Children of Men (2006): Cuaron’s Sci-Fi Starring Clive Owen

Hopping from genre to genre, the gifted Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron refuses to be pigeonholed, as is clear with Children of Men, his first foray into the sci-fi genre. The element that unifies Cuarons growing body of work is his personal signature, stamping whatever movie he makes with a singular vision.

Which points directly to one of the problems of his futuristic thriller Children of Men, a film that manifest even more so than his take on Harry Potter the tension between what’s basically a genre picture and Cuarons idiosyncratic approach.  New film also suffers from an uneasy blend of sci-fi and actioner-thriller, and ultimately is more successful in the latter category.

It may not be fair to ask a director what attracted him to a particular subject matter, but I suspect that in the case of Children of Men, its not just the sci-fi narrative, but Cuaron’s explicit aim to establish links to our present times, since the saga is set just around the corner, so to speak, in 2027.

That the film is too tame by Cuarons standards, and unable to express clearly its relevancy to our zeitgeist makes Children of Men only partially successful, a film that ultimately might please the genres aficionados but not go much beyond it.

Its not that Children of Men lacks in hot-button issues. Among other social problems, it deals with immigration, racism, global terrorism, police state control, religious fanaticism, revolutionary threats from radical Islamic groups, and so on.

Other problems plaguing this movie may derive from familiarity with its themes. We are not as easily shocked as we were when we first read George Orwells 1984 (when the film version came out, it was a disappointment). Children of Men is released in the wake of a slate of good sci-fi pictures, among them Blade Runner (1982), The Terminaor series, and most recently V for Vendetta, which is also set in the U.K. British viewers should be able to recognize elements of the TV adaptation of “Day Of The Triffids,” broadcast by the BBC in the early 1980s (which I saw on tape).

Based on British P.D. James 1993 novel, co-adapted to the screen by Cuaron and writer Timothy J. Sexton, the yarn is set in November 2027, when, except for Britain, the whole world is in a state of political chaos ruled by terrorism. A TV news reports announces: The world has collapsed; only Britain soldiers on.

As a result, immigration is out of control, and masses of refugees are deported to abandoned towns, where the police and military govern their lives. For reasons that remain mysterious, women have been unable to procreate for two decades, since 2009 to be specific. With no children, the world is on the verge of extinction.

The saga begins, when office worker Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an activist-turned-bureaucrat, is almost killed by a terrorist bomb in Central London. Taking time off from his boring desk job, he travels out of town to visit his old friend, political cartoonist Jasper (a wildly eccentric Michael Caine), an older hippie with long hair, who grows pot in his own garden.

Theo finds out that the youngest person has been killed at age 18 in absurd circumstances, when he refused to sign an autograph. When he gets back to London, the terrorist group Fishes, which campaigns for equal rights for all immigrants, kidnaps him. Its leader is no other than Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), with whom Theo had an affair as a student activist. The couple suffered a tragedy when their child died.

Julian offers the broken and alcoholic Theo good money to get transit papers for an illegal refugee, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), in an effort to smuggle her out of the country. Kee is eight months pregnant with the first child on Earth in 18 years. Theo is asked to take her to Brighton and to make sure shes safe.

From this point on, Children of Men becomes a road movie, depicting all kinds of enemies, dangers, and obstacles. Theo is on the run with Kee from both the authorities and Fishes renegade members. The mission is to smuggle Kee to an offshore organization, the Human Project, headed by scientists, who’re trying to find cure for the mysterious global infertility.

This is the second Cuaron film, after “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” to be set and shot in London, and he has succeeded in creating a future-present in a state of perpetual chaos. The near future represents an extension of the present, with some new elements. Hence, Christianity now includes ideas from Asian religions. A one-legged version of Michelangelos Florence-based David is placed in a city building, with no explanation of how and why it got there.

As expected of the helmer’s work by now, visually, the film is extremely compelling. Cuaron depicts U.K. as a country of security measures that get stricter and stricter, with prowling armed police, piles of garbage in the streets, in a more credible way than what was seen in “V for Vendetta.”

Illegal immigrants are transported in cages, and fertility tests and British passport checks are obligatory. The Islamic fundamentalists gather in the immigrant shantytowns to prepare a revolution. Cuarons London and Baxhill, a refugee town, are dirty places with rampant violence.

