Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón

Double Take: ‘Children of Men’ (2006)

The future is a thing of the past. But all that could change in a heartbeat, as Children of Men makes clear.

Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón
Universal Pictures
25 December 2006 (US)

Steve Pick: What would happen if babies stopped being born, and the population of the world would be shrinking every day? Would there be chaos? Would nations lose all control, and countless interest groups battle over resources until the only civilized place on Earth would be England? By civilized, I mean a place where all non-native people would be treated worse than Donald Trump’s most horrific dreams?

Would the good people of England fetishize the youngest person in the world, sobbing uncontrollably when he is killed because of a refusal to live up to the image people have of him as some sort of special being? What if one of the outside people turned up pregnant?

These are the questions in the minds of the creators of Children of Men, a sci-fi action thriller from director/co-writer Alfonso Cuarón just nine years ago.

Steve, I remember renting this by mail from Netflix back when it was relatively new. I’d seen it before, and I was surprised to realize, while watching the rented version, that I’d forgotten the entire last half hour of the film. (Or perhaps I watched it too late at night, and slept through the ending.) I love the way we are just thrown into the story without much more explanation than the questions I raised in the first paragraph. If I think too hard about it, I’m not sure the world Cuarón envisions is the most likely to come from sudden infertility, but I’ll accept that it is and just follow Theo Faron (Clive Owen) on his journey from one who doesn’t care about anything to one willing to die for the future. You?

Steve Leftridge: First of all, as this is Double Take #25, we’re five percent through the Great 500 Films, so congratulations. But I had no trouble seeing the 2027 world Alfonso Cuarón creates as realistic. In fact, among the dystopian end-times works of the last few years, I was totally sold on Children of Men (along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) as examples of how things might actually look when the shit finally hits the fan.

If widespread infertility somehow took hold — and I can think of less plausible ways in which Earth might shake off the nuisance of humanity — it seems to me that, with extinction looming, base instincts of self-protection would take over, governmental structures would collapse, and the whole civil cooperation model would be a thing of the past.

It reminds me of our last Double Take on Annie Hall; young Alvy found out that the universe is expanding and therefore eventually doomed, so he stopped doing his homework: “What’s the point?” he asks. In a world without children and with the world population dwindling every day, what would be the point of building or maintaining anything?

What I find fascinating about the beginning of Children of Men is that people are still kind of giving the community thing a shot. People are going to work, coffee shops are still open, public transportation is still running. Of course, that’s just in England, the last government still up and running. (One of the most chilling moments in the film is seeing that mushroom cloud over Manhattan for a split second in that video on the train.)

But even in England, it’s clear that people won’t be participating in financial or legal systems for much longer. The graffiti that Theo sees from the train sets the general mood: “Last one to die please turn out the lights.” Other details indicate that people are barely hanging on: Theo’s boss might still be putting on a tie and showing up for work, but when Theo pops into his office to ask if he can go home, we see his boss subtly putting a pill in his mouth.

Pick: You’ve picked up on one of the many delights in this film, the way it feels like a lived-in world, with subtle details floating in the background which may not affect the plot, but which make the characters seem real. There’s never an explanation for the disability of Jasper’s wife, for example. Seeing his care for her, combined with his relentless affability in a world seemingly running out of reasons to be cheerful, helps us to believe there are many possible reactions to hopelessness.

Seeing him prepare a painless death for her while accepting a horrific death for himself, however, is a level of characterization beyond what is necessary, but which is appreciated, nonetheless. However, during that whole scene, once Theo pulled the car over to watch his friend be executed, I kept shouting at the screen to get the hell on the road! Why would you delay in that moment? You’ve got the only pregnant woman in the world to protect!

I’ve seen four films directed by Cuarón, and with the possible exception of the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there seems to be an escalation of road trips running between Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and his most recent, Gravity. In all three films, protagonists learn much about their capacities as human beings by taking to the road, journeying from the life in which they do not quite feel special to one in which they know what they survive and even thrive.

Children of Men takes Theo from being a restless cog in the failing attempt at normal society to becoming an action hero who can at least help give humanity another 20 years to figure things out. What did you think of the ways Cuarón shows Theo slowly becoming a person who can act and not just react, even as reactions become more and more important?

Leftridge: Theo is a great character, and Clive Owen was the perfect casting choice to bring him to life. Some of Owen’s best moments are in those reactions that you mention, often with a frozen look of shock. And, boy, does Theo have a lot to be shocked about.

He’s shocked when a bomb destroys the packed coffee shop he himself just left, he’s shocked when he finds out that the person who has abducted him is his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), he’s shocked when Kee (Clare-Hope Ashity) shows him the world’s only pregnant belly, he’s shocked when he realizes that Jasper (a never-better Michael Caine) is not coming with them to Bexhill, he’s shocked when he’s eyewitness to both Julian’s and Jasper’s murders, and he’s shocked when he finds himself delivering the first baby to be born on the planet in 18 years.

