “father” — we could consider him the spiritual father of Kee’s baby, even if he isn’t the biological father.

    END OF SPOILER

  • Miles Green

    Im pretty sure you missed the point of the entire movie.
    Abortions make human life a disposable thing. Children
    of Men points out the extreme value
    of human life and why it should never be thrown away.
    The scene where Clive and the girl are walking out of the
    building being attacked near the end, both sides stop fighting to
    marvel at the miracle of life.
    This is the point! Life is not disposable
    and should never be thrown away.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh. Oh my. You think *Children of Men* is an anti-abortion screed? Oh dear.

  • Hi MaryAnn:

    I just wanted to thank you for championing such an incredibly intelligent, gritty film. Today’s cinematic landscape is as bleak as any talented artist’s vision of a dystopian future and the only semblance of hope are filmmakers and films that truly make us feel and think for ourselves.

    Thank God there are film makers like Alfonso Cuaron, who let us be big boys and girls and truly engage in a cinematic experience rather than being spoon-fed tinseltown gruel and cookie-cut schmatlz from a production line of cliches and recycled garbage.

    Kudos to Universal for getting behind this project – it’s a pity they haven’t clued in and got behind the marketing of it as well.

    Best,

    Guy

  • Clark

    During the emotional scene where both sides stopped fighting I thought of what kind of meaning the author/director was trying to deliver to me. First being the fact that human life is not diposable, contrary to what is done to those in the camps. Second , the sense that our children are the main reason we strive to better our world. We don’t want war but peace for our children. In the movie, when the ability to procreate is lost, they don’t have a reason to promote change.

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