Children of Men

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What would happen if the world stopped having children? Can you imagine what that would look like? Thanks to the brilliant cinematography in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, you can. The writer/director puts on screen the horrors of the absence of hope and the courage it takes to regain it.

Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey star in the film that takes place in the year 2027; the youngest person on Earth has died, killed after refusing to sign an autograph for a fan. The world has forgotten what it was like to live, and Clive's character has nearly lost all faith in himself.

That is until he discovers a young girl, Kee (Ashitey), who is pregnant; she's been kept in seclusion for her protection. However, Clive quickly finds out that is not the case and helps her escape.

Clive says before and after working on the film, he felt the passion Alfonso was trying to show. "It's about sacrificing yourself to Alfonso's vision and not getting in the way of it, which seems to me more important than doing any acting. He told me his whole vision of the film and his take on the movie and then I came on board and the first thing he said is, 'This is now the bit I love, I love working with actors, I love the collaboration of that; we're going to do this movie together,' and he was very true to his word. The collaboration continued throughout; it was a genuine, really brilliant collaboration through the whole movie. He kept me completely in the loop in all the post production; he sent me various cuts and edits and there was endless conversations and still now as we're taking the film out there and sort of putting it out there, it still feels like that. So it's been a very, very special collaboration and I do genuinely think he's a very rare and unique talent. The thing about his movies is they are whole visions, he doesn't do that thing of pandering to what he thinks the commercial market wants. He makes his movies, he has a very singular vision and he goes out there and does that. I think he's very special."

In a very moving way, Alfonso follows Clive and Claire's journey out of harm's way - even virtually at times stopping battle scenes to create a comfort with these characters. He brings the audience into the story, capturing a timeless feel. "You see those things, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; that is the same reference as concentration camps in the second World War," notes Alfonso. "The real infertility is the lack of historical perspective and that that's where the real infertility resides and how we cannot expect a renewal because we are so rooted in our past, without having an awareness of that past because we are so rooted to it. That has to do with the lack of historical perspective that humanity has; some people, the pessimistics, think that that is just the way it is - I want to believe. I have a very grim view, not of the future, the present; I have a very hopeful view of the future. I think that has to do with I believe an evolution is happening; together with all this greenness an evolution is happening, an evolution of the human understanding that is happening in the youngest generation. I believe that the youngest generation, the generation to come, is the one that is going to come with new schemes and new perspectives of things."

To feel like you're part of the film, Alfonso shot several scenes with no breaks or cuts. "Doing shots like those in Children of Men, there's something about filmmaking - putting great directors, great scripts, and great actors together, you're guaranteed a great film. It's everybody pulling together to try and make something happen and the responsibility is a collective one. And the strongest memory from the movie was how much, how closely I had to work with the operator on those sequences because we would rehearse for a very, very long time and it was very painstaking and specific, but then when we come to shoot it, it has to feel like we're catching it on the run. You've got to feel like you're in the thick of it, and it's all about pacing; if you hold a beat a bit too long, it will suddenly feel a bit manipulative like he's held there."


Alfonso says even though he loves to shoot them, it's the most challenging thing about the film. "The battle at the end comes together with the birth and the car attack - the complication of the car attack, even if the production value is not as bombastic as the battle scene, the problem with the car attack is you're in a vehicle in motion. So that becomes a real nightmare in terms of timing; when you do films with this approach, in a way there's a certain amount of precision that is required. It's not that you do coverage and you have a lot of other material that you might or might not use; it's just a very precise choreography. The exciting part of it is that as a director I try to create the perfect choreography but then it's about the accidents that make the scene happen. Whatever you choreographed but didn't happen or there was an accident; you rely on people like Clive Owen who would take the accidents and elevate the accidents into something better."

Children of Men is based on the 1992 novel by P.D. James; even though he wrote it nearly 15 years ago, the timeless factor is very much there. "That was the start and the huge inspiration for the movie but then Alfonso had a lot of other things he wanted to discuss," says Clive. "He's actually using a film set 30 years in the future as an excuse to talk about present worries, concerns, and fears that we all have. It's an incredibly relevant vision of the future because he's really looking ahead and saying 'if we're not careful, this is where things could be going.' And I don't think the film is that futuristic; if you look at the opening scene, my character walks into a café, walks outside, and a bomb goes off - the beginning of the movie. That's the world we're in, that's not futuristic; that's incredibly relevant. I think it's not that farfetched; there are endless images in this movie that we've seen that we are sort of already familiar with and he's obviously taken it further than the real thing but it's not a fantasy."

Children of Men is a moving and emotional ride; it opens in limited theaters December 25th, and in wider release in the coming weeks
NEW YORK REVIEW
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is the latest cultural harbinger of the End of Days, of nature gone haywire and human nature following apace. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any event, it’s 2027 and eighteen years have passed since the last baby was born on the planet. Humans have lost the capacity to reproduce, and no one knows why. It’s just something in the air. Or the water. Or the Zeitgeist. The point is: We’re a dying species, paying a terminal price for our arrogant sense of entitlement. The English have maintained a sort of order, but that order is (characteristically) pathological, the people in sheeplike denial, the ruling class progressively more violent. Into this vacuum of hope has rushed a Fascistic regime, which rounds up illegal immigrants—known as “fugees,” as in “refugees”—and imprisons the undesirables who aren’t shot on the spot in holding cages and emptied-out cities that make you think of downtown Baghdad. Children of Men is a bouillabaisse of up-to-the-minute terrors.

