Children of Men
Good science fiction is hard to come by, and Children of Men is of the best kind. That is, SF that is not worried about phasers, laserguns or space travel, but with the human element: putting people in extraordinary circumstances allows SF to articulate issues and develop themes that are most of the time glossed over due to their complexity and scope. In Children of Men the basic speculative premise is extremely well done, that in 20 or so years mankind will have become sterile.
It is oddly reminiscent of Casablanca, as a reviewer pointed out, in having the disaffected lead character (Clive Owen) providing the means of egress of an individual that represents hope for the sake of an old affair. The writing is indeed top-notch, for the most part, avoiding excursions into Christian thematics or sentimentality. There are a number of techniques Cuarón employs to this effect. One is the more realistic and even unromanticizing of storyline and exposition: we don’t get an explanation of how humans became sterile or how the many of the world’s cities were decimated. We never get the full picture, and this fragmentation of perspective is definitely one of the best aspects of the film, since it focuses on the effects and the human struggle rather than some obscure and irrelevant causation. It plays off like an exaggeration and a progression of our own present, which rings true to contemporary audiences and emphasizes the drama rather than technology.
The film is technically brilliant; part of this whole discourse of fragmentation is carried out in a series of complex and extremely long takes (which do have a couple of cuts here and there, but nothing really noticeable, the effect is the same). One of them, which involves Clive Owen and Julianne Moore getting attacked in their car is beautifully orchestrated. By eschewing conventional framing and editing, the scene plays out in an horrific burst of urgency and reality, disarming the viewer completely. It achieves the effect of a continuous single camera take (although it’s not really, but doesn’t matter), and the technique is used a couple more times, to equally amazing effects.
So despite being intelligent and technically flawless – it’s even got a King Crimson song in it! – the problem is that it is fundamentally heartless. The whole thing about the great hope for mankind does get borderline sentimental towards the end (i.e. the name of the boat), but the fact is that it’s not very interesting. The technical side, with great directing, editing, production design is ultimately wasted with the thinnest of plots: this is especially apparent towards the ending, when you realize the movie is not going to have a third act. Despite having a great concept and being expertly actualized, there is very little going on on terms of content: the action just moves from setting to setting, dialogue and characterization is sparse, characters (even, or should I say, especially the main ones) are killed off as mere plot devices. I understand that the lack of a third act (or even a first act, as it can be argued) is part of Cuaron’s project of fragmentation, as there is no attempt to give a cause or a consequence to this story, and the main characters being less important than a baby and thus being killed, a matter of present versus future. However, a failure in achieveing a better balance between form and content works against the film because of its subject matter. Being about hope, most of all, it needs a little bit more of emotional resonance than this storyline delivers. In the end, it left me cold, failing to stir me as it should have. Still, it is great to see the genre being treated with intelligence and good taste, something we sadly don’t see nearly enough.