Cinema is undergoing its version of pop music’s British Invasion from decades ago. Call it the Hispanic Invasion, there are a number of Spanish speaking directors who have started coming of age in the last few years and who are bringing some quality cinema to our screens. Alejandro Amen¡bar, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonz¡lez I±arritu are three such talented Spanish speaking directors, as is Alfonso Cuar³n, director of the sci-fi flick Children of Men.
Set in England a couple decades hence, the movie tells the tale of a world collapsing into chaos. War, poverty and famine afflict most of the globe’s inhabitants causing desperate people to attempt to flee to the relative safety of places like England. Though far from a Garden of Eden, England at least is one of the last hold outs against the chaos, though it teeters on the very brink. There does, however, appear to be a solution to the world’s troubles: it has been nearly two decades since women last were able to become pregnant. As the story’s protagonist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) puts it in the trailer (I believe the line was cut from the final version), “In another forty years it will all be over.”
This line, and the uncaring way it is delivered, encapsulates Theo’s take on life. With no future to build for, and very little worth experiencing in the present, Theo seems to be wandering purposelessly, doing just enough to stay alive for the occasional small pleasure until his time runs out. But then Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), a former flame now a member of a resistance group trying to help immigrants in England, contacts him. She wants Theo to get transport papers for a young foreigner so that she may move across the country. Tempted by the money offered, Theo agrees only to discover that the young woman he is helping is an expectant mother.
Children of Men gets it right in a number of ways. It is unfailingly realistic in its portrayal of routine life and human action. Scenes and elements of everyday life are juxtaposed with the more exciting aspects of the story. These two aspects, the ordinary and the extraordinary, act as foils to each other. When too much action and too many amazing circumstances are thrown at a viewer, they start to feel mundane. But when they are contrasted with the truly mundane they maintain their ability to excite rather than lose their edge. Children of Men makes great use of this contrast so that the action and the chases and the danger thrill us without ever needing an overdose. Because of the skillful manipulation of the director, a predawn escape from a house becomes as exciting as, indeed more exciting than, any number of car, boat or plane chases in movies like xXx or Charlie’s Angels.
There is a scene in the movie where Theo and his charge are in a small row boat and two planes fly overhead to bomb a mist enshrouded refugee city in the background. The planes tear through the air above them and the mists light up with the explosion of the missiles. Apart from being a beautiful shot it is thrilling, like it would be if it actually happened to us in real life. But how exciting would a flyby be in a movie like, say, Independence Day? So much extraordinary action is hurled at the viewer in that movie, and so few ordinary small moments, that it takes the detonation of the White House itself to elicit some sort of response. Through its judicious mixing of the ordinary and extraordinary, Children of Men gives us more thrills than Independence Day with none of the overdosing. Congratulations are in order for Sr. Cuar³n.
All of the pillars of moviemaking are well taken care of here. The cinematography, the directing, the editing, the acting… but there is another thing I noticed about Children of Men that helps separate it from the pack. There is a great attention to detail, and a very understated way of giving it to us. Much thought and attention doubtlessly went into the little things, like government billboard slogans in the background. Never lingered on, they subtly help flesh out the world and make it real for us. Also there is the young man who, having no doubt spent his life addicted to video games, cannot muster the most minimal of human interactions without medication to focus him. It’s not an integral part of the plot, nor is it explained within the movie, but again it fleshes out the world for us (and provides the director with a chance for some social commentary, perhaps).
If I had to fault Children of Men, it would be for the script itself. It is essentially a chase story. A good one, but not a great one. There is a fascinating world and fine actors in interesting roles along with a perfectly well conceived and well balanced story, but it does not, in my opinion, rise to the level of greatness. There is nothing at all wrong with it, but it is missing the touches of genius that would make it sublime. But the script is a complaint only because it lags a bit behind every other aspect of the endeavor. In most movies this script or something equally good would be a highlight.
It looks like once again we have spent several months in disappointment only to have the year’s best movies piled on at the end. For a while it looked like The Departed was going to stand pretty much alone, but now a whole slew of promising movies are coming our way. Children of Men may be chief among them.