One virgin birth too many
There are two reasons why I hate going to art films. The first is that everyone in the audience is as old as I am. That means swelling bellies, cottage-cheese necks, and balding domes, all of which I can see in the mirror every day.
The second reason why I hate going to art films is that they’re terrible! Alfonso Cuarón’s The Children of Men, based on a “dystopian” novel by P. D. James, is the most recent offender, and a most egregious one.
Why are art films so bad? Because they take the sentimental, manipulative dramatic tricks and clichés of “bad” commercial films and place them in the service of supposedly “different” films, which are, if anything, even more clichéd than the damn commercial flicks! Worst of all, the entire enterprise is drenched, nay, permeated, with the cloying sweet syrup of solemn self-congratulation.
Cuarón’s adaptation takes quite a few liberties with James’ 1992 novel, but in my opinion any film, novel, play, dramatic recitation, or comic strip that’s built around a “miraculous” birth in a childless, dysfunctional society is going to run on four legs and answer to “Fido.”
James’ novel pictures a society that’s simply fading away.1 There’s no crime, because there are no young people. There’s a dictatorship not because of disorder but because no one can be bothered to vote. Cities are disappearing and the countryside is expanding. Old people are being bumped off or eased into suicide because it’s too much work to take care of them. There are a few malcontents, who are shipped off to the Isle of Man, which is your basic man-eat-man hell-hole.
Cuarón has tarted things up considerably. Women still can’t have babies, but instead of peaceful decline we have videogame-style chaos — a tyrannical government, a terrorist resistance, terrible poverty, pollution, etc., and holding pens on every corner for illegal aliens. The countryside is littered with endless piles of burning steer carcasses.
Theo (Clive Owen) is a petty bureaucrat in this petty world, hoping for nothing more out of life than alcohol, tobacco, and an occasional joint with his hippie dad (Michael Caine), still keeping the faith, nobly caring for his paralyzed wife and listening to the Stones.2 Theo’s life, such as it is, is disrupted rather thoroughly when a gang of terrorists put the snatch on him. It seems they’re led by Theo’s ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and they need “transit papers” for this black chick, “Kee” (Clare-Hope Ashitey).
Yes, “transit papers” do sound a lot like “letters of transit,” which you may remember from Casablanca.3 Hey, how many plots are there? Theo gets the papers, except that, for some not terribly believable reason, he has to go along with the girl, which, amazingly, doesn’t seem to bother him, except that when Julian is murdered by some other terrorists (what they’re mad about isn’t at all clear), things start to get a bit hairy. Theo’s taken to the “good terrorist” hideout, where, in perhaps the most predictable plot twist of the year, we learn that Kee is, yes, PREGNANT! Who could have seen that coming?
Well, long story short, Kee makes it, more or less. She gives birth to a baby girl, named “Dylan”4 in honor of Theo and Julian’s dead son. She and the kid are picked up by a boat named “Tomorrow,”5 which I’m hoping is a good sign.
The point of dystopian fiction is to tell us, pretty much, that the world is either going to hell or that it’s already gotten there. P.D. James’ novel, written back in 1992 was, apparently, an attack on birth control and modern hedonism. Fifteen years later, we don’t seem to be very close to the all-enveloping ennui that she imagined.6 Cuarón’s “vision,” pretty much an attack on George Bush, isn’t any more accurate. We’re growing richer, not poorer. Pollution in the U.S. has declined every year during the Bush Administration, thanks to legislation dating back to the reign of the King of All Monsters, Richard Nixon. There are no tanks in American streets, no illegal aliens in cages on street corners.7
If Cuarón wanted to make a film attacking George Bush’s domestic policies or the War in Iraq that actually had some substance, well, fine. But this isn’t it. Despite the fury of the left, capitalism keeps chugging along, making us rich. Despite the fury of the right, the religious and sexual obsessions of the past continue to fade.8 Life! It’s not so bad!9
Is there anything worse than a “classic rock” soundtrack that’s meant to be taken seriously? Yeah, a classic rock soundtrack that’s meant to be taken seriously augmented by a soulful soprano singing sappy religious kitsch. Oh, my aching ears!
Early in the picture, Theo says “I woke up this morning and felt like shit. Then I went to work and I felt like shit.” I said to myself “I woke up this morning and felt fantastic. Then I went to this movie and now I feel like shit.”
The worst cliché in the whole film, except for the pregnant black chick thing? We know that Theo’s a good guy because dogs like him.10
Absolutely the best thing to come out of Children of Men is the Internet Movie Database “goofs” page, which contains the following beauts sent in by the world’s greatest film critic (not me).
- When Theo is first detained by the terrorists, one of the newspaper cuttings pasted around the cell says “Beckhams celebrate Golden Anniversary.” David and Victoria Beckham will not celebrate their Golden (50th) wedding Anniversary until 2049 but this movie takes place in 2027.
- When Kee and Theo leave the block of flats during the battle, most of the soldiers are using the SA80A1 assault rifle. The SA80A1 has already been replaced by the SA80A2, and it’s only fucking 2006! [I edited this one a bit. AV]
- In the scene where the car is driving backwards hunted by people, and a black Enduro motorcycle is after the car, it sounds clearly like a four stroke engine. However, when it gets hit by the door and falls down, it sounds like a two stroke bike. [Totally like a two stroke, I would say, and I mean totally. AV]
- The car that Theo jump starts has (according to the sound of the engine) an automatic gearbox. Jump starting automatics is impossible. [Also, we see the car rolling down a hill at about 20 miles an hour and Theo can’t jump start it. Later, when he’s pushing it at about 3 miles an hour, a chick (a midwife chick! Go figure!) starts it. AV]
- Yeah, but not really. We hear “Ruby Tuesday” on the soundtrack, but that ain’t Mick. [↩]
- I haven’t read James’ book, and I certainly don’t intend to, because it sounds like an exercise in clinical depression. Wikipedia gives a plot-spoiling synopsis [↩]
- It’s a bit of a Casablanca year this year. The scriptwriters for Blood Diamond and The Good German seem to have had a few drinks at Rick’s Place as well. [↩]
- OUCH! [↩]
- Double ouch, eh, mon ami? [↩]
- Back in the day, female authors of detective fiction in the UK, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, were inclined to a misty if not mystical brand of Anglo-Catholicism. James, it seems, is not so didactic, but does enjoy brooding on how evil we humans are. Hey, I can’t argue with that. Look at Dick Cheney! There’s evil! [↩]
- George Bush is notoriously pro-immigrant, much more so than many liberal Democrats who want to “save” us from global competition — save us by letting the poor in other countries starve. [↩]
- Don’t tell our Commander in Chief, but the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, thinks that “if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.” [↩]
- Yeah, this is an awfully political review, didactic, even. Don’t fuck with me, Alfonso. When you fuck with me, I fuck back! [↩]
- Also kittens. What a guy! [↩]