Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Alfonso Cuarón has proved himself a versatile director, having excelled with romantic comedies (Sólo con tu pareja) and blockbusters (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban); he even made an exemplary film of the old children's chestnut A Little Princess.
Cuarón outdoes himself in 2006's Children of Men, a timely science fiction tale that shows human civilization in 2027 (reference: Metropolis) entangled in an apocalyptic nightmare. P.D. James's novel wades through a societal breakdown that seems only a little more extreme than today's headlines: all of the world's governments have collapsed into chaos, anarchy and violence: "Only Britain Soldiers On". The Britain that prevails is an authoritarian nightmare that scapegoats immigrants as terrorists and stages its own terror bombings to ensure that the public approves of its drastic methods. Immigrants are caged in public and forcibly deported. Newspaper headlines and TV bulletins announce nuclear bombings overseas, starvation in refugee camps and torture scandals; lethal pills are dispensed for free and cults have arisen that embrace mass suicide.
Following the lead of John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, a single fantastic (or not so fantastic) event has shaken the world to its foundations. Women have become infertile, and no babies have been born for seventeen years. The specter of extinction has undermined humanity's hope for a future, and with it the foundations of civilization.
The tightly scripted Children of Men follows ordinary guy Theo Faron (Clive Owen) into a desperate adventure. Narrowly escaping a café bomb blast (reference: The Battle of Algiers), Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), now a leader in the resistance group called The Fishes. Theo volunteers to help the activist fugitives when Julian introduces him to Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a black refugee who, to Theo's amazement, is pregnant. Julian wants to smuggle Kee out of the country and into the hands of The Human Project, an independent group of environmental radicals. It's implied that if the government captures Kee, it will kill her and propagandize the baby as the offspring of a "posh London woman".
Unfortunately, Julian has been betrayed by a faction within her rebel group that wants to exploit Kee as a rallying point for their planned uprising. Theo must take personal responsibility for getting Kee to an offshore rendezvous with The Human Project. Helping him are Miriam (Pam Ferris), an experienced midwife who talks too much, and Jasper (Michael Caine), a retired political cartoonist caring for his wife Janice (Philippa Urquhart), a reporter made catatonic by government torture.
Children of Men references all manner of political and post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi. The proposed rendezvous with the mysterious Human Project boat clicks with the film version of Day of the Triffids, as does the moment when Kee disrobes to display her pregnancy: Theo at first thinks she's trying to buy his loyalty with sex. The Road Warrior; No Blade of Grass and other post-apocalyptic tales are echoed in the gangs that raid the countryside, and the fortified farm used by Julian's rebels. The closest thing the movie has to a 'road warrior' character is Syd (Peter Mullan), a ruthless, mercenary security guard in an appalling ghetto-prison for deportees. Most importantly, Children of Men equates Britain's state of siege with the political madness of It Happened Here: the government uses Nazi hate and fear tactics to extort cooperation from its own citizens.
No Blade of Grass staged a harrowing live-birth sequence merely for exploitative shock value. Children of Men uses a 'miraculous birth' to represent the renewal of hope for humanity, accompanied by a strong Christian theme. Our concern for the welfare of Kee and her baby gives Cuarón's film a positive energy lacking in most post-apocalyptic films. The screen teems with evidence of decay and destruction -- the streets are crowded with the hungry and homeless and fields are piled high with burned livestock. Life stumbles forward for those with the correct passport and a good job, while the rich can still enjoy a day at the dog races. A special museum has been set aside to safeguard famous works of art "rescued" from other countries; Theo regards Rembrandt's self-portrait and asks why it's being saved at all, considering the fertility crisis: in seventy years nobody will be alive to appreciate it.
The movie's humanist aims are clearly anti- everything Bush, Cheney and militarist. It's also eerily prophetic in that it predicts a 2008 flu pandemic that claimed millions of lives, including the son of Julian and Theo. Key to Cuarón's politics is Michael Caine's Jasper character, a superannuated hippie said to be modeled after John Lennon. Jasper has retreated to nurse his torture-victim wife, listen to rock music and smoke dope provided by a corrupt policeman. The entertaining, endearing and loyal Jasper seems to represent the failure of his generation. Julian's outlaw rebels don't seem much of an alternative. Split between flaky altruism and ruthless pragmatism, The Fishes are too easily betrayed from within.
Children of Men comes together in a powerful sequence of a kind not attempted since silent film days. More than one sentimental anti- Great War picture showed the sky opening up over a battlefield, and soldiers dropping their weapons as heavenly hosts descended from on high. Cuarón achieves a similar 'miraculous' effect in the middle of an ugly military assault on the immigrant ghetto. The emotional uplift is one of the few moments in which science fiction and traditional faith seem wholly compatible: humanity yearns for hope.
Alfonso Cuarón's technique is as sophisticated as his politics. Shot on film but heavily manipulated in digital post, Children of Men's design is cluttered but its camerawork is not. The background is crowded with posters, graffiti and barely-glimpsed details of the round-up of thousands of illegals. most of which Cuarón films in lengthy master tracking shots. The movie has unbroken takes that last for several minutes, including a battle scene and a scene inside a moving car that makes impressive use of a remote-controlled camera. The effect is a feeling of scenes happening in real time, covered by an "expressive" documentary camera.
The show belongs to Clive Owen. Theo Faron is a sympathetic everyman hero who never picks up a gun and finds purpose and meaning in taking responsibility for Kee. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Julianne Moore's more militant comrade in The Fishes. Pam Ferris' amusing midwife-activist is just the most visible of at least a dozen distinctive and eccentric characters struggling in this Anxious New World.
Universal's Blu-ray of Children of Men is a fine presentation appended with good extras. The HD transfer is sharp enough to read the text in newspaper bulletins and to pick out relevant details such as the hooded detainee assuming an Abu Ghraib pose in the background of one shot. DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks serve the film's music particularly well. The older rock cues are classics that might be Jasper's favorites, like King Crimson's "In the Court of the Crimson King".
The extras are headed up by Alfonso Cuarón's The Possibility of Hope, a stand-alone interview docu that presents a realistic assessment of the future of civilization overtaxed by overpopulation and global inequity. It isn't afraid to look at the issues from a radical viewpoint yet ends on a positive note. Theo and Julian is an okay character discussion by Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, while Futuristic Design and Under Attack investigate the look of the film's near-future and the difficulties of staging complex action in director Cuarón's extended takes. A picture-in-picture extra features a pop-up parade of media ads and commercials designed for Children of Men, at their full uninterrupted length. The Deleted Scenes gallery has only a couple of unused clips, and one of them appears to be an alternate.
Also impressive is a demo showing exactly how Kee's baby was created with CGI enhancements. It's interesting to see advanced technology used to fashion something familiar and positive, instead of the usual monsters. Children of Men was released early on in HD-DVD but not Blu-ray; I'm really glad that it has finally come out in the prevailing format.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Children of Men Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Docus, featurettes, deleted scenes, trivia track.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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