Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men opens with a man (Clive Owen) ordering a cup of coffee, watching a news report about the murder of “Baby Diego,” the youngest person on the planet. People all around him are grieving the death of the 18 year-old, but the man, Theo, gets his coffee and the camera follows him outside. He pauses, the shop blows up, and an injured woman walks at him.
Rarely does a film’s opening shot exemplify everything so great about the film, but if ever there was an example, this might be one. Emmanuel Lubezki’s long-take mimicked the war-reporting during the War on Terror, the reliance and importance of media in telling the story is foregrounded, and the details of the year 2027 slip out organically and incidentally, as if Cuarón and his five (!!!) co-writers were not even trying to build the dystopia. It’s a happy accident. But these are the pillars of perhaps the most impressive speculative fiction film since Blade Runner, and one that has been unmatched since. There is no improved technology, just the frightening vision of what our world looks like now after our failure to contain unnamed problems makes it clear that our children will no longer be having it better than we did. The logical extension, then, is what happens when things are so bad we can’t even conceive of “our children”? Children of Men is that childless world where we stare into images from the past, distrust everybody, and won’t believe a single beacon of hope until it looks us in the face and proves its own existence. It’s the world where the hope is the sound of children laughing but there hasn’t been a baby in more than 18 years. Even if you fix one problem, you still have all the others, and the clock is ticking. In Children of Men, hope is a pregnant woman, the promised end to the infertile era, but is that a fix for the dystopian world or is it too late? In other words, if we could solve global warming, would it solve world hunger and stop the wars?
These are just a couple of the questions that Children of Men aims to answer, but not through big monologues or clear statements of ideological intent but formally through camerawork and mise-en-scene. The film is shot and edited in discussions and safe scenarios, particularly those between Theo and Jasper (Michael Caine) but reverts to vérité during scenes of violence or the moments that will lead up to them. The conventional passages allow Cuarón to highlight photos—unexplained but obviously of fonder times—and newspaper clippings of bombings and deaths, largely in the Middle East. Other media, however, can’t be trusted: false information is regularly disseminated on TV (throwing the beginning of the film into question), and the billboards that saturate London in a fashion more 1984 than Blade Runner, informing residents that avoiding fertility tests is illegal and encouraging them to turn in any illegal immigrants that they know of under the threat of prosecution. Once turned in, they will be sent off to “refugee camps.” It’s a thinly veiled parallel to Nazi Germany, but that only makes the implications even more startling: Immigrants come in search of a better life. Turning them on their backs instead of assisting them is not just cruel, it’s inhuman.
Other, less crucial details are just as impressive as the political ones. Theo wears a “London 2012” sweater—not bad for a movie made in 2006 that takes place in 2027. There are pets everywhere, which is appropriately close to a literalization of pets being like children and family in a world that has gone nearly two decades since the most recent human pregnancy. A short scene with a damaged Statue of David precedes a meal where the Guernica sits in the background. Even the kind of music these people listen to—we get Deep Purple, Radiohead, and King Crimson in a short timeframe” makes it clear what these people value and what they remember, as well of commenting on the lack of trustworthiness in corporate media. With the rise of social-networking as a source of news in the years since Children of Men’s release, as well as tensions between TV news networks that seem to elevate every day, the message, to not buy into the political voices that surround you—is especially relevant. The music also provides sly allusions to the film’s most prominent (non)image of infertility, that of silence in the playgrounds. Deep Purple’s “Hush” is an overt reference to the quiet, but the lyrics to “In The Court of the Crimson King” reflect the same anxiety, while “Life In A Glasshouse” provides a bleak and hopeless look at rebellion and taking action. Digital Mystikz’ “Anti-War Dub” lays it all out in the name.
The role of media is never more meaningful and clear than when it manifests itself in Cuarón’s seamlessly executed digital long-takes. Even the belief that two characters are able to throw and catch a ping-pong ball with their mouths isn’t too much, and the film reaches its climax, in which Theo and his crew are trying to get to a boat while in the middle of a shootout, just as the camera rolls for its longest shot. The intensely choreographed scene makes temporarily turns Children of Men into a war film, and when blood splatters on the camera, it’s a genius reflection of the trickery of media (the blood disappears later) as well as the horrors of war.
None of this even accounts for the story of Children of Men and its telling. There are constant references to Theo’s past marriage and his child—almost always by other characters—that builds human interest while also abstaining from telling us what to think of him as image conflicts with dialogue. Early in the film, Theo claims that even if fertility came back, it’s too late, the world has already been tarnished, but it does not stop him from trying to take Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the world’s only pregnant person to a boat in the hopes of reaching the mythical “Humanity Project.” Theo changes from a distant man (both emotionally and from the camera) but gradually becomes increasingly determined and optimistic. He’s a poignant and almost invisible sci-fi archetype, a representation of what it means and takes to be human.
The longest take in the film is the start of the end of Children of Men. It culminates in a moment where reactions alone suggest a better future before reality re-enters and gunfire begins again. Still, when the haunting final moments come to a definite close, the first thing we hear is children laughing. In any other hands, it would be easy for these moments to be cheesy or false, but in Cuarón’s, the adjectives would go the other way if they were strong enough to do justice.