It’s a wow, though. The director and a battery of credited screenwriters have twisted P. D. James’s 1992 novel into a relentlessly dire chase picture with double crosses and an explosive final battle between the military and the fugees. The plot makes sense only if you don’t loiter over it. As the state has become more repressive, an underground resistance—known as the fishes—has emerged, first terroristic, now allegedly more constructive. Doing the alleging is a fish leader, Julian (Julianne Moore), who makes contact with her ex-husband, Theo (Clive Owen), because she needs cross-country transit papers for some precious human cargo and his cousin (Danny Huston) is a government honcho. Theo is a bitter cynic, very much in sync with a piece of graffiti he passes: THE LAST ONE TO DIE PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS. Children of Men centers on his moral and spiritual rebirth.

It also centers on a literal rebirth—on the advanced pregnancy of a black fugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), whose best hope of survival rests with the fishes’ ability to deliver her to a supersecret international organization known as the Human Project. In James’s book, the mother-to-be is white, and the focus is on the tortured inner landscape of people with no faith in the future: She has a crack whodunit writer’s grasp of repression, of what it hides and what it liberates. Cuarón isn’t indifferent to that theme, but he doesn’t have the patience of a septuagenarian female former civil- service worker. He’s a youngish Mexican moviemaker with an FX budget; he’s burning to get to the horrific spectacle of authoritarianism and military occupation: to male and female refugees stripped of civil liberties, caged, blindfolded, shot down—to a world like our own, where evil flourishes because good men do nothing.

The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, has shot the whole film, including the cataclysmic skirmishes, with handheld cameras in long, long takes—takes that make you realize how merciful editing can be, since every cut reminds you, on some unconscious level, that you’re not really in that place at that precise instant, dodging (or getting torn up by) bullets and bombs. Here, there’s a shot from inside a car rolling down a hill as it’s chased by men with guns that’s like the last thing you see before you wake up screaming. The insistent soundtrack alternates between the mocking obeisance of King Crimson’s “The Court of the Crimson King” and John Taverner’s funereal hymns. The ubiquitous rubbish, the cold rain: The movie calls to mind an early description in Cormac McCarthy’s overwrought but gripping post-apocalypse novel The Road, of gray days “like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Would Children of Men feel as momentous without the sensual bombardment? No, but the bombardment is central to the director’s message. Cuarón never wants to let you fall into the moviegoer’s trance—to stop feeling sickened by bloodshed or to become inured to a world without children’s voices.

Clive Owen makes a great dystopian action hero. I’ve seen him on talk shows so guarded (or nonverbal, or not-too-bright) that he can barely put two sentences together, but what comes across on the big screen is a potent mixture of irony and animal cunning. He’s like a rude-boy version of the young Michael Caine—and the genial old Caine shows up here as his surrogate dad, an aged hippie who uses a garden of ganja to keep despair (barely) at bay. Peter Mullan has an insanely funny bit as a policeman proud to be called a Fascist pig. But the laughter fades fast: For Cuarón, there’s nothing amusing about Fascist piggery. —Reviewed by David Edelstein, New York Magazine

Several writers, including Cuaron, worked on the script, which could have done more to flesh out the history between 2006 and 2027. They’re good at hinting that 2006 is already Orwellian enough, and that 2027 is a logical extension of today, but what they’re very, very good at is creating dazzling chase sequences. Whether it’s an old favorite (the bad guys are in pursuit and the car stalls) or a more futuristic bit (storm troopers invading British trains), they know exactly what they’re doing.

Peter Bradshaw Guardian
No one does dystopian satire like the English and this story is in a recognisably vernacular tradition, though owing as much to John Wyndham as George Orwell. It actually reminded me of bygone television chillers such as Barry Hines's Threads and the 1970s classic Survivors, with their distinctive and now unfashionably high-minded determination to confront the worst outcomes imaginable. It is, perhaps, odd that Cuarón sticks with the 1992 novel's reluctance to predict the internet, and media-watchers will be intrigued to see that in 2027 the London Evening Standard has evidently seen off web and freesheet competition to stay in its monopoly pole position on the capital's sandbagged streets. But despite the stylisations and grandiloquent drama, there is something just so grimly and grittily plausible about the awful world conjured up here, and the full-on urban warfare scenes really are electrifying. Clive Owen stars as Theo, a former radical protester, who in defeated middle age has become an alcoholic and low-ranking employee of a government department: a miserable guy in a miserable world. Pollution has rendered humanity infertile. The world's youngest person is all of 18 years old and there is a global malaise of disorder and despair, which our right little, tight little island is toughing out, offering its citizens free suicide pills with the Shakespearean brand-name of Quietus. Britain's relative calm and prosperity have attracted waves of illegal immigrants; it is the responsibility of the UK's Homeland Security department to pen them into vast mesh-fenced internment camps, the biggest of which is a gigantic caged shanty-town in Bexhill - a very English Guantanamo-on-Sea.

