Thursday, June 24, 2010

Children of Men Film/Disc Review

In conjunction with the Scientist Gone Wordy (my good blogging friend Rachel), this is our second parallel posting where the pair of us review and discuss a particular and noteworthy film, and its source novel. In my case, I'll be taking a look at the 2006 dystopian science fiction film, Children of Men. I originally viewed this film in the Spring of 2007 on standard DVD as I did not catch it during its initial (and relatively short-lived) mainstream U.S. release the previous year. For this review, I re-watched the film, after obtaining, the Blu-ray Disc edition of Children of Men that came out in May 2009. SGW's keen eye will examine the 1993 book of the same name by British novelist, P.D. James. Rachel's appraisal of that novel, and her look at the differences between it and the film (one she has a special affinity for), can be found using the link below:

The Children of Men by P. D. James

A brief synopsis of the film: in the future time of 2027, the world of man has taken a decidedly bleak and chaotic turn for the worst. The world appears on the brink of a total societal breakdown. Terrorism and environmental damage are rampant, and the few places on the planet where things are seemingly under control (in the U.K. for this story) seem to have gone the fascist, military control route... big time. The reason for all of the despairing calamity comes down to one significant fact: the 18 years of human infertility. Theo Faron (marvelously played by Clive Owen) is one of the lucky ones -- as defined by the fact that he is a U.K. citizen with a job, and not one of the ill-fated refugees. You can tell the military and politicians consider them the barbarian horde by their less than humane treatment of the outsiders. The Britain that "soldiers on" has become the cold gray sanctuary (and a testament to how bad it is elsewhere). The former activist is content to live out the remaining years of shared melancholy in alcohol-induced drudgery with his handful of friends. At least, before they euthanize themselves. Just about everyone here is in a joyless state. That is, until his estranged wife (the wonderful Julianne Moore in the all-too-short role of Julian) re-enters his life with a proposition to find a way to illegally transport a fugitive ("a fugi") across the police state lines.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]

My review: my initial viewing of this film left me with the impression that this was a remarkably disheartening film done with extraordinary skill by the rising Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón. Honestly, I hadn't any mounting desire to see it again anytime soon because of its initial impact. I'll write that off as I didn't know what I was looking at (yeah... that sounds like CYA to me, too). Thankfully, my fellow blogger roused me from that early disregard and got me to take a closer look at it once more. I'm glad I did.
LAST ONE TO DIE
            PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHT ~ graffiti scrawled along a wall
I now believe the story makes an insightful look at humankind's capacity for self-awareness, emotion, and ultimately... hope. Author James' (and the film's screenwriters) concept of making every conscious being in her tale (those left in the resulting pandemonium, that is) painfully mindful to the fact that each of them is the last of their kind is a dauntingly stark idea to come to grips with. For both those on the screen, as well as those watching or reading it. Being sentient is a double-edged sword, it seems. You are aware of yourself (and others), but all too well come to know your time on this earth is fleetingly finite. For most of us, the only comfort found is the fact that we constantly renew ourselves (the species) through human reproduction (naturally or artificially). We take solace in living on through our children (whether they're yours or not).

But, when there are no offspring... you get one denuded and grim future. And it's here that the filmmakers went above and beyond with their story and art direction. They present the audience with a visual terrain that looks like it's headed for its last winter, alright. This is especially so when the story reaches the Bexhill refugee camp. Think of it as a cross between the cold, dreary England shown in Mike Hodges' terrific Get Carter (Michael Caine also appeared in that film plus this one) and Stanley Kubrick's horrific killing ground in the Battle of Huế from Full Metal Jacket. The children of men in this story certainly have a field day with it to be sure. Additionally, one cannot ignore how the movie's producers conspicuously incorporated some recent and stark remnants of the 00's as part of the film's social and political commentary. Once the lead characters (including Claire-Hope Ashitey as the importantly pregnant Kee) reach the climatic third act, the film is packed with allusions and symbolism relating to 9/11, Abu Ghraib, torture, and the political scapegoating of immigrants. And, it is very powerful.

As well, the symbolism of religion is used quite effectively throughout the picture by director/writer Cuarón. The Christian exemplars of the Fishes (the revolutionary group depicted) and flocks (the sheep and shepard walk-through was a tad obvious, don't 'ya think?) were certainly present, and were used to instill a faith in a light at the end of a dark tunnel. All the more, there's the shadow of a Hamas-like uprising presented in the refugee camp, too. Even with all of that, this is essentially a journey film -- Theo's journey. His path from utter pessimism (through the darkest of times and the loss of his dearest friends along the way) to ultimately one of hope at his, and the film's, end remains at the core of the story-line. As a parent of two myself, I was moved to the point of tears at where Theo arrives by the film's surprising and abrupt end title. The other unexpected sign I stumbled upon in this viewing was the optimistic use of pets. Note all of the cats and dogs that Theo attracts throughout the film. It is a purposeful ploy in the film, but it is meant to buoy the character (as well as the audience) across the hardship.
I'd also note another extraordinary facet of this film, besides the passage and distinct mood of the piece. That is, director Alfonso Cuarón's decision and execution of the number of long takes and extended tracking shots used throughout Children of Men. The camera work alone (with additional kudos to Peter Hannan and Emmanuel Lubezki) in these startling segments is nothing short of astonishing when you take them all in. On second viewing, one in particular really hit me this time. The climatic action set demonstrated the supreme skill of the camera operator, the director and ensemble actors, and unpredictability of the story all at once. If you've seen it, you know the one I'm referring to. It is Theo's rescue of Kee at Bexhill, and their subsequent walk out of a building, all of which is in the midst of a violent, chaotic, bullet-filled firefight. The scene somehow, among all of its pervasive bloodshed and decimation, managed to hold both turmoil and hopefulness in a precarious balance, and never dropped either (or the viewers) anytime along the way. It is one virtuoso cinematic sequence.


