By Michael Andreacchio
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 bleak dystopian thriller is more than meets the eye.
An episode of the 1950s western TV series Trackdown featured a character named Walter Trump who claimed he would build a wall in order to protect a town from the end of the world. Whether it was coincidental or an obscure prophecy, 70 years later Americans are seeing a similar scenario play out in the media with another man named Trump.
Many people have speculated on just how the world will end. Will humankind go out with a bang or a whimper? End-of-days prophets are nothing new, from Nostradamus to Al Gore there’s always going to be someone to pander to the existence of fear of the unknown.
The fact is life as we know it is fragile. Any number of cataclysmic events could occur. A wandering planet or asteroid could hit earth, or at the very least knock it off its orbit. The molten core of the earth might cool resulting in earth’s magnetosphere collapsing. War could result in mass extinction.
On a long enough timeline something cataclysmic on a global scale will happen – and that inevitably is the aesthetic feedstock for Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men. Adapted from a 1992 novel by P.D. James, in which morally sterile nihilism is overcome by Christianity this bleak film is a staunch reminder that hope is the glue which holds societies together, and we are all in need of some hope these days.
Set in 2027, the film depicts an infertile world, one where the last baby born was 18 years ago. The film happens on the small island of Britain, which appears to be one of the last countries not in ruin. Britain is run by a police state with draconian laws where immigrants are rounded up into pens for deportation.
Society has crumbled and with it all hope. Vestiges of a previous life remain unkempt as a sad reminder of another time. People are keeping up appearances while playing out their morbid charade. Meanwhile, the species’ timer is counting down.
What makes this end-of-the-world story so fascinating are the film’s depths. For instance, in one scene Cuarón uses imagery relating to Michelangelo’s sculpture La Pieta to invoke a sense of loss and adds an important subtext on humanity. The title itself, Children of Men, is a Catholic allegory derived from a passage of scripture in the Bible. (Psalm 90 (89):3 of the King James Version): “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.”
The passage may suggest that we are dying creatures — all our comforts in the world are dying comforts, but God is an ever-living God, and believers find him so. When God, by sickness, or other afflictions, turns men to destruction, he thereby calls men to return unto him to repent for their sins, and live a new life. Naturally, one might expect from the title’s subtext that the atmosphere will be of a darker nature and deal with themes of hope from hopelessness, and rebirth from death.
Cuarón, himself, is an absolute master in creating atmosphere. The film is rich with it. From his grey and brown color pallette, to the super-long lingering shots. Visually Children of Men is unlike most films you will likely see.
The film begins with Theo (Clive Owen) going into a café for a cup of coffee. Dozens of people have gathered to watch breaking news on a small television. The last born child, eighteen- year-old baby Diego, had been killed. Despite on-lookers appearing distraught, Theo makes his way back out to the bustling cityscape seemingly un-phased. As he walks away, the café violently explodes behind him. The camera lingers off his perspective to show the carnage left in the wake.
That one scene’s technique is continually used throughout the film, offering a secondary and oblique view of the world. This switch of perspectives opens up the world to interpretation. It gives us Theo’s world and it gives us the world he lives in. It gives us a very honest and raw view of the world surrounding him, and it says a lot about Theo’s character who eventually becomes locked into mortal combat against this contrasting world view. Here, we see a power struggle with past, present, and future all competing for dominance.
Since this film is set in the future, this could technically be classified as science fiction. However, the world Cuarón creates has a familiar feel to it. There are no robots or laser guns. The story captures familiar threads from the human condition today and exposes them, and despite being made in 2006 those threads have held up. Cuarón poses the question “what if?” and brings themes of fear and hopelessness into the arena with him.
Theo’s character follows this theme of hopelessness. It’s not that he is completely uncaring, just stripped of all hope. It is revealed in the story that he lost his child 20 years prior and his grief-stricken wife left him afterwards to lead a group of freedom fighters called The Fishes. In her book, Creating Character Arcs, K.M. Weiland writes, “the lie your character believes is the foundation of his character arc. This is what’s wrong with the world.” Theo believes that it’s foolish to fight for humanity‒ humanity is a lost cause.
Hope is a key theme in the film. Also, what lack of hope can do to a person. Lack of hope in this dystopian society spawns many fractioning groups to grasp at different causes. All of these groups seem to be in direct conflict with one another. The whole island of Britain is one giant tinder box waiting to go up in flames. The death of baby Diego, and the death of hope is the spark that sets it afire.
