By Anthony Miglieri
The first scene in Children of Men depicts a grey, somber crowd gathered in a shop, watching the news: the youngest person on earth, aged 18, has been murdered. One man glances at the television, buys a coffee, and trudges outside. Moments later, the shop explodes, flames and downed people scattered and screaming. It gets worse from there.
The greatest achievement of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men is that it presents one of the most tactile, believable science fiction worlds yet struck to celluloid; in this sense, it exists in the rarified company of Blade Runner. Like Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Children of Men does not so much create as a world as much as it seems to simply allow it to exist, as if it had always been there. There are none of the information dumps that grace lesser films; backstory is sparse and is delivered slowly and tactfully, forcing the audience to grapple with the established reality as the film’s characters do. In this place, dead animals smolder off the side of the road, pedestrians are kidnapped in broad daylight, and citizens shriek helplessly from within cages. The rest walk on.
We eventually learn that the ruinous state of society is because women have become infertile, thus halting the continuance of the human race for the foreseeable future. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a corporate worker who is roped by an ex-lover (Julianne Moore) into an underground group’s scheme to transport a young woman who has inexplicably become pregnant. However, Theo soon questions the group’s motives, and ends up on the run with the possible savior of the human population. The particulars of the plot become less and less important as the film progresses, and although the plotting is structurally sound, it serves mostly as a skeleton upon which to pile endlessly fascinating philosophical musings, details of the bleak universe, and visceral, muck-splattered action.
Alfonso Cuarón’s virtuosic direction is an essential component to the film’s atmosphere, and therefore the film’s success as a whole. As Children of Men traverses the ravaged landscapes of 2027 London and the surrounding countryside, Cuarón never lets the camera rest as it captures much of the action in unbroken extended takes. The director and his team create a sort of vacuum in which everything seems to play out in real time: anything can happen and no one is safe, as evidenced by the abrupt killing of a major character early on. While it’s obvious they are painstakingly crafted when viewed in hindsight, these extremely protracted shots make the experience uniquely involving and tense, not to mention awe-inspiring on a purely technical level.
From its direction and visuals to its production and sound design, there is very little technically to quibble with in Children of Men. The performances, which include the aforementioned Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, as well as Chiwetel Ejiofor (of 12 Years a Slave) and an ex-hippie Michael Caine, all operate perfectly within Cuarón’s vision, complementing the bleak surroundings with simmering drive and, at times, glimmers of tenderness. If the film falls a little short of the greatness that many feel it achieves, I personally believe it’s because of the structure of the narrative. The same relentlessness that lends Children of Men much of its excellent, dreadful atmosphere also has a strange effect of muffling some of the impact of certain plot beats when viewed in hindsight. Since the film consistently runs at such a linear and feverish heat, the cohesion from episode to episode seems to deteriorate, leaving the overall structure a little mushy. Again, this is a bit of a nitpick on my part in an attempt to justify my not-quite love for this beloved piece, and might fade with a rewatch.
Children of Men is a sometimes forgotten giant of the past decade’s cinematic science fiction output, and should be experienced by anyone who has an appreciation for originality and craftsmanship in the genre. Although it is certainly not for the faint of heart, Alfonso Cuarón’s bold, bleak work is certainly vital in its thoughtfulness and vigor. If you haven’t had the chance or inclination to watch Children of Men in the 10 years it’s been out, do it now.