Cuarón's movie has softened the blow of James's book just a little, but the cinema screen here is like an opened window on to a world of Arctic fear and despair. His script is a little cumbersome occasionally: some characters are required to deliver awkward set-piece speeches with bullets whistling past their nose. So much else is outstanding, though. The hard, flat, cold images recorded by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - reporting back from the futureworld of decay dreamt up by production designers Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland - are stunning. Cuarón's gun battle between the terrorists and the army is a bravura piece of work, deploying a very scary sort of first-person shooter graphics; incredibly, it turns Bexhill into a Middle East warzone, like the strange Vietnam of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket - famously filmed in the surreal moonscape of London's undeveloped Docklands. And the first terrorist detonation hit like a punch in the solar plexus. There are witty and shrewd small parts for Michael Caine, as the ageing hippy ganja dealer who hooks Theo and Kee up with a counter-cultural support network, Peter Mullan as the psychotic border guard and Danny Huston as Nigel, the elegantly despairing apparatchik who salvages great works of art from the philistine mob.

One of the cleverest touches is the ancient, manky sweatshirt Theo wears -advertising the London Olympics of 2012. To us, it is a symbol of London's last-ever demonstration of untroubled national rejoicing, when this country was awarded the Games, before that mood was cruelly shattered by the 7/7 bombings. Now London 2012 is Theo's veteran-badge of despair, and a memento of his lost career in political dissent.

So what would happen to us all, psychologically, if the end of the world was at hand? Danny Huston's mandarin tells Theo that he personally gets by from day to day by simply not thinking about what is happening, and his stunned, bleak acquiescence in the creeping horror of global death is symptomatic of the vast spiritual sterility which ushered in the catastrophe in the first place.

Freaky chiliastic cults start springing up: the Renouncers and Repenters - whose frenzied self-laceration reminded me a little of Roy Andersson's millennial fantasy Songs from the Second Floor, in which a little girl is sacrificed to stave off the last judgment. But what Cuarón's film suggests is that despair and disgust would manifest themselves overwhelmingly in tyranny. A mass, irrational longing for punishment would gather; checks and restraints on the political classes' natural tendency towards repression would be removed, and our energy to resist the agencies of the state would be eroded. All of these ideas make a very grim backdrop to an excellent thriller. Cuarón has created the thinking person's action movie.



From Time Out London

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón once again proves his dexterity at turning his hand to different genres and subjects with this thrilling adaptation of a PD James novel, which is his first film since directing ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ and his first screenwriting credit since his 2001 arthouse hit ‘Y Tu Mamá También’. Set in Britain in 2027, it’s a sort of sci-fi movie, but it’s the film’s nervous and energetic verité style, and creepy familiarity – not any wild vision of the future – that make it so involving. It helps, too, that Cuarón doesn’t allow the writing or the performances, most notably from Clive Owen and Michael Caine, to sink amid the film’s futuristic detail and pointed ideological concerns.

Children of Men’ is a clever and credible vision of London in the near future – a violent, paranoid, claustrophobic time when Britain is the only surviving nation, and a fertility crisis means that no babies have been born for 18 years. The Department of Homeland Security has ordered a militarised police to arrest all illegal immigrants and dispatch them to a fortified compound at Bexhill-on-Sea. Meanwhile, a rebel outfit of guerilla refugees (or ‘fugees’) known as The Fish loom threateningly in the background, fighting for the rights of illegal immigrants and determined to cause major unrest.

Cuarón’s smart trick is not to explain too much. Instead, he leaps straight in to his story, which is a good old-fashioned chase yarn that’s gilded with some unobtrusive and cheeky social commentary. It’s civil servant Theo (Owen) – hapless innocent, reluctant hero and middling everyman – versus a miserable world in which his activist ex Julian (Julianne Moore) continues to take a political stand that he’s long since abandoned. It helps that Cuarón’s prognosis of the future is gripping from the off. Theo (wearing a faded ‘London 2012’ sweater) is buying a coffee on Fleet Street when he notices a news report on TV. The newsreader (a voice recognisable from television today) announces that the world’s youngest person, 18-year-old Diego, has died in a street brawl. It’s major news. The public weep. Theo takes a day off. And it’s no leap of the imagination to connect the reaction to Diego’s death with the death of Diana in 1997. It’s a moment that’s symbolic of Cuarón’s film: the future is not another planet, but a familiar version of our own.

The focus on migrancy and terrorism has an uneasy potency (not least when a bomb blows up Starbucks), and signals Cuarón’s determination to avoid distancing sci-fi tropes. It’s a film that could have been ridiculous. When Theo finds himself unwitting guardian to the only pregnant woman on earth (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a Messianic tone threatens to infect the film, but Cuarón backs off from stressing the Biblical overtones of James’s tale; at one point, he pointedly pulls the needle off a solemn John Tavener number and returns to the din of conflict as immigrants battle it out amid Bexhill’s ruins.

In Cuarón’s hands, this film emerges as quite an achievement, both technically (look out for the impressive one-shot take that graces a battle scene late on; Cuarón resists the cut throughout) and dramatically (even Caine is amusing as Theo’s old mate Jasper, a cardigan-wearing, pot-smoking old sage). It’s the director’s boldness that makes it work. He doesn’t bother with easy explanations, choosing instead to plunge straight into the action, shooting in a frenzied, documentary style (always handheld) and employing only the most necessary of special effects. His London is ours. The same red buses crawl the streets, only they’re older and more tatty. It rains incessantly and, though the city’s grey buildings are now adorned with moving-image advertising, the majority of our cityscape endures, from Brick Lane to the gloomy fly-overs of the East End. There’s fun to be had from all this – zebras roam St James’s Park and Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ now hangs in a (finally!) refurbished Battersea Power Station. But this is no joke: this is as real and as provocative as the future gets on screen.