Simply put, Cuarón's Children of Men is an astounding piece of film-making, period. That it incorporates an original story around a strikingly bleak setting, and comes out anywhere near the prospect of hope makes it extraordinary, in my mind. After I first saw the film, I'd read it had a growing reputation among fans along the same lines as Ridley Scott's startling 1982 sci-fi film, Blade Runner. I scoffed at that, at first. But after re-tracing Theo's transit, initially counting down the number of his fellow man in dreary fatalism but finishing his life knowing he helped nurture an uptick, now I don't. Director Alfonso Cuarón clearly demonstrates he has the budding visionary chops of a Ridley Scott. Theo's journey is as remarkable as Decker's, in my opinion. It is one to savor, and remember. Thanks for bringing me back to it, Rachel.

The disc: The basis of this review was the Blu-ray Disc of Children of Men. My first viewing in standard definition DVD was not eye-catching. This BD of the film is another story altogether. Even through the cloudy gray sky backdrop, the film remains sharp and unexpectedly vivid. Though it doesn't lend itself to eye-popping colors, the high definition picture and contrasts really bring out the lighting and shadows of the film. It's hard to find any grain in the piece. The audio, too, made my watching a listening event. The haunting and spiritually themed soundtrack, by way of the DTS-HD audio made me want to crank up the home theater system (I hope the neighbors didn't mind, especially during the film's action sets). The extras were surprisingly good... I don't expect much from Universal, usually. These included deleted scenes, documentaries, and a picture-in-picture commentary track with Cuarón. After watching this, I'd find it hard to go back to viewing this film again in SD disc. I highly recommend.


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13 comments:

  1. This is great film and one of the best dystopic science fiction films to come down the pipe in a long, long time. It's a shame that Cuaron doesn't have a more prolific output as I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've seen of his so far (he still made the best HARRY POTTER film, IMO). I am eagerly anticipating his new SF film that is supposedly starring Robert Downey Jr.!

    And good call on the FULL METAL JACKET comparsion. During those scenes I thought of Kubrick's film as well.

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  2. Thanks, J.D. I'm with you about Cuarón's work (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban remains my favorite in that series).

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  3. Maya M. (Apprentice Writer)June 24, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    I haven't seen any of those other movies (except Harry Potter) so I'll take your word for the similarities, but I'm not sure I"d be able to get the hopeful message like you did on second viewing.  I felt bleak for days after seeing this, which makes me recommend it more rather than less because the scenarios were all so frighteningly easy to imagine happening with only minor adjustments to what already exists. 

    This movie made me think of Clive Owen as similar to Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp - if you decided to see the movie for the pretty face, you'll be stunned at the level of smarts and character delivered alongside.

    Here's the part I ddn't get (perhaps because I didn't read the book?) - at the end, as our hero and new mother navigate intensely hostile territory in frightened silence and everyone lets them go because they can't believe a newborn is in their midst -
    why didn't anyone recognize the global importance of that new mother?  And, the guy whom they had to assume was the baby's father?  Why did they let them wander away, rather than snatching them and treating them like the new Emporor and Empress of the World?

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  4. Welcome back, Maya. I had a similar reaction as yours upon my initial screening of Children of Men. Theo goes through a lot (including his friend's and wife's death) to deliver a stranger (and new child) to an uncertain future, only to die by the tale's end. I was hesitant to see if I'd find something else there. But, I closer I looked, the more I found that gave me hope. Not an answer, nor a happy solution, but a spark of something to be optimistic about.

    You bring a good point at the incredulous reaction of those (on both sides of the antagonism) to the pair. The Mary and Joseph symbolism is strong here; does this make what they're carrying the savior child? Hmm... Does each side somehow recognize the non-combatant nature of the pair? The child? It seems like a time-out, but hostilities resume fairly quickly when they're out of the way (or just out of sight). I'm beginning to believe it's meant to show an instinctual reaction rather than a one of reason. I wish I could give you a better answer. It's a great question.

    "<span>This movie made me think of Clive Owen as similar to Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp - if you decided to see the movie for the pretty face, you'll be stunned at the level of smarts and character delivered alongside.</span>"

    So very true, Maya. Thank you very much for adding a great comment, here.

