What if human fertility ground to a total halt? This is the premise behind the 2006 movie Children of Men. The year is 2027 and it has been eighteen years since the last child was born. The movie surmises that human fertility is the glue that binds society together. As a result by 2027, with the exception of Great Britain, nation states have ceased to exist. What has replaced it is worldwide anarchy and mass migration. As the world’s last state, Great Britain is a premier destination for the desperate and disenfranchised. Not surprisingly, Great Britain wants nothing to do with these people. When they are discovered, they are quickly arrested, taken to horrific refugee camps and deported.
Great Britain itself borders somewhere on the shaky precipice between governable and anarchy. What remains is a nation that bears more than a passing resemblance to modern day Iraq. Guns are plentiful. Police are everywhere. Random bombings occur regularly. Civil rights are a sometimes thing. It is a nation that is more shell than reality. It has become a soulless nation. Those who remain appear to be hanging onto their sanity, if at all, then by a thread. Life seems purposeless. It seems that humanity is a few decades away from an ignoble end.
Director Alfonso Cuarón (who also directed the 2004 movie Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban, which I really liked) presents this bleak future for us to ponder. It joins a list of dispiriting and nihilistic films that are hard to watch yet nonetheless compelling. It is as if you could skip ahead two decades and see this happening in your own neighborhood. It suggests that the boundary between anarchy and civilization is easily breeched. In some ways it is far more terrifying than movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because while arguably it is less bloody (although there is plenty of violence in the movie) it feels far more plausible.
Not many films fully pull you into the reality of war, but this one does. If for some reason this film does not give you enough of this experience, you can watch other movies like the excellent Oscar winning film No Man’s Land (2001) or Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. Unlike those films, Children of Men actually brings a tiny measure of hope to a world gone to hell. It comes in the form of a miracle pregnancy by a black woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). A group of British citizens who are fighting for immigrants’ rights (since Kee is African) protects her. At least that is what it appears to be on the surface. It becomes Theo Faron’s task (who is played by Clive Owen) to protect Kee and her child. Theo is chosen because he has connections in a British ministry. This will allow him to get a pass that will allow the woman to traverse from one fortified zone of Great Britain to another. Kee must meet a rescue ship off the British coast that reputedly will offer sanctuary and care for her and her miracle baby.
Cuarón chooses to enhance the realism of the film by having it wholly shot using hand held cameras. This successful technique adds the necessary intimacy that might otherwise feel lacking. He also adds an assortment of mostly unknown actors. This turns out to be a virtue because by being largely unknown, it makes the film feel more realistic. Michael Caine is the exception. He plays an eccentric ex flower child named Jasper who lives with a vegetative wife and a dog in a compound deep in the woods.
Cuarón’s eye for authenticity is near perfect. I do not know how he directed some of those urban combat scenes because many of them consist of minutes long single camera shots. They unfold in the midst of urban combat, involving hundreds of combatants, tanks, windows and walls being shot up and many, many dead and dying people. All of it is flawlessly realized. As a result, it is impossible not to feel like you are in the midst of the unfolding horror. That Kee is with baby dramatically adds to the stakes and the drama. I do not think that any mother can watch this movie dispassionately. You simply ache for Kee, her baby and for humanity to somehow be resurrected from what feels like Armageddon itself.
In short, Children of Men is a remarkable film. It is well worth your time to rent if you have the stomach for this sort of cinematic experience. I am not sure why the film got short shrifted at the Oscars. While it received a few Oscar nominations (but no awards) for cinematography, editing and adapted screenplay, Cuarón really deserved a nomination for Best Director for this movie.
Children of Men is a wrenching, plausible and fully realized portrait of a world in our near future where anarchy is coupled by scenes of surreal poignancy that are too special to describe here. I am intrigued enough by the movie to consider buying it so I can get the DVD extras. Some of the special effects (such as the birth of Kee’s baby) are just so astonishingly realized that I remain almost as intrigued by how Cuarón managed to pull it altogether as I am by this captivating yet anguishing movie itself.
If forced to find something to complain about, it is that the movie ends on a note of ambiguity. While I understand why it was done, I still would have preferred more resolution to this movie.
Overall, it is an excellent and compelling film, fully worthy of the 3.6 out of 4 stars that I am awarding it even though, as a rule, I steer away from violent movies.
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