Author: Dave Calhoun

This is a film about the survival of humanity in an inhumane world - a world that is frightening primarily because of its plausibility. I find it interesting that one of the complaints most frequently levelled against the film is that what appears to be the central issue, the fact that the race of man has become infertile, is never explained. It's a valid enough question, but one that I suspect misses the point slightly. The lack of children is, in the end, merely a McGuffin, and intentionally so: by keeping the reason behind the catalyst to the world's demise vague, Cuarón ensures that his plot remains plausible despite the obvious sci-fi thematics. The crisis could just as easily have been global warming (a topic developed in the Cuarón-directed documentary that accompanies the film on DVD and HD DVD), nuclear war, a devastating terrorist attack, or anything along those lines. The point is not really what happened to make things so bad, but just that things are really bad. Some might see it as a cheat, but I think it's a perfectly legitimate means of storytelling.

This rationale also extends to one of the other major criticisms regarding the film: the fact that, barring a few holographic billboards for de-aging processes, the technology of 2027 as portrayed by Children of Men seems remarkably close to that of 2007. Indeed, if anything, things seem to have regressed, with the grimy council estates and anonymous tower blocks evoking the 1980s more than the twenty-first century. Again, however, the reasoning behind this have been ably explained by the director: intent on making the "anti-Blade Runner", Cuarón consciously avoided making his world appear too futuristic, as he believed that high-tech gadgetry and other forms of otherworldliness would have distracted the audience from the drama, or, even worse, made it seem like something new and exciting rather than decayed and depressive. In any event, the production design is magnificent, and entirely believable as a vision of the future.
What makes the film so believable, however, is not the script itself (which is ploddingly heavy-handed in places - even going so far as to call the person who is the key to humanity's future Kee) but rather the execution. Simply put Cuarón's technique is incredible. His camerawork is characterised by almost impossibly long, uninterrupted takes, many of which require multiple viewings in order for the craftsmanship behind them to be truly appreciated. Indeed, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki specifically asked Cuaron not to reveal the machinations behind the most complicated set-pieces. Far from merely being an exercise in style over substance, however, the visual style adds to the believability of the piece, making the events that unfold feel uncomfortably real and close to home. There's a sense at times almost of cinéma vérité in Cuarón's depictions of the events. For instance, a lengthy set-piece late in the film, in which Theo and his charges must negociate a refugee ghetto in the middle of all-out war, is reminiscent of the news footage showing, first-hand, the conflict taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we have all seen. The audience has a sense of really being caught up in the middle of the conflict, meaning that the cinematic technique is not only brilliant but, for the most part, transparent.

This sense of realism extends to the film's portrayal of violence, something which is endemic in the futuristic world that it portrays. In cinema, there are generally two accepted methods of portraying violence: you can either show it in gory, unflinching detail, or you can tactfully and coyly cut away from it. Both methods can be equally effective if pulled off properly, but both can be equally tacky and manipulative. Cuarón does something else entirely: he just shows it. If a violent act is taking place, he doesn't go to great pains to showcase it, but neither does he explicitly avoid showing it. It's this more than anything that makes the events taking place seem real: when a likeable character is executed, their death is played out in long shot, in real time, without any fancy cutting, music or sound design. And it's scary.




Children of Men: Invisible VFX for a Future in Decay
Alain Bielik talks with the visual effects wizards given the task of transporting audiences into a believable, bleak near future in Children of Men.

Set in the near future, Children of Men (which opened Christmas Day from Universal Pictures) is a gritty thriller in which humanity faces the perspective of its own extinction. Due to a mysterious global phenomenon, women have lost the ability to give birth. In this childless world, even the most civilized societies are collapsing. The only hope lays in the hands of a small group of British rebels that tries to bring the only pregnant woman in the world to safety. Adapted from P.D. James' best-selling novel, the movie was directed by Alfonso Cuaron with a unique naturalistic documentary shooting style. The entire movie was filmed hand-held with wide lenses (mostly 18mm or 21mm) in order to give the footage the feeling of an actual newsreel. The director also favored extremely long takes - there are no more than 460 shots in the final cut.

For lead visual effects vendor Double Negative, London, this approach implied the creation of more than 160 "invisible" effects shots of the highest complexity. The core team included vfx supervisor Frazer Churchill, vfx producer Rupert Porter, CG supervisor David Vickery and 2D supervisor Andy Lockley.

"There were two main categories of effects," Churchill explains. "First, we had to enhance environments to make them look like the action was taking place in 2027. Then, we had to combine several takes to create impossibly long shots. One of them is a nine-minute hand-held tracking shot made up of six different takes. Obviously, the shooting style created a true challenge for us. The handheld camera meant that there were no tripods, no dollies and none of the usual points of reference. It also meant that the height, tilt and roll of the camera were always varying, making them impossible to measure and to repeat precisely. Our matchmove and tracking team really out-did themselves on this project!"



Visualizing a World in Decay
Although the movie is set in the year 2027, Cuaron didn't want the action to take place in a futuristic world. This is the world that we know, only with a slightly more sophisticated technology. The London of tomorrow was mainly realized by the integration of multiple animated billboards on buildings and vehicles. These elements were blended as much as possible into the background, as not to draw unnecessary attention. Some billboard images were purposely created in poor quality and projected onto screens in a bad state of repair -- this is a civilization in decay.