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  5. Fantastic review, as always! I see that you (and many others too) really got the atmosphere of the film. I think the script is absolutely wonderful (breath of fresh air for the part of filmmaking that is so often ignored these days)  but the perferctly executed atmosphere is really what sends this movie over the top for me. Every detail is so perfectly tended to that it's overwhelming and subtle at the same time. For me, the movie started to evoke feelings before I recognized what was going on. (hope that makes sense) The directing is seriously out of this world! And those long shots! Just amazing.

    I'd like to say that the questions left outstanding are answered in the book but they really aren't. I'm sure after reading my review everyone will see that I much prefer the movie. But, for instance, the book characters are even more dismissive of the oh-so-preciously fertile individual that has been found. I should probably say incredibly dismissive. Like, holy shite, that can not just have happened as it makes no sense dismissive. I found the book to be much less hopeful than the movie but that aspect is something I really like about both versions. It's such a dark story with so much hopelessness but still, people can't let go of hope. That is an awfully powerful message and a deep-rooted part of what it mean to be human, I think.

    Great catch on the animals! I never recognized that in any type of intellectual way. It was just another one of those details that created an emotional response for me. Now though I can see where that response came from.

    Interesting notes on how  BR made the viewing even better. I saw this originally in the theatre so my first impression is of the big screen feeling. I found the end to be rather abrupt myself and it made me sit for a while wondering what I thought of that. In the end it made me want to re-watch immediately. With several viewings I've really come to think of this as a movie that says, here I am; here's what's happening; join me for a bit; now draw your own conclusions. More succintly I would call that a "slice of life" story and I usually don't go in for those but it's so well done in this case.

    One aspect that translated perfectly from book to film was the theme of people still having and pursuing their own agendas, even if these agendas were harmful and/or unreasonable. I love that thought exercise. Is this realistic? Would people really do this? And why? Is this a way of ignoring the end? Is it an example of how we absolutely cannot escape human nature? Such a fascinating story!

    Thanks for all the fun! Can't wait for our next one.

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  6. I also interpreted the response as instinctual rather than intellectual.

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  7. I'm happy to have contributed to another of our parallel posts, Rachel.

    "It's such a dark story with so much hopelessness but still, people can't let go of hope. That is an awfully powerful message and a deep-rooted part of what it mean to be human, I think."

    Very well put! I also envy the fact that you saw this in a theater. That must have been somethin'! Excellent point about the abrupt ending. Now that you say, it also helps to explain the equally abrupt onset of the film.

    I really appreciate your points about our natures, Rachel. It is very much a fascinating concept and story. Yes, we need to continue this. Thanks very much.

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  8. <span>¿En qué estás pensando...?</span>
    I love this film. I try to follow the work of the Three Amigos, and I must say that -while I'm not a fan of lots of Cuaron's work- this is one of his greatest pieces.

    Not only do I like the cinematography and the landscaping allows the message of the story to be told, but also how most of the amazing cast understood their work to perfection: Juliane Moore is superb, as well as Michael Caine; I think Chiwetel Ejiofor gave one of his best performances, and I think Ashitey embodied perfectly the burden of being responsible for something bigger than oneself through something seemingly as simple as being with child -she looked terrifyingly inocent-.

    However, this is one of those films that work so well because of the small things. Cuaron and his crew were very attentive to details, and they blended together in the form of metaphors and mullets. And this made the experience better.

    I actually didn't see it on the theater as well, even though it lasted a little longer here in Mexico (mainly because of some sort of nationalistic pride). Yet, when the DVD stopped I was mesmerized by the amount of -opposing- emotions the movie managed to transmit. Children of Men -as you said- not only manages to send messages of conscience, but to deliver a little hope. I did found it depressing, yet at the same time a little fulfilling. And, in my book, THAT's why it worked.

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  9. Well put, Poncho! You make some great points about the details in the film and the work of a fantastic cast who understood perfectly their roles. I finally understood, through the second viewing, that Children of Men worked because of the opposing emotions in the piece. Thanks very much for your wonderful comment, cousin.

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  10. It was definitely a great theatre experience. Abrupt is an excellent way to describe much of the initial experience. Also, like Poncho commented above, the ability to evoke opposing emotions/responses is impressive and powerful in storytelling.

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  11. Pop Culture NerdJune 26, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    Uh oh, I might be the voice of dissension here. I saw this at a screening in a theater and thought "WTH?" when it ended. Cuaron and Owen (love him for his acting but must be shallow for a moment and mention he's super sexy in person) came out afterwards to discuss making the movie. They answered our questions but I still thought a film shouldn't need that much explanation to be deemed good. Once I understood more fully what they were trying to do, I thought they were smart but my feelings toward the movie remained cold.

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  12. You get to go to all of the good stuff, Elyse! I can understand your feeling toward it. As I said, my initial viewing did not call for a repeat viewing due to my feeling of depression coming out of it (changing my feeling toward it only after going back to it, though). I very much appreciate your thoughts and I'm always glad to have your comments. Thanks, Elyse.

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