Features a father figure played by a beloved elderly British actor, a weary, loner hero pulled back into a fight he’d abandoned long ago, a quest to escort a secretive woman across a treacherous border, and grounded, forward-thinking sci-fi that gets a lot about the future scarily right. Escape and salvation are linked to a boat which might not even be real. The immigration metaphors really pile up. People generally regard it as a masterpiece.
But enough about Logan, already. I’m supposed to be talking about Children of Men.
As part of the cinematic blindspot series I started earlier this month, I am circling back to older classics I somehow missed the first time around. I picked Network as the first film in the series because of its prescient commentary on the devolution of news and status as an Oscar winner. Children of Men, a movie barely a decade old, I picked purely out of shame. See, for far too long now I have been pretending that I’ve already seen this movie. The past year, in particular, has been a real shame spiral as I bluffed my way through several conversations about Logan, my second favorite film of 2017, when the conversation turned to its many similarities to Children of Men.
“Yeah.” “Totally.” “Uh-huh.” “And how about that one part where…”
These are but some of the purposefully vague phrases I utilized.
Yes, shame indeed, Game of Thrones gif.
But, no more! Thanks to Starz, I can finally say with all honesty that I have seen Children of Men. And….yeah, it’s totally similar to Logan. Damn. Guess I still can’t shake some of those old, vague phrases.
Released on Christmas Day, 2006, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men focuses on a dystopian future where hope died long ago. In 2027 London, former activist Theo (Clive Owen) goes about his days completely disillusioned with the world. He barely engages with his work, co-workers, strangers on busy city streets or in coffee shops. He just wants to survive each day, which is not always a guarantee given the terrorist bombing he barely survives in the opening scene, and spend his free time getting high with old friend/pot dealer Jasper (Michael Caine).
They each have reason to tune out and toke up: the world is on the brink of collapse. It’s been 18 years since the last human child was born. A mysterious global infertility has brought about widespread chaos and civil war, leaving the UK as one of the last functioning governments, albeit a government which runs its country as a police state with strict immigration laws and Gestapo-like enforcement groups. Terrorist strikes are common. Protectionist, xenophobic propaganda videos play in public transportation vehicles and on billboards everywhere. Human life has been devalued and all hope seems lost.
So, ya know, things could be better.
But then Theo is bribed by his estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) to obtain transit papers for a young refugee named Kee (Clare-Hop Ashitey), whom he is to escort to safety. Suddenly thrust into one dangerous situation after another, Theo quickly learns what makes Kee so special: she’s pregnant. The hope for humanity, it turns out, lies in the belly of an illegal immigrant and neither militant rebels nor government entities can be trusted to fairly look after her. That’s why Theo absolutely must help her reach a sanctuary at sea where scientists might be able to study her and find the cure for infertility.
Very loosely adapted from P.D. James’ 1992 novel of the same name, in Cuarón’s hands Children of Men function as both the kind of film you can write academic essays/make passionate video essays about as well as something which can be enjoyed simply as a work of undeniably bleak, but ultimately hopeful cinema. Want to debate the film’s religious symbolism or lack thereof and/or note the ways in which the border-closing, isolationist plot strands surprisingly parallel what’s happening right now with Brexit and elsewhere in the world? Go right ahead. Just want to enjoy a road trip-action-survival story packed to the brim with simulated single-shot sequences? Children of Men’s got all of that, too.
In fact, Children of Men is arguably a better, more resonate movie now than when it was released. The projections it makes about the future function, sadly, as a funhouse mirror to some of what we’re seeing in the world, and its adherence to single-shot action sequences is in step with one the cinematic trends of the day. If you thought, for example, Atomic Blonde’s 12-minute hallway fight/car chase single-shot sequence was impressive then you clearly haven’t seen Theo dodging bullets and ducking into building after building during Children of Men’s climactic, 7-minute, single-shot battle sequence.
It’s the same, immersive style of filmmaking Cuarón would later bring, in Oscar-winning fashion, to Gravity only to then be outdone by his amigo Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman. In Men, it mimics some of the war news footage which was emerging at the time. This often gives Theo the feel of an embedded reporter just trying to sink into the background until the next crazy thing plays out in real time before him and forces him into action.
Here’s a clip discussing the film’s various long takes, taken from the DVD’s “Making of” featurette:
And that reliance on real-time, one-shot sequences is not something Children shares with Logan. The films feature nearly identical hero’s journeys, but James Mangold and Alfonso Cuarón are two very different directors when it comes to action. Mangold’s Logan is more of a comic book-western mash-up whereas Cuarón’s Men leans more boots-on-the-ground, dystopian-era war story. One of them is bleak, for a comic book movie, but still contains a third act twist involving a rage monster clone and plenty of blood-splattering action. The other drapes its bleakness over you as if it means to suffocate you with it before finally relenting in the end, letting you come back up for air and rejoice that even when all looks lost humanity still has the capacity for wonder and hope.
The films still share many similarities but are actually quite different in tone and slightly vary in that Theo’s journey is about the search for hope whereas for Logan it’s about family. But if you admire one of the films you’ll likely also appreciate the other. While Logan blew me away with what could be done in the superhero space Children of Men showed me just what had already been done in the sci-fi realm. That it took me this long to see what I’d been missing is my own loss, but if you have somehow yet to see Children of Men then rectify that as soon as possible.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Children of Men is a masterful bit of filmmaking featuring an often overwhelming bleakness which is sparingly but quite powerfully disrupted by bursts of hope and welcome reminders of the goodness in humanity. A box office flop in its day, it has gone on to inspire countless other films and filmmakers, most notably Logan, yet over a decade after its release it remains as vital and relevant as ever.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- SPOILER WARNING: Now I really want to see a video mash-up of Logan and Children of Men where Patrick Stewart’s final words are replaced with Michael Caine’s: “Pull my finger”
- Children of Men is mentioned in Ben Fritz’s new book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies. Sadly, he regards it as being in the same category as Michael Clayton, Zodiac, Charlie Wilson’s War, Syriana, Collateral, and Public Enemies: big budget, original movies that would stand virtually no chance of being made by a major studio today. For the record, Children of Men cost $76m to make and grossed just $70m worldwide. Today, I imagine Children of Men would have ended up becoming a limited series on a premium cable channel or streaming service.
- Here’s a wonderfully insightful video essay analyzing the script construction and shot selection of Children of Men versus Logan:
Children of Men is currently available to stream on Starz.
Next Up: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome
What do you think of Children of Men? And what are some of your own cinematic blind spots? Let me know in the comments.