The lengthy opening shot features many of these subtle enhancements, but the viewer focuses immediately on lead character Theo (Clive Owen). In one continuous shot, the camera follows Theo out of a coffee shop when an explosion blows the place apart right behind him. The impressive shot was created by Double Negative from two different takes shot over two consecutive days.

"For all these shots that we had to blend together for the movie, we started with approved storyboards," Churchill continues. "We then went on set a couple of weeks before the actual shoot, and filmed several tests in video, rehearsing the whole action. Then, back at Double Negative, we tried to determine the ideal transition point between every two consecutive takes. We did several versions and showed them to the director. Most of the time, he would tell us: 'This is too easy! Try something else...' So, we kept on refining the transitions in video until we met Alfonso's approval. Then, we would go on set and rehearse the take with the actors and the cameraman operator, based on the approved video test. Most of these takes were logistical nightmares as there were so many cues to hit: actors, camera, extras, pyrotechnics, stunts, etc. If something went wrong, it was so complicated to reset it all...

"During rehearsals, our vfx editor Andy Hague would take the live feed from the video assist into editing software Final Cut Pro, and create test transitions directly on set. Using this reference, the camera move and choreography were then adjusted to provide the best transition points possible. Since the takes were all hand-held, we filmed the set with video cameras to see precisely where both the actor and the cameraman stopped at the end of each take. We then referred to these images to place them in the same position at the beginning of the next take. As soon as we had two plates, we would test the transition again and determine if we had what we needed to create a seamless blend before moving on to the next shot."

The transitions were mainly completed in Maya using a 2-1/2D reprojection technique. First, the end of A-roll and the beginning of B-roll were tracked in 3D. A third camera was then created and used to blend the two camera moves. The 3D data generated by the three cameras was then exported back into Shake via proprietary software. This allowed the compositor to take the 3D data from the three cameras, and complete the physical merging of the plates within the compositing software, enabling him to retain maximum image quality from the original plates. The team often added foreground elements over the transitions to help with continuity issues and positional inconsistencies.

Merging and Blending Multiple Takes
For the coffee shop explosion scene, there were two "hero" takes to blend together. "On the first day, we shot the shop interior," Churchill notes. "We would later add screen inserts for the televisions, and digital billboards outside. At the end of the shot, the camera would exit the shop door out onto the street and stop there. On the second day, the interior set was emptied and rigged with explosives and debris. The camera then duplicated the exit from the coffee shop and continued the move down the street. Our task was then to create the illusion of a continuous camera move. For this, both plates were tracked, stabilized, and stitched together merging different sections from both plates into the doorway. So, as we exit the door with Theo, we are seeing the pavement and people from the day two shoot, composited over the passing bus from day one. As the bus passes, the rear of it 'wipes' on the rest of the day two plate, revealing the buildings and traffic."

Shot separately on greenscreen with a wire rig, a stunt couple was composited into the café doorway to be "blown" across the street. Extra debris was also added in the shot to enhance the original explosion, and cracks applied to foreground windows. Finally, a new handheld camera move was generated, so the transition didn't have a smooth stabilized feel to it.

Most of the transitions in the movie were completed on the environment while the camera was briefly panning away from the main actors. For the coffee shop scene though, Theo seems to remain in frame throughout the shot, but at the transition point, the camera cleverly pans off of him to show his reflection on a window. "You get the feeling that he was in camera throughout the shot, when actually, for a couple of seconds, you only saw his reflection... You just don't notice it."

Even more complex was a shot in which the camera follows Theo in the middle of an urban battlefield and inside a building. At one point, in a remarkable cinematic sleight of hand, the camera actually becomes the character's point of view. The shot was captured in five separate takes over two locations. The exterior section of the shot was split into only two takes and the interior split into three. On top of the already demanding transition effects, Double Negative also had to deal with a huge amount of set and action enhancements. Some buildings were painted out, others were extended with extra stories, new structures were added in; hundreds of bullet hits were also composited in, using practical elements.

During the interior section of the shot, the environment remains visible behind windows. Since the plate had been shot with greenscreens, the team needed to replace them with a digital panorama of the exterior. First, digital stills of the exterior set were stitched together using proprietary software. The resulting panorama was mapped onto a 3D cylinder, which was then imported into a 3D scene containing the matchmove data from the tracked greenscreen plate. From the 3D package, the cylinder and the matchmoved camera were then exported into Shake via another in-house application, and the 'Cyclorama' was composited into the greenscreen windows.

Crafting a Nine-Minute Long Shot
The most complex shot of all probably was a nine-minute long scene in which the characters have an extensive dialog while driving a car, and are then ambushed by a group of anarchists, resulting in one of the character being shot dead on its seat. The shot was filmed in six sections and at four different locations over one week and required five seamless digital transitions. Moreover, the camera records the action with a continuous movement that would actually be impossible to create in reality. In many instances, the camera ends up shooting the actors from a seat where we had just seen another actor the second before...

The plates were shot from a "doggy cam" shooting through the cut-off roof. The director, the cinematographer and the camera operator were actually seated on top of the car, thanks to a special rig, while the vfx crew and other technicians were hiding out of camera range around the traveling car. Altogether, 13 actors and crew members were on board for plate photography!

