Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Children of Men (2006)

'Children of Men' is magnificent film, the best film that I have seen so far from 2006. When I first saw the trailers I was intrigued and looked forward to it, but it didn't grab my attention as a must see. Then the reviews started coming in, and they were pretty much universally positive and many of them were effusive with their praise. My anticipation factor went up a few notches, to that point where you wonder whether you'll end up being disappointed regardless of the quality of the film. Fortunately, I was far from disappointed.

Set in England around 20 years in the future, 'Children of Men' depicts a world that has gone to hell. For some unknown reason women can no longer have children, and mankind is dying out. The realization that humanity's days are numbered has resulted in societies crumbling, and only Britain 'soldiers on' by maintaining a fascist police state to keep everyone in line. The rest of the world sees this police state as being better than the alternatives and as a result refugees arrive in England in droves, so much so that the authorities clamp down on them by conducting raids and rounding them up in camps. The story begins with the death of 'Baby Diego', an 18 year old who was a celebrity by virtue of being the youngest person on Earth. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) looks on in disgust as people all around him mourn the loss of Baby Diego. He skips work and hooks up with his old stoner friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a retired political cartoonist, and the two of them get stoned while discussing the state of the world.

Later, Theo is grabbed off the street by 'The Fishes', a so-called terrorist group that fights for the rights of migrants, that is led by his estranged ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and her deputy, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They need his help to get transit papers for a refugee to move across the country; Theo's cousin is a well off member of the bureaucracy who can acquire such papers. Theo agrees to help them in exchange for money. His cynical world-view is soon shaken however when he discovers that the girl he has to help move, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), is pregnant, the first known pregnancy in 18 years. What follows is a desperate journey as Theo and a midwife named Miriam (Pam Ferris) attempt to get Kee to the 'Human Project' - a near mythical group of scientists working on solving the fertility problem - while avoiding both the authorities as well as the Fishes, who want to use Kee's baby as a symbol for their cause.

The story structure is deceptively simple - it all boils down to an action road movie. And while it can be enjoyed as merely that, the film is anything but simple. 'Children of Men' presents an absolutely compelling and plausible future world, one that is fully realized down to the smallest detail. Technology has advanced (though only marginally given the downward spiral of civilization) yet the film doesn't dwell on technology, instead it depicts it in a matter of fact fashion and just lets it enrich the world on display. It's far more concerned with the themes it deals with, and as with all great science fiction these are themes that are universal and relevant to the real world. By means of extreme extrapolation the 'what if?' scenario is used to present a scary fictional world that acts as a commentary on the real one.

First and foremost is the omnipotent police state that has supreme authority over its people, controlling them to keep them 'free', ruling through fear and propaganda. Law enforcement officials have unchecked power and are able to exercise it callously, as Theo and Kee discover when an immigration officer toys with them without compunction. The state inculcates an extreme nationalist mentality, with refugees ('fugees') being demonized; noticeboards constantly remind people that hiding refugees is a serious crime, and slogans everywhere incite xenophobia. This regime has also fostered gross social inequality, with the masses eking out their living in a miserable, decrepit environment while those in power live in a surreal state of luxury, as depicted in one memorable sequence early on when Theo enters the 'elite' neighborhood to meet his cousin (who lives in palatial accommodations surrounded by original works of art). But it's not just the elite who are at fault; the so called rebels are selfish and agenda driven as well, and the end result is that the people both sides purportedly represent are the ones who suffer the most, being stuck in the middle as collateral damage.

Coming back to the believability of the world depicted, this is realized through all aspects of the film, from script through to production design and direction. The status quo is conveyed through strong dialogue that only occasionally veers into overly expository territory, a flaw that crops up in the early stages and one that is easily forgiven given its necessity. Throughout Theo and Kee's journey, the world and ideas of the film are reinforced and embellished via the places they pass through and the people they encounter. Details litter the screen, from digital billboards and graffiti to people and incidents in the background, and the stark visuals are often evocative of the type horrors we have become familiar with in the real world. The production design incorporates technology subtly - unobtrusive but noticeable if you pay attention - and also convincingly depicts a world that is slowly decaying through neglect. All of these elements coalesce, each reinforcing the other and selling the idea that what is happening is real.

This verisimilitude comes courtesy of director Alfonso Cuaron, the guy who directed the best of the Harry Potter series. The film is grounded in a realistic and bleak style, both visually and tonally, and is unrelenting with not a wasted scene in its 110 minute runtime. There are no false moments, and while the there is an overarching sense of doom and gloom the film actually runs the gamut of emotions; there are some funny moments and contemplative moments between characters, as well as some very poignant and profound ones. Amazingly, while this film is excellent as a sci-fi drama, it also features some of the best and most unique action sequences I've ever seen, ones that feel almost documentary-like in their unflinching realism. There's a thrilling assault on a car by a crazed horde, an insane single take sequence in the middle of an urban battlefield, and even a heart pounding scene in which Theo has to push start a car while being chased by a gang of Fishes. The sense of danger is genuine throughout, and some of the tensest moments actually occur in the smaller scale sequences. It's thrilling stuff, and the best thing is that the action doesn't feel like contrived set pieces, as it all flows organically from the story.

The biggest irony of the film, I think, is that while everything about it makes it sound depressing, it's ultimately a story about hope, hope against the odds, hope that is borne by a guy who at the outset appears more cynical than everyone else around him. 'Children of Men' is full of well written characters, all of whom have their own beliefs and points of view and none of whom can be easily categorized as absolutely good or bad, but Theo is the character who guides us through the movie and is easily the most important. Here I think most of the credit goes to Clive Owen, who is always terrific in everything but really shines in this role. Even when he is first presented as a world weary cynic he gives off the impression that there's much more to him, and as the story progresses we see him take charge and take responsibility for protecting Kee. His heroism is selfless and his personal rewakening is made completely believable through Owen's subtle changes in demeanour.

Owen aside, the rest of the cast does fantastic work as well. Michael Caine is a hoot as the lovable hermit-like hippie hiding out in the forest. Clare-Hope Ashitey doesn't have all that much to do but makes a strong impression as the snarky and very pregnant Kee, while Pam Ferris is appropriately fussy and concerned as midwife Miriam. Julianne Moore is terrific in a small but pivotal role as the leader of the Fishes, convincing as a tough revolutionary figurehead but also able to believably establish a history with Theo in a mere handful of scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor rounds out the main cast and is great as the ambitious and overly idealistic second in command of the Fishes. Danny Huston and Peter Mullan make small but very memorable appearances as Theo's wealthy cousin Nigel and sadistic immigration cop Syd respectively, two people at opposite ends of the system who revel in their power.

This review wouldn't be complete without mentioning the special effects and soundtrack. The effects are, for the most part, completely seamless and flawless, never drawing attention to themselves. And as for the soundtrack, accompanying the excellent sound design is the haunting original score by John Tavener that is used sparingly and effectively. Equally good is the eclectic mix of songs that always feel appropriate to the visuals they accompany. The bottom line is it's a terrific looking and sounding film!

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that I absolutely love 'Children of Men'. Sure, it isn't without its flaws - an occasionally expository script and oddly placed humour, a slightly below par effect, and an arguably overearnest use of symbolism - but the good so heavily outweighs them that they are rendered negligible. It's part sci-fi, part drama, part thriller, part action movie, and all brilliant. Exciting, thoughtful, and moving, featuring excellent performances and stunning visuals; for me, it encapsulates all the best stuff the medium has to offer. It's fast becoming one of my favourites, and I think it's a must see for everyone.

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