Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Clive Owen, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 12/25/06 (limited); 12/29/06 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Alfonso Cuarón's exploration of a world in chaos, Children of Men is a film of simple power and powerful simplicity. The film is the best kind of science fiction in that it doesn't consider itself science fiction and instead concentrates entirely on the human elements of the story. Cuarón, who has had some noteworthy accomplishments before this film but never achieving this sort of magnitude of vision and execution, shows himself a master storyteller here. He takes the conceit of the plot and hits the ground running. Children of Men is an immersive, transporting experience, both devastating and hopeful, and a film that is emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally exhilarating. Cuarón and his fellow screenwriters take the basic structure of a thriller, weaving ideas of contemporary and universal relevance seamlessly throughout, and bend the clichés and formulas just enough to give the sense that anything could happen. With his technical crew, he creates a futuristic world—sometimes inspiring but mostly haunting—that is completely believable. As our central character is immersed in the world of the story, that world slowly reveals itself without lingering too long on any specific element but giving enough of a glimpse to make an impact. And the film's final impact, one of hope in the face of utter despair, is tangible.

The year is 2027; the city is London. A newscast tells informs that all women throughout the world are infertile and delivers sad news to those who have survived the chaos that has ensued since: The youngest person alive has died. People are devastated, but in a local coffee shop, Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), a government beuoracrat, hears the breaking news and only stops long enough to get his coffee. A long tracking shot follows him outside, and as he prepares his drink, the shop explodes. Terrorism throughout the country begins to escalate, and Theo is kidnapped on the street and thrown into a van. In a makeshift interrogation room, he is confronted by Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), his ex-wife and leader of a terrorist group whose focus is the rights of immigrants, all of whom are illegal in England. She wants him to help get transport papers for someone to get them through the country without any problems from the authorities. As it turns out, the person is a young girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who somehow is pregnant. The idea is to try to get her to The Human Project, a mysterious organization that Theo's journalist friend Jasper (Michael Caine) says might not even exist.

The screenplay by Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby based on the novel by P.D. James almost boils down to the formula of a road trip movie. Essentially, Theo travels the country and encounters different groups and people who help shape the picture of this futuristic society. A contact named Nigel (Danny Huston) who can help Theo get the papers necessary to transport Kee has Michelangelo's David and Picasso's Guernica as part of his collection of saved artwork, and a young boy also present at the meeting is playing a holographic game at the table. While a small detail, it shows Cuarón's attitude toward the film's presentation of futuristic technology: Show it, but don't focus on it. People are able to order anti-depressants and suicide kits (the slogan: You decide when), but Jasper woes that marijuana is still illegal. Billboards throughout London encourage citizens to report any kind of suspicious behavior, especially if it involves immigrants. Jasper's wife is near-comatose, the result of some kind of government torture, as we learn from Cuarón's camera panning over newspaper clippings to give us a quick history of how England and the world at large came to this point. How it all happened is not important, of course, and the screenplay concentrates on how the upheaval has affected and continues to affect those living in it.

Theo and Julian lost a child, throwing their marriage into its own upheaval, and the pain is still just under the surface, as is shown in a scene between the two on a bus that quickly turns into an argument. While the script seems to be heading in a certain direction with the two, one event fairly early in the film shatters multiple expectations as to what it will be about. The screenplay shatters a few other expectations—the plot's multiple double-crosses leave a lot in doubt—and plays with formula. There's an ingenious scene where Theo, Kee, and Miriam (Pam Ferris), another of Kee's helpers, attempt to make a getaway in a car that won't start. Before that, there's an ambush sequence—seen entirely in a single, long take from the interior of a car—that pans out in unexpected but realistic ways. The high point in terms of action comes in an extended scene in an urban war zone. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot from the hip in this sequence, giving it a frightening, almost documentary style (blood spattered on the camera just lingers there), and while the shot is divided by a few cuts, it amazingly plays like one, long seamless take.

Thematically, the film is simple but immensely poignant. Cuarón's inclusion of the immigration issue is timely, and a scene where Theo and Kee find their way into a "refugee camp" for undocumented immigrants is particularly unsettling. The film is wise in the way people enter or reenter our lives suddenly for no apparent reason and ultimately leave them with unresolved finality. Jasper raises the concept of faith and chance at play in the world, and while certainly a clichéd idea, it holds relevance within the story. The central theme, as corny as it sounds, is hope. The film doesn't needlessly ponder any of these ideas, instead marrying them directly to the story. The central concern, whether or not the child is born, is not the end of the film, and once the child's fate either way is sealed, the film starts affecting the spirit instead of the brain. For one long moment at the climax of the urban battle scene, everything comes to a standstill, and the emotional impact of that moment is overwhelming. Clive Owen is film's emotional center as Theo's apathetic shield slowly deteriorates as the world goes further to hell. A scene late in the film where Theo recalls a simple parenting technique is absolutely heart-wrenching.

While Cuarón's technical mastery in composing these images, choreographing organized chaos, and creating this world is astounding, it's his ability to elicit deeper significance and emotional weight out of these that remains long after the film is over. While it is still early in what is sure to be a long career, this could possibly turn out to be Cuarón's masterpiece, but however that turns out, Children of Men is a cinematic powerhouse.

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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