Given the length of the scene, the team opted to use as much of the original plates as possible, re-timing, warping and painting to reposition actors and parts of the vehicle where they didn't quite line up from section to section. Photographic textures of the entire interior of the car were taken to create a 3D model that could be used to align the 3D tracking data for each section of the shot. The roof was replaced throughout the entire shot, while the dashboard, windscreen and parts of the front doors had to be created in CG in several instances to allow for a smoother transition between plates. Defocusing the Maya elements was achieved using depth passes from software packages, including a proprietary plug-in that uses real world camera and lens measurements to calculate correct focus levels. Focus distances were then animated by hand to match in-shot focus pulls. "During filming, each location was photographed using an 8mm lens over a range of 12 stops to produce an HDRI environment -- inside and outside the car -- that would allow us to light the CG elements," Churchill says. "Using proprietary tool Stig, we created tiled panoramas of each environment that we then used to join the surroundings from one location to the next."

The live-action ambush was greatly enhanced by CG Molotov cocktail, a shattering digital windshield, a bullet hit and blood spurt and even a CG biker and motorcycle to augment a stunt performed during plate photography.



Tackling the Holy Grail of Visual Effects
While Double Negative was crafting invisible effects shots, Framestore CFC, London, was busy trying to create the most realistic CG human being ever put on screen. During the climactic scene, the pregnant woman finally delivers her baby into Theo's hands. After trying to use an animatronic newborn, Cuaron decided to call for the expertise of the company that had created the highly successful digital Hippogriff for his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Creating a realistic human being has always been the holy grail of CG animation, but here, the challenge was made even more difficult by the fact that the shot was a three-and-a-half-minute long take, filmed with a hand-held camera, and lit by a hand-carried hurricane lamp.

"It was definitely one of the most demanding projects I ever worked on," vfx supervisor Tim Webber admits. "This baby was the key point of the whole plot and the emotional climax of the entire movie. We wanted to make the audience believe that the producers had actually convinced a pregnant actress to deliver her baby on screen. So, we couldn't afford to miss..." Working alongside Webber were CG supervisor Andy Kind and animation supervisor Michael Eames.

The plate was shot with Owen holding a limbless dummy to help him focus his eye line and body language. The plan was to simply cover the dummy with the CG baby. However, during post-production, Cuaron decided to make the newborn a premature. As a consequence, the dummy was now much too large and couldn't be covered by a scaled down digital baby. After tracking the plate in Matchmover and boujou, the team used Commotion to painstakingly reconstruct the missing parts of the background, as well as Owen's hands and costume, without any clean plate to work from...

As usual on any digital human being, the key to the success -- or failure -- of the CG baby would be the skin, how it moved as well as how it looked. "The baby was modeled in Maya and animated from reference footage that we found" Webber notes. "We even asked our colleagues if anyone had filmed a childbirth and would be willing to show us the footage! We wanted to have as much reference on a newborn look and body language as we could. For example, we noticed that newborns have a very floppy and wrinkly skin. It meant that we had to do a lot of additional work that we wouldn't normally do on a wrinkle system. The skin had to move in a very specific way.

"Also, we knew the sub-surface scattering would be critical. Luckily, RenderMan had just released a series of new rendering tools, including sub-surface scattering techniques that were precisely what we needed. We obviously employed global illumination techniques, but we actually lit the baby to look good. The CG lighting was not the exact reproduction of the real lighting set-up. In all honesty, I don't think we did anything groundbreaking in terms of the technology. In my opinion, it is the first totally believable CG human being, but I think this success has more to do with the enormous amount of work and care that went into the texture, the lighting, the rendering and the compositing [Shake], than to some fancy new algorithm. I'd like to say so, though!"


Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex. Last year, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.

Reviewed by Andre Dellamorte

Here's why I'm harping on the abuses of calling this original, that's not why this film is a masterpiece. In fact, its brilliance is in using a familiar dystopian logic to comment on the current state of the world, and in making such a familiar story meaningful. Director Alfonso Cuaron pulls off a brilliant trick by establishing the ideology of the camerawork early on. It's funny how few filmmakers do this with their camera, but Cuaron achieves this effortless. We're in a world of extended takes, and from the opening shot to the already famous extended takes in the middle and end, but even the escape from the farm, or Theo's big meltdown are done in longer than normal shots. It creates a sense of intimacy, and again, a real feeling for the camera. What Cuaron does is reinvent the ideas for himself, and like all master filmmakers, in doing so does create something special, because it truly does express something powerful and potent.

 

And that is the brilliance of this film, in that it manages to do something so shopworn, and breathe life anew into. 2006 was the year of parenting, cinematically speaking, and Com feels like a film that looks at what's going in the world, all that is wrong in the Middle East, and wants to take a step back and show the value and meaning of human life. You also have everyone, literally everyone in the cast and crew dishing out their A game, with Michael Caine delicious as an old radical that now makes a living as a pot dealer. Slavoj Zizek appears in the supplements, and I love that he singles out Caine's performance by suggesting that Cuaron was using him to symbolize how the baby boomers ruined everything. That's why Zizek is a genius.

Ted Pigeon

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)

I recently came across this interview from last month with Alfonso Cuaron about Children of Men:



"What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative...

Let cinema breathe, in which narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it's [just] an element, as acting is an element, cinematography is an element. Music and decors, those are elements. But right now? Cinema becomes just about seeing illustrated stories as opposed to engaging audiences in an experience in which you don't explain much....

The principle of cinema is that you are looking at that screen. A lot of reviewers nowadays, they fall into that vice: they want stories. They want explanations, they want exposition and they want political postures. Why does cinema have to be a medium for making political statements as opposed to presenting facts, presenting elements and then you making your own conclusions -- even if they are elusive? There's nothing more beautiful than elusiveness in cinema."

