It’s only natural to compare Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men to last week’s Movie Klub entry Babel, and that’s by design. Cuaron and Babel director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are part of a new generation of Mexican filmmakers that emerged in the last ten years. Both are friends with Guillermo del Toro, who made it Hollywood first and helped their films get made. Maybe next week we’ll see Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s 2006 film that forms a loose trilogy with Babel and Children of Men, but until then I’ll restrict myself to just comparing Cuaron’s and Inarritu’s movies.
Honestly, for my money, it’s no comparison. Everywhere Babel missed for me, Children of Men hits. For every moment of Inarritu’s film that I felt was artificial and contrived, Cuaron’s vision feels natural and lived-in. I feel no desire to see Babel again, but this must have been my fifth or sixth time watching Children of Men and I was still excited, because I keep noticing something new every time I see it.
Cuaron joins with four other screenwriters to adapt P.D. James’ novel, which portrays a 2027 where the world’s female population has been completely infertile for 18 years. The greatest achievement of the movie, for me, is that from the start the movie’s vision is so deeply and completely realized. Every single implication of the infertility, from future technology to the apocalyptic religious implications, can be seen in this film if you watch close enough.
Part of that is done with very subtle use of computer effects, but most of it is done with breathtaking long shots that would only be possible in today’s digital-camera age. The first action set piece in the movie is an unbroken four-minute single take that follows the inhabitants of a car though a long chat, during a harrowing ambush, and ends with their escape from the police. Cuaron’s camera is so active that it seems almost like a separate character in the movie, a documentary filmmaker who follows Theo Faron (Clive Owen) on his adventure from London across the British countryside.
As with a lot of science fiction, the story is just a mirror to be turned back on the world in which it was created. The fascist Britain that Cuaron imagines is not far removed from George W. Bush’s America. Its attitude toward illegal immigrants seems like it could have come from today’s Arizona (or, at least, today’s Arizona talk radio). The movie creates a great mood that the human race is on the brink of extinction, but that mood is just exacerbating what was already there. In fact, the only time the movie loses its way and gets heavy-handed is when it has Theo straight-out say as much to his best friend Jasper (Michael Caine).
Theo is taking the “drink myself into oblivion” approach to the apocalypse when his estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) asks him for a little favor that will soon prove to be very big indeed. I like Owen in this role, although he gets typecast into “drunken cynical Brit” roles so often that he is almost playing himself at this point. The real strength of his character is that Theo never gets “redemption,” in the way movies like to give it. He never throws away his bottle or receives some fake-looking inspiration. Julian gives Theo one very specific reason to hope, and Theo devotes himself to protecting it, but he never loses the cynicism that caused him to withdraw from the world in the first place.
Unlike Babel, which gets more and more grim until it ends, Children of Men takes a more hopeful look at humankind. There’s no question that Babel‘s main point – we do horrible things to each other every day, and we’re more or less at the mercy of the world around us – is true. However, by itself that’s not a movie. When characters come into conflict with that truth, and have to make a decision about what to do, that’s where your drama comes from.
It’s exactly there that Babel left me cold, and exactly there that I found Children of Men to be incredibly powerful. At the beginning of the movie Theo could just kill himself, but he doesn’t, and we as the audience don’t understand why. Children of Men works as an action movie, but it really delivers the goods as a simple explanation of why Theo keeps going – and why we all do.
Reviewed by Mark Young