The films textual problems are exacerbated by lack of details or cues of what happened to the world in intervening years, from 2006 to 2027. As flawed as V for Vendetta was, it at least offered significant historical clues of the UKs past, some going back to the 17th century!

Unfortunately, as scripters, Cuaron and Sexton don’t provide much background even for the vital issues. The outbreak of infertility is never explained, the Human Project lacks in detail, and the global chaos is only vaguely explained by Islamic fanatics terrorism, perhaps out of fear to stir too much controversy.
Moreover, its never made clear why so many immigrants seek out the neo-fascistic U.K., which is depicted as a peace center. For the film to truly resonate, it needs to comment more directly on contemporary issues, and it needs to show what has created this chaos in the first place.

Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, both gifted and reliable actors are decent but no more. Owen gives an uncharacteristically detached performance. Moore, despite star billing and strong beginning, disappears after the films first reel and his very much missed. The two actors dont have many scenes together, and dont show strong chemistry in the few they have. (It’s hard to believe they were once lovers).

Ashitey (who was remarkable in “Shooting Dogs”) functions as the female lead, particularly once Theo and Kee hit the road and their relationship gets more intimate.

Acting-wise, the film belongs to its supporting thespian, Michael Caine, as a dope-smoking neo-hippie, with old hippie spectacles and long hair, who helps Theo early on. Though he has only two or three scenes, Caine shines, giving the film the little warmth it has with his wonderfully eccentric turn that should be remembered at Oscar time. (Reportedly, Caine’s character and look are modeled on the late Beatles John Lennon). Its also in these scenes, that theres some discussion of cerebral issues beyond basic plot and melodramatics.

Other cameos feel more like set decoration, with not much to do, including Peter Mullan’s Syd, as pragmatic security guard, and Danny Huston’s Nigel, as a government minister.

Cuaron’s decision not to shoot in Widescreen lends the movie a gritty look. Under ace lenser Emmanuel Lubezkis supervision, George Richmond shot the movie with handheld camera for 16 weeks. Exterior U.K. locations are all well used, including some in the heart of London.

Cuaron has decided to shoot as many long sequences as possible, thus removing some of the rhythmic, artificial cuts associated with current cinema standards, and allowing for a more realistic, verite style. In the press notes, he’s quoted as saying: “I wanted to squeeze the frame to the last of its potential, to hold the frame until there’s nothing else we can tell in that frame and, all the time, following Theo’s perception.

To achieve that, Cuaron utilized wide lenses and a roving “curious” camera in an attempt to elicit an emotional response to the characters being portrayed in a certain space at just the right time. This meant a higher level of choreography from the cast and crew to orchestrate difficult, lengthy, near-documentary takes. More rehearsal time was taken during production to prepare for the more intricate shots, in order to maximize time within the restrictions of location shooting.

The resulting shots are real, giving a feeling of being in the moment while following Theo on his turbulent journey. The camera almost becomes another person-a curious, inquisitive person who follows the main character and at times becomes nervous and edgy.

This strategy is most evident in one of the longest, most action-filled sequences toward the end of the film, in which the camera follows characters through the streets in the midst of battles into an apartment building being shelled from the outside by the army with freedom fighters shooting back from inside. We go from room to room, and floor to floor, in one bravura single shot.

It may have been decades since we saw such bravura mise-en-scene and camera movements. I suspect that Cuaron was inspired by Orson Welles’ brilliant beginning of his 1958 noir thriller “Touch of Evil,” an uninterrupted 8-minute-long sequence, which Altman, among others, tried to duplicate in his 1992 Hollywood satire, “The Player.”

I also suspect that viewers who like their sci-fi to have a distinctive milieu and look might be disappointed by how scarily similar the future looks like the present, even though this is one of Cuaron’s goal.

Less effective are the attempts at satire, as when Theo tries to escape in a car that needs to be pushed to get going, a scene that interrupts the chase sequence with some odd comedy touches.

Children of Men is much more successful as an actioner-thriller than when it tries to tackle contempo social issues. For such a downbeat and depressing tale, having a sharply etched character at its center is crucial, but there’s so much going on in the background that it’s not easy to go with Clive Owen’s Theo for the ride.