Cuaron voices a rare and essential perspective about cinema as a visual medium. Too often, critics and filmmakers fail to engage these properties of cinema and, in so doing, miss out on the treasures that it can offer. I wish more members of the film and film criticism community understood that which they study with the same knowledge that Cuaron possesses.

Too many film goers, makers, and critics are focused on plot, exposition, and structure. While it may be true that some films are good precisely because how they incorporate plot elements, they are just elements in a larger picture. Great cinema is about the interaction of all of these elements, and there is no set way of achieving that. The components of each film interact differently depending on how each aspect is constructed and positioned. But cinematic greatness is achieved when every frame breathes with life as a result of such an interaction. Cuaron understands this, and his last three films are testimony to that understanding. Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien all feature meticulously crafted images capable of revealing subtleties in various aspects of the storytelling, which for each film is quite different.

Children of Men fascinates me because it confounds the lines between real and symbolic. Cuaron frames his near-future Britain with an approach featuring many long-take and hand-held shots, which creates a sense of authenticity. He creates a dismal-looking future defined by violence, atrocities, and fear, in which society has crumbled from within because women are infertile. Cuaron never bothers to provide reasons for the infertility, and he doesn't need to. That isn't what the film is about.

In the opening moments of the film, the images are just as focused on the world in which the characters inhabit as on the characters themselves. Furthermore, the film plunges you into its world without much exposition or explanation, which, as Cuaron explains, are almost irrelevant. He is interested in exploring how human beings exist in social spheres, and how they interact institutionally under extreme circumstances. And his observances of violence, death, and imprisonment are startling because the world he has created is oddly familiar, not only in terms of how it was constructed, but what is constructed. The comparisons are at times blunt. Cuaron wants to evoke feelings and thoughts that constitute how we currently relate to and interact with our visual culture and the outside world.

However, by not revealing particular details about the plot with exposition and scienctific explanation, Cuaron contrasts the very real feeling of the film with an allegorical subtext brimming with ambiguity. The focus of Clive Owen's central character, Theo, is ensuring that a miraculously pregnant woman and her baby reach The Human Project, a symbol of hope in the deteriorating world around them. The structure of the film itself performs a highwire act, balancing familiar chase story conventions and motifs while summarily rejecting them by integrating them into the social world that the characters inhabit. The "chase" motifs that inspire Cuaron's action sequences are not so much plot devices as revealing moments of the story and character.

Therefore, the film seems to exist unto itself, as if Cuaron is merely observing this world. The viewer is positioned not to question what occurs within the structure of the plot; a plot which reveals itself to be a symbolic journey simulataneously representing hope and dread. In a conventional sense, the film is about Theo's character arc, but the storytelling stretches far beyond its topical concerns. Theo's story resonates more effectively because of the manner in which Cuaron makes the plot relevant to the style of the storytelling, not the sole means by which the story achieves its weight. The interaction between the characters' mission (the plot) and the world of which they are apart (the social setting) meld seamlessly, yielding moments of pure mastery in the film's climax, in which all of the film's visual styles interact so effectively with the social environment they have created. Amongst the anarchy of gunfire and explosions that eventually unleashes, the sight and sound of a crying baby juxtaposed with images of war and destruction is profound moment of both hope and defeat.


Children of Men conveys conveys its themes in a way respectful to viewer, intwining many ideas and feelings into what could have been a somewhat conventional chase story. Instead, Cuaron's perspective of this world and the need to tell its story in relation to the characters' journey results in a visceral, emotional, and cerebral cinematic experience. Somehow, Cuaron melds these moods and feelings together into a piece of cinema that is beautifully... elusive.

[Note: I originally posted this review on 1/20/07, prior to the current format for my Cinema 2006 series. I've removed that post and posted it here among my other selections. For those who have seen this post before, my apologies. For those that haven't, and I'm sure there are many, this disclaimer doesn't hold any meaning. My mislead quest for perfectionism continues...]

Another movie night with the family. So, every time a dog barked in the film, which seemed to happen frequently, our dog barked, and the baby, our baby, had a hard time getting to sleep and kept crying. That was part of my experience in watching Children of Men (2006) for the first time the other night. I keep running into people who either have seen the film or have been planning to see the film and just haven’t got around to doing so. I think that is true of many “must see” films. People often intend to see them but don’t do so for a long time. Maybe it’s the felt pressure of knowing one is going to see an “important” film that such films get temporarily pushed aside for lighter fair. My wife rented it and, although I had planned on finishing Viridania (1961), we watched Children of Men. Anyway, I finally saw the film and I liked it very much, although I was not “blown away” as I thought I might be.

Rather than a review I want to make a couple of observations. The first has to do with fascism. I am inclined to think Children of Men has less to do with science fiction or infertility than it has to do with the human heart and humankind’s tendency towards fascism in the face of dire social conditions. The story in the film takes place in the future, but there are visual references to our own time and then to another darker period in our not too distant past. In a very visual and layered film, such as Children of Men, one often finds many interesting juxtapositions and subtle references. That is certainly the case here. Take for example this image:


Here we have the final image of a series of images that has told us a fair amount of backstory, especially regarding Jasper Palmer’s (Michael Caine) past as a political cartoonist, and the torture (by the British government) of his war photographer wife, who is now catatonic. The camera has been panning across these visual nuggets as the camera did in Rear Window showing us who Jimmy Stewart's character was. But with this image we now see something of Theo Faron’s (Clive Owen) past life – namely his wife and child. But notice the references to Tony Blair and to the protesting of the Iraq war. One wonders if Alfonso Cuarón is intending for us to make a connection with the world we live in now, including the choices of our governments, and this grim world of the future. I cannot help but think that is the case.