I love his understatement when they are finally in the canoe at the end: “What a day.”

I think all of these incredible circumstances reveal the decency and integrity in Theo’s character that were present in him all along. Like everyone else, Theo has been beaten down by humanity’s impending doom and the overwhelming suffering everywhere he looks. Add to that his own personal tragedy, namely his son’s death from a pandemic flu, and it’s no wonder that Theo is detached and driven to tipple from a bottle of hooch all day. In Theo’s words, “It’s too late. The world has gone to shit.”

Yet Julian had told Kee that Theo was the only one whom she could trust. Julian was right, after the Fishes turn out to be just as corruptible as the anti-immigrant Brits they are fighting against. Julian was married to Theo before these apocalyptic events and knows that Theo alone would hold to the integrity and strength required to get Kee to the Human Project.

Speaking of which, did you see the final scene, with the ship approaching, as a happy ending? Hope and the essential goodness of humanity wins out in the end?

Pick: I think that’s what we’re supposed to see, but that new baby has a pretty hard life ahead of her. Maybe the people on the boat are decent humans, though we’ve been fooled before by everybody not played by Julianne Moore or Michael Caine. But even if they are, we don’t have any evidence that this child isn’t the only one on Earth, and we don’t have any reason to believe there will be any other pregnancies.

Is Kee capable of having another baby? Are other people? Will this child? I certainly don’t want Cuarón to answer these questions. I like the fact that he puts on screen a seemingly hopeful ending that remains entirely ambivalent.

I want to talk a little bit about that last half hour, because it’s interesting to me how I managed to forget so much of it from the time I first watched Children of Men. Once Theo and Kee are on the run, the tone of the film shifts for the most part to action sequences. Most of the human touches are gone. Earlier, when Theo and Kee were escaping from the compound, the action was shown to display Theo’s resourcefulness in a horrifying situation, and you could see the wheels turning in his brain with each success and temporary setback.

But, when they reach the city overrun by militants, character seems to be trumped by video game sequences. With time out for the unforgettable actual birth onscreen, the rest of the long sequence has them on the run from shooters who pop up from behind random corners. To me, the whole last act feels like filler, as we wait for the inevitable final curtain for Theo and potential rescue for Kee. Can you sell me on this being better than I think it was?

Leftridge: I was totally enthralled by the last half hour. First, I found it to be bladder-emptyingly suspenseful. The screenplay had already taken enough unsentimental turns that I wasn’t too sure if Theo would recapture Kee and/or the baby or what combination of them would survive the onslaught of Bexhill. Second, it’s an absolutely incredible action sequence from a technical standpoint, if for no other reason than that so much of it is done with a single take.

Cuarón obviously gave himself some impossibly hard challenges with the unbroken sequences in this film — the opening shot from the coffee shop to the explosion; the amazing four-minute-plus shot when the car is attacked and Julian is killed; and the horrific, blood-on-the-lens, six-and-a-half-minute sequence at the end, when Theo is trying to get to the bombed-out building to find Kee and the baby. I was mesmerized by the sheer complexity of the movie-making — the choreography, the number of people hitting their marks, the set design, the overwhelming number of moving parts in general. For it all to work in a single take is astounding.

You’ll have to tell me if you find the technical aspects of this sequence largely irrelevant to its overall impact on you as a viewer. But if there is a “human touch” element, as you say, that makes this sequence indispensable, I’d argue for the cease fire as Theo leads Key and the baby out of the building, when both sides — the rebels and the British soldiers, along with the miserable immigrants caught in the crossfire — all stop fighting and stare in wonder and awe at the miracle of the baby. I found that moment of silence moving and intense and key to the film’s overall faith in the existence of hope within a chaotic world.

Pick: Well, hell, I didn’t even notice the technical accomplishment at that point. You’ve talked me into wanting to take another look, but for now, I’m going to stick with my storytelling prejudices against long action sequences that look like video games. Yeah, clearly it’s an impressive achievement to have pulled all that off in a single shot, but for me, it didn’t have the tension you felt it did.

Honestly, I was a bit confused in places, trying to figure out who was whom and what was happening. I assume that’s partially a filmmaking choice, making us feel that we’re in the middle of a ridiculously chaotic and horrific situation. But Theo’s escapes all felt unearned to me; perhaps it’s the fact that I’d seen it before and I knew he would rescue Kee and the baby. Or perhaps it just was an acknowledgement that in warfare, random chance brings success as often as heroism does.

I’d forgotten the moment of silence scene until you just reminded me. That struck me as hokey, but then again, I’m more cynical about the question of hope in this film than you or Cuarón are. I stand by my love of the first two-thirds of Children of Men, but consider the last act to be an admittedly technically astounding emotional misfire.