Bright Lights Film Journal

You Say Potato, I Say “Children of Men” Rocks

2006 was a great year for the dystopian sf film. We began with the Wachowski Brothers’ V for Vendetta. About midway through the year we got Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. And now, at the close of the year, we have Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, another dystopian fantasy that shows how, yes, things could get even worse than they are today. Of these three films, only A Scanner Darkly is supposed to take place in a future United States (the other two are set in England), but all three are “inspired,” to some degree, by the Bush Administration and its Orwellian War on Terror.

Alan Vanneman’s negative review (see yesterday’s post) is based on two assumptions with which I must respectfully disagree: 1) That all art films are “terrible;” and 2) That Children of Men is an “art film.” If I had to classify Children of Men as something other than an sf film, I would call it a running-the-gauntlet film. It’s predecessors in this regard include Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run, Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (obviously), and the escape-from-East-Berlin section of Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Are any of these “art films?” Well, maybe Torn Curtain, but only to the extent that Hitchcock has a film aesthete’s awareness of montage and mise-en-scéne, an awareness that is applied for the purpose of “putting the audience through it.” Alfonso Cuaron, the director and co-scenarist of Children of Men, has a comparable formal awareness, but – like Hitchcock’s – Cuaron’s mise-en-scéne is employed to put audiences inside his characters and through their story. If that makes Children of Men an “art film,” then every good film made in the last 100 years is an art film.

Cuaron’s mise-en-scéne, the most remarkable aspect of Children of Men, is completely glossed over in Vanneman’s plot-oriented review. (And here I agree with Mr. Vanneman: “How many plots are there?” Not many. It’s all in the execution.) The film’s most exciting sequences are shot in extremely long takes, with a wide angle lens, and a highly mobile camera – a technique that places us inside the consciousness of the film’s main character, Theo (an excellent Clive Owen), as he accompanies first Julian (Julianne Moore) and later the pregnant Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) through a world torn by battle between fascistic government soldiers and revolutionary “terrorists,” a world that bears more than a passing resemblance to contemporary Baghdad. Unlike the famous long takes in Welles’ Touch of Evil or Altman’s The Player, Cuaron’s moving camera does not represent the point of view of a detached observer, guiding the viewer’s attention from one person, detail, or event to another. Cuaron’s moving camera is firmly tied to the point of view of Theo – not through his eyes but alongside him – so we see what he sees, experience what he experiences. The effect, as noted, is to place us inside Theo’s explosive world, and it works! The almost constantly moving camera implies – in fact, makes us feel – that there is more to this world than what we see in any given frame. Subjectively speaking, the combination of wide angles and a continuously mobile point of view creates a sense of space very much like what we experience in dreams.

Yes, the plot is familiar, and we know (we hope) that our hero will succeed in the end, even if it means personal sacrifice – just as our heroes finally make it through the respective gauntlets of Logan’s Run or Lucas’s THX 1138. Children of Men, however, is a far better film than either of those predecessors. Its future world is less cheesy, more grittily realistic. The characters and their interrelationships have a depth and reality that the makers of Logan’s Run and THX 1138 did not even attempt. Is Children of Men therefore an art film? Not if you define “art film” as something that breaks the rules of genre filmmaking. Children of Men sticks to the rules of its genre, and succeeds on those terms. Call it instead “a thinking person’s action film.”