Great Moments in Cinema: Children of Men

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian fable Children of Men (2006) is a veritable master class in the art of modern filmmaking, and nearly any moment in the film would be worthy of inclusion in this column.  However, the sequence that towers above them all, and serves as the focus of this installment, comes late in the film, and depicts a rare moment of hope in a world that is almost completely devoid of it.  It is a sublime sequence, and a perfect example of the ways in which all of the various cinematic techniques can come together to create something transcendent and wonderful.  It is a reminder that film is capable of producing moments of profound beauty, even as it assaults our senses with thrilling, kinetic action, and harrowing images of despair and decay.

The film is set in a near-future world that is gripped by an unexplained plague of infertility, and society is rapidly crumbling around the aging population.  People can see the extinction of the human race on the horizon, and they are scared.  As economies collapse around the world, fear has given rise to nationalism, and in Britain, illegal immigrants are treated like chattel, kept in filthy cages and subjected to humiliating torture that is obviously meant to evoke the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.  Theo (Clive Owen) is a former activist trying to make his way in this chaotic world, and his only escape from the insanity are his visits with his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an aging hippie and former journalist who now lives in the woods and takes care of his infirm wife.  On his way to work one day, Theo is snatched up by a terrorist organization known as the Fishes, who he learns are led by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and an idealistic young activist named Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  They want Theo to use his government connections to secure a permit that will allow a young refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her caretaker Miriam (Pam Ferris) to leave the country.  Along the way, Theo discovers that Kee is pregnant, and that she represents Mankind’s best hope for survival.  Now Theo must protect Kee from those who would exploit her and her unborn baby, and he vows to get them both out of the country and into the hands of the Human Project, a group of scientists who are supposedly working on a cure for infertility.

Ultimately, Children of Men is a story about hope.  Human beings are driven by hope, and our thoughts are almost constantly filled with thoughts of a better car, a better job, a better tomorrow, a better life.  Cuarón’s film taps into that most fundamental of desires by presenting a world that is utterly without hope, and he drops the viewer right into the very heart of it through the use of urgent handheld camerawork and stark cinematography that makes the bleakness of the film’s world come alive in a very real way.  It helps that the world of the future is not all that different from our own.  Like the best science fiction, Children of Men takes us to a world that is familiar to the viewer, and thus it becomes plausible despite the fantastic elements that are central to the plot of the film.   It is a world beset by economic collapse, environmental devastation, and a creeping fascism that threatens to undermine democracy almost entirely.  While there is a tendency to dismiss these notions as nothing more than paranoid fantasy, one simply has to look at the news headlines to see that these are problems we are facing in the here and now, and suddenly the world that is presented in the film doesn’t seem quite so fantastic.

The film makes an important observation, however, and it reminds viewers that even in the face of such overwhelming hopelessness, there is always that one bit of hope that exists to light the darkness.  That hope is represented by Kee, a scared and confused young immigrant who is the first woman to become pregnant in nearly 20 years.  That baby represents nothing less than survival for the human race, but it also represents redemption for Theo, who lost his own infant son during a flu pandemic in 2008.  Once he realizes what is at stake, he shakes off the depression he has been feeling in the 19 years since then, and he embraces the small glimmer of hope that has been presented to him.  He is no longer weighed down by self-pity, but driven by hope.  That is why he is willing to risk his life for her and her baby, and finds himself caught in the middle of a massive firefight between the military, the Fishes, and the disgruntled immigrant population of the squalid Bexhill refugee camp.

That brings us to the sequence that is the subject of this column.  Kee gives birth to her baby, and almost immediately she once again falls into the clutches of the Fishes, who want to use her to bring down the government that is openly oppressing Britain’s immigrant population.  Meanwhile, a riot has broken out in Bexhill, with the refugees marching on the wall that separates them from the outside world.  The military moves in, and a small-scale war breaks out, forcing the Fishes to hole up in an abandoned building that is quickly besieged.  Theo tracks them down, and manages to avoid getting shot as he makes his way to the upper floor of the building where he finds Luke and rescues Kee and the baby.  As they make their way back down the stairs, there is a lull in the fighting, and when squatters in the building become aware of the baby, they begin to weep with joy as they lay their hands gently on the precious child.  The military moves in, and when the commander realizes what Kee is carrying, he immediately orders a cease fire, allowing them to exit the building in peace.  The soldiers are too stunned to keep fighting, but only for a moment.  As soon as Kee and Theo are clear, the conflict resumes, and everyone involved forgets about the miracle they just witnessed as they struggle to survive.

One of the reasons the sequence works so well is because the entire film is spent exploring this question of hope versus hopelessness.  The entire film is spent building up this world that is decaying under a sense of overwhelming bleakness, and thus when this hopeful, transcendent moment finally arrives, it feels like a relief, even if it is only for a brief moment, and one that is totally earned.   Cuarón‘s deft direction and skill at world building ensures that a moment that could just as easily come across as heavy-handed or overly-earnest now feels genuine and real.  It serves as a perfect summation of the film’s central theme, and is a powerful  illustration of the notion that even in the face of chaos, hope can still survive.

Children of Men is a spectacular achievement in 21st Century filmmaking, featuring top-notch direction, perfect pacing, masterful editing, and stunning cinematography.  It is a film that is reflection of the era in which it was made, and examines the issues and fears important to society at that time with a sure hand and a keen eye for detail.  Perhaps this is why audiences were initially turned off by the film.  Maybe it hit too close to home for most people, and they didn’t like being reminded of the issues they were confronted with on a day to day basis.  At any rate, the film is ripe for rediscovery, and seems to grow more relevant with each passing day.  It is also one of the best films released in the last decade, and serves as an effective and important reminder of the power of hope.


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