3 Reasons You Need to Watch Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Birth’ This Week

By  · Published on April 17th, 2014

Nicole Kidman in Birth

Fine Line Features

It’s a little too early to be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Birth, a movie where “10 years later” has significance, but I’d like to get started on paying commemorative tribute to Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 masterpiece for a few reasons. Each of these reasons is actually a new movie with some relevance to Birth, and while that makes it sound like the earlier movie is something so ahead of its time that it fits better among the output of 2014, the pertinence is mostly a coincidence.

The first reason/movie, however, is rather obvious. Glazer’s first feature since Birth is currently in theaters, and it couldn’t be any more worth the wait. Outside of both movies beginning with a kind of natal moment for a main character and the way they could be aesthetically connected, reverse-sequentially, through snow-filled settings, there’s little similarity between the movies.

The new one, Under the Skin, is about an alien disguised as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) who predatorily lures men into a trap. Birth is about a little boy (Cameron Bright) who claims to be the reincarnation of the husband of a wealthy widow (Nicole Kidman). Her family thinks it’s all a ruse, maybe to predatorily lure the woman into some sort of financial trap.

I guess in a way, both the alien and the boy are visitors from up above. But the latter has to do with the afterlife, and therefore I thought of it again this past week while watching Randal Wallace’s Heaven Is For Real. In that movie, a little boy (Connor Corum), much younger than the one in Birth, claims to have visited Heaven while his body was in surgery for a ruptured appendix. And he has to also convince a number of people that his experience is the truth.

Both Birth and Heaven Is For Real feature scenes in which the kid is being asked about this unbelievable experience. Both characters offer up details that they couldn’t possibly have known. Bright’s Sean is just too familiar with the life of the man he says he is to be making up the idea out of the blue. He knows all about people who’ve otherwise never had contact with the 10-year-old boy. Corum’s Colton knows about things that occurred outside his operation room, things he only could have seen while traveling out of his body. He also purports to have met people he’d never known in life, some of whom he wouldn’t have even known existed.

The third reason/movie is Transcendence, a science fiction feature by cinematographer Wally Pfister in his directorial debut. Based on theories of “the singularity,” it stars Johnny Depp as the world’s leading expert on artificial intelligence. Following an attempt on his life, this scientist uploads his consciousness to a computer and then the Internet, thereby becoming the first self-aware machine. He kind of proves that an afterlife is for real, albeit one that’s very different from that of both Heaven Is For Real and Birth.

What he (or it) has trouble proving, though, is that he’s actually Will Caster, the character played by Depp, or just an approximation of him, a clone or something else within the cyber-verse that thinks like Caster and can relay the man’s memories convincingly as its own. Along with the proof of identity comes a simultaneous proof of love required by Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), which is very reminiscent of what Sean has to do for Kidman’s Anna in Birth. The boy may as well be a robot with implanted with the memories of her late husband.

Transcendence is mostly concerned with questions about what makes us human, while Birth is just interested in the concept of love. It’s hard to watch Glazer’s movie and not wonder about your own relationships and feelings of “love,” whatever that even means. When Anna starts falling for Sean (who has the same name as her husband), is it because of what’s in her own head, because of what’s in his head as far as knowledge and memories – all just data in the brain – or because of some magical bond between their souls? Is physical attraction and compatibility not important whatsoever? (Imagine if the love your life suddenly got a new body, that of a child – how would that go?)

Before its relevance to this new trio of movies, Birth rounded out a trio of its own a decade ago. It was one of the three best films of 2004, the others being Shaun of the Dead and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What do they all have in common? They explore what it means to be in love and whether that’s something more to do with the brain than “the heart” (Shaun is less a deconstruction of love than of a relationship, as I recently analyzed, but I still like to lump it in with the two more-cerebral-minded examples).

It’s too soon to say what the best films of this year are, but I can be sure I’ll be ruling both Heaven Is For Real and Transcendence out (and I like both, the latter enough that it could make the cut for my best sci-fi list) while Under the Skin has a good shot of staying my #1 for 2014 through December and beyond. And yet I don’t think Glazer’s latest is quite as great as Birth. It’s a bit more stunning visually, but it hasn’t given me nearly as much to think about.

Birth has such a lasting power that I’m still contemplating it 10 years later, and it’s making me contemplate other movies more deeply in part as they relate to it, too. Because of this, among other reasons, I consider it not just one of the best of its year but also one of the best of its decade and one of the best of its century so far.

With Birth’s birthday still months away, perhaps I can continue to try convincing everyone of those facts throughout the year. For instance, there are three other reasons you need to see the movie now, whether you have or haven’t before. First is the enchantingly metaphoric prologue scene (minus the unnecessary voice-over) of Sean running through the park, during which we’re especially pulled in by Alexandre Desplat’s heralding flutes and intense timpani. Second is the Passion-ate scene at the symphony, particularly for Kidman’s sudden flinch as if the actress herself was intentionally yet unexpectedly scared by Danny Huston during her extended emotional close-up moment. And third is Huston’s hilarious scene where his character loses it and starts spanking Sean.

I could go on, but instead you should. Here are all the ways you can check out Birth: DVD (only $5 on Amazon!), iTunes (purchase only), Google Play (purchase only), Vudu (purchase only) and On Demand via Starz and Encore.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.