Theo is recruited by his estranged ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to obtain travel permit papers for an illegal immigrant named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). We learn that Kee is not just any normal woman. She is the first woman to become pregnant in almost two decades. She also holds the key to humankind’s survival. Theo’s character arc falls into a kind of odyssey. A reluctant hero is thrust into a journey, which leads to a powerful conclusion.
We discover that the group which is harboring Kee plans to use her baby for their own agenda, to further their cause. Fearing for their safety, Theo flees with Kee and her wet nurse in search of an independent group called “The Human Project,” which promises refuge in a self-contained colony. Their fleeing chase scene is beautifully crafted and one of the many moments throughout the film which leaves the viewer breathless.
Credit needs to be given here to cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film. He is perhaps best known for his work on films such as The Revenant, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Gravity. For fans of film, The Revenant there are long-take shots which seem eerily familiar to Children of Men. In both films, Lubezki uses this technique to tell the story about a harrowing return from the edge. The intensity of its grittiness and realism expound the belief that the world indeed has gone to hell.
Amidst Cuarón’s motif of contrasting foreground and background, we get a sense of what is happening in the whole world, not just our protagonist’s world. Cuarón had begun experimenting with long takes in his films Great Expectations, Y tu mama tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This style is influenced by the Swiss film Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000. Cuarón said “I was studying cinema when I first saw [Jonah], and interested in the French New Wave. Jonah was so unflashy compared to those films. The camera keeps a certain distance and there are relatively few close-ups. It’s elegant and flowing, constantly tracking, but very slowly and not calling attention to itself.”
That influence is laid heavily into an intense action scene which follows Theo through a bombed-out city which takes up over 6 minutes and looks flawless. To accomplish a 6+ minute long-take with heavy action sequences takes a tremendous amount of choreography and precise timing. It’s truly a thing of art to watch it work seamlessly.
Pablo Picasso once said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily living off our souls.” Picasso, who is featured in this film, could not have put it better. In fact, being devoid of hope and watching society crumb in the dust of daily living grows to make the look and feel grittier and dirtier. That artistry is enhanced by the film’s continual association of itself with art’s mission to save human life from the emptiness of the quotidian.
Cuarón manages to uncover what is underneath the mundane of human existence. He suggests that a life without hope, art, and discovery is not life itself, but rather just bidding time while existing It is fascinating to re-watch this film and uncover all of the cultural, political, and religious art references as well as the symbolism which are packed into it. Cuarón uses his imagery to cross-reference fictional and futuristic events with real, contemporary, or historical incidents and beliefs.
For example, after Kee gives birth she and Theo are chased into the city streets where it is a war zone. A mother cradles the body of her dead son in her arms wailing into the smoke-filled sky. This was a reference to a real photograph of a woman holding the body of her son in the Balkans, crying with the corpse of her son. It’s obvious that when the photographer captured that photograph, he was referencing La Pieta, the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the corpse of Jesus. So, we have a reference to something that really happened, in the Balkans, which is itself a reference to the Michelangelo sculpture. At the same time, we see the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David earlier in the film.
The film is looked at by some as a sort of Nativity story as well. It was released on Christmas Day, 2006. It featured religion heavily throughout. At one point, Kee when asked who the father of her child was, jokes by telling Theo that she was a virgin. The birth of her baby happens in a barn opposed to a stable, but still the same humble beginnings.
The score by John Tavener, (a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church), whose work resonates with the themes of motherhood, birth, rebirth, and redemption in the eyes of God, called his score a “musical and spiritual reaction to Alfonso’s film”. He uses a lot of hand-on-strings instruments. His intention in doing so is to give the score depth and to add a human element to his work.
Why are females in Cuarón’s world infertile? Why don’t we get more of the origin story behind what we, as an audience, are walking into? Cuarón explains, “There’s a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations … It’s become now what I call a medium for lazy readers … Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I’m very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema.”
What sets this film apart is the depth and layers to it, and I have only just scratched the surface of everything they packed into the 1 hr. 54 min. running time. If you have yet to see this film, drop what you are doing and watch it. It’s the kind of film that will leave you wondering why you have never seen it. However, if you have seen it, watch it again, and try to catch all of the subtle nuances, subtext, and references this film includes.
Categories: Art & Entertainment