A lot of my favorite record albums are ones I didn't rate particularly high at first. They are growers, discs whose charms only reveal themselves over time. The one-off from the Good, the Bad & the Queen is a recent example. As a fan of Blur and Gorillaz, I was amped to hear what Damon Albarn had come up with now. On my initial spin, I was nonplussed; yet, something about it kept drawing me back, and before I realized what was happening, I was playing it all the time.
When I first saw Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, it was part of the busy holiday season. This past December was my first as a regular movie reviewer, and so I wasn't prepared for the mental toll it was going to take as studios shoved out as many prestige films as they could in time for Oscar season. I was catching a film at least every other day, going home immediately afterward and writing them up in preparation for the onslaught of posting that was to come. Children of Men fell somewhere in there, and though I liked it, I consigned it to the middle ground. It wasn't a film I especially hated, but it wasn't one I praised to high heaven, either.
And yet, it was Children of Men I kept coming back to. It was the one my friends were most interested in seeing, and then when they saw it, the one they wanted to talk about the most. Based on a novel by P.D. James, the futuristic drama/thriller kept coming up in conversation. People were intrigued by its plot about a future where man had stopped reproducing, and they were more than impressed by Clive Owen's performance and Cuaron's collaboration with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick's The New World, Scorsese's upcoming Rolling Stones documentary). Even if I was middling in my reaction to the story, I couldn't deny the impressiveness of the camerawork, the filmmakers favoring long, elaborate takes for the action sequences. Extremely complicated scenes were choreographed down to the last detail, their rhythm unbroken by unnecessary edits, making Children of Men feel immediate while also inspiring awe.
The more I talked about it, though, the more I realized there was so much more to Children of Men than I had initially given it credit for. It's easy to pass if off as a straight-up action flick--and I could watch the movie a million times in that vein and not grow bored of it--but Cuaron (Great Expectations, Y tu mama tambien) invites us to go deeper if we so choose, to see our own present within his dark and dismal future.
The Children of Men plot in a nutshell: in 2009, human beings stopped reproducing, making the youngest person on the planet a mere 18 years old. This biological crash led to the greater downfall of civilization, and in 2027, Great Britain is one of the last nations trying to hold it together. Stuck in a gloomy and gray landscape where the heavy fist of the law regularly crushes the steady stream of refugees flooding into the country, Theo (Owen) tries to survive a dull existence, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and solitude. Nearly twenty years ago, his own child died and his marriage to Julian (Julianne Moore) fell apart. He's a former activist who now has a hard time getting active about anything.
That is, until Julian returns and sucks him into a plot to smuggle the first pregnant woman in eighteen years out of the country. No one knows how Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey – how is it she's not even listed on the DVD box?) became with child, but a rogue political group with a design on reinstating human rights for all people is trying to join Kee with the mythical Human Project and give mankind a do-over. As with any such situation, however, people have conflicting ideas about what should or should not be done. Pretty soon, it's just Theo and Kee on the run for their lives.
Cuaron creates a future that isn't so far away from our present as to feel far-fetched. He hasn't advanced technology so far that it looks alien to us, and he keeps the action amongst some recognizable landmarks in order to keep his audience grounded in the idea that this could be where we are heading. Without hitting us over the head with it, he and his cadre of screenwriters advance current social theory to its tipping point, imagining a time where society breaks down, the natural order of things can no longer be taken for granted, and development grinds to a halt. When I first reviewed the movie, I noted how Cuaron only used music from the past to score his movie, and even that complaint has faded on reflection. When children left, so did happiness. There was no longer inspiration for art. Theo's affluent cousin (the always wonderful Danny Huston) preserves the artistic treasures of the past, but the implication is that once procreation stopped, so did all creation. Human life is frozen in place, getting by on the fumes of nostalgia for a time where it was possible to believe that life could go on.
Moreso than he is saving the life of an unborn child, Theo is saving his own life, and by proxy, everyone else's. He's a man who has given up. His friend, the aging hippy and walking parody of ineffectual liberals, Jasper (Michael Caine), calls him a "rebel with a lost cause." It's meant to be a joke, but it's built on truth. Theo is the only man willing to stand up. He's the only one that really cares what Kee wants. It's why Julian told Kee to trust only him, and also the source of my favorite little detail in Children of Men: all the animals in the movie like Theo, even the ones who hate everyone else. No matter how much he tries to cover it up, he's a good guy, and they know it.
We're so trained to expect our action films to be dumb anymore, I don't blame myself for missing the point with Children of Men. If anything, I'm glad I didn't go the other way and get so wrapped up in the ideas that I missed how gripping a film Alfonso Cuaron has made. While so much entertainment lacks any intellectual merit, far too many intellectual pursuits lack entertainment value. Children of Men has both in spades. It was one of the best movies of 2006 and one of the best DVDs you'll buy this year. Don't miss the boat.
So, it's high praise from me when I say Children of Men has some of the best DVD bonus features I've ever seen. Some may grouse about the lack of a director's commentary, but I actually prefer that a thought-provoking film of this kind be left to speak for itself rather than having Alfonso Cuaron explain the movie scene by scene. Rather, I like what he has done here in giving us a bunch of healthy documentaries to chew on, inspiring us to think more about the film without nailing down any one interpretation as the official one.
* Deleted Scenes (2 minutes, 23 seconds): Three short scenes that might have added some color to the background of the movie and Clive Owen's character, but were ultimately unnecessary. (In fact, I think the scene about Theo being unable to pay the rent might have changed how we looked at his decision to "do it for the money.")
* The Possibility of Hope (27:10): This is the real meat of the bonus section. Cuaron has put together a documentary with news footage and interviews with scholars and commentators of various stripes, examining the current global situation and looking at the theories of where we are headed that gave Children of Men its backbone. It's intriguing and heady, and The Possibility of Hope really illuminates what an incredible piece of work Cuaron has made. If there was a commentary on this disc, I'd have really gone for a roundtable of the documentary's participants.
* Children of Men Comments by Slavoj Zizek (5:44): An extended piece of the interview with Zizek from Possibility of Hope. The Slovenian philosopher and theorist discusses his feelings about the movie more in-depth and zeros in on specific aspects of the final film, including what he sees as improvements on the P.D. James novel.
* Under Attack (7:35): A short study of the work that went into the creation of two of the more complicated action sequences: the attack of the bandits on the hill and the explosion in the middle of London. Particular attention is given to the rather ingenious camera made to capture five actors inside a car while all sorts of business went on outside the vehicle.
* Theo & Julian (4:40): Exploring the development of the characters played by Clive Owen and Julianne Moore.
* Futuristic Design (8:40): Focusing on the art direction of the film and the various efforts, some counterintuitive to normal film shoots, to create the "anti-Bladerunner."
* Visual Effects: Creating the Baby (3:07): One of the best features I've ever seen about how footage of real actors and settings is put together with digital effects. Without dialogue or narration, we are shown the birthing scene layer by layer, with power point elements leading our eye to important pieces of the image. It's really remarkable how in a short space of time, the production team gives the viewer so much information about their tools and technique. Also, I wonder if this feature is not listed on the box so as not to tip us off that the baby is fake. Honestly, I had no idea.