Next consider this image:

Here our hero, and somewhere ahead the woman Kee with her miracle baby, are being herded towards the Bexhill refugee internment camp. Notice the sign above Owen’s head. It reads Homeland Security. I believe this reference is not a cheeky wink wink to the audience, but a chilling statement (in the context of the film) on what the present U.S. (I don't know if there is a British equivalent) version of Homeland Security fundamentally is based on and where it will logically lead. I remember when the name "Homeland Security" was first rolled out publicly. My first thought was, "Doesn't that sound a little too close to 'fatherland'? And wasn't that a favorite invocation made by Hitler and his cronies?" My second thought was a sinking feeling in my gut. But again, I digress.

I must say that none of this information is hidden within the film. It is designed to be noticed. I am also not the first person to comment on these things. (see the Children of Men link above)

Then consider this image:


Here we are now in the Bexhill refugee internment camp. Bexhill-on-Sea, or just Bexhill, is the name of a sea-side retirement community in Southern England, actually having the highest retired population of any town in the UK today. In the film Bexhill is a town/city that has been converted into a prison for immigrants, somewhat invoking Abu Ghraib prison or Guantánamo Bay detainment camp, as some have argued. In an extremely nationalistic country being an immigrant is not a positive situation. Bexhill, in this context, makes sense given a world in which no one has been born in 18 years. If it is a retirement community today, it may likely be a largely unpopulated community in two decades. But I digress. Notice the graffiti on the wall: "THE UPRISING." Immediately I thought of another walled off city (or portion of a city) used to imprison unwanted foreigners and one that had its own uprising. I am thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. Modern references to Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay make some sense, but not as much as the Warsaw Ghetto, which was an even fuller expression of fascist terror (assuming Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay are examples of modern fascism, which they may be), and included a brave uprising on the part of the few remaining Jews. I see the image below of the Jewish fighters (soon to all be dead) and the next image of German soldiers standing watching the buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto burning and I see something much more like the ghetto in Children of Men than a modern political prison.




So here we have references to a growing fascism today and a full-blown fascism of our past within a story set in a possible(?) future. The question for me is, what am I to make of this? I believe Cuarón is asking me to make these kinds of connections, to see that the future is born out of the present, and to be aware of the darker implications of the choices we make or accept today. I fear the world we live in is bordering on fascism again. Remember fascism as we think of it - Hitler, Mussolini, etc. - was not a local thing. Fascism was popular around the world in those days. It was popular in the U.S. as well, especially before it was "tainted" with associations with our enemies and later with the Shoah. But fascism is not all Nazi flags and jackboots. Fascism tends to emerge when times are tough, when economies are poor, when immigrants pose a threat, when nationalism and patriotism seem noble, and when the world seems out of control and scary. One of the biggest boosts to a growing right-wing fascism in the U.S. was 9/11. But, let us not forget that the threat to jobs from immigration is a boost to a kind of left-wing fascism. Some have said fascism is neither right or left politically, but is proposed as an alternate third way. Regardless, fear and uncertainly is as much a tool in the hands of political opportunists as it is something to solve. I am reminded of that famous quote from Nazi leader Hermann Goering: [T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

The ideas in that quote were, in a sense, famously (and earlier) countered by FDR in his first inaugural address in 1933, made during a time of great fear and uncertainty. In that speech he had the line: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. FDR helped to keep fascism somewhat at bay in the U.S. while it flourished in Europe and elsewhere. Fear is a powerful corrosive. People often make decisions out of fear that they regret later - like locking up people without charges, without representation, and even without a trial. Or throwing away habeas corpus. Or like going hastily to war and then denouncing those who oppose the war as being unpatriotic and unsupportive of the troops.

As I see it, if the fundamental elements of fascism are nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, corporatism, collectivism, totalitarianism, anti-communism, and opposition to economic liberalism and political liberalism, then only an opposition to economic liberalism is absent from U.S. society. And even that is not entirely true. Economic liberalism largely means free trade and open markets in order for the haves and have-nots to grow farther apart. It is also a foundation of the modern form of aristocracy known as the divine right of capital. I don't mean to rant, but to me this is all rather frightening. It is no wonder that the rebels portrayed in the film look somewhat like some of the protesters we saw in Seattle in 1999, and at other similar protests around the world. I fear the crazy future world depicted in Children of Men is not as far fetched as it seems. My desire is that I don't let my fear rule my choices, and that I don't cavalierly throw the word "fascist" around without truly considering its meaning and implications.

So, back to the film...

The second observation I want to make has to do with cinéma vérité and camera/digital trickery. Children of Men is a wonderfully photographed film. Much has been made of the virtuosic use of camera, staging, and mise en scene. One scene in particular is the long, uncut episode where Theo is working his way through the rubble and gun fire of the Bexhill uprising to try and find Kee and the baby. This scene is several minutes long (I did not count) and is presented as though it was shot in one long take. In fact it "was filmed in five separate takes over two locations and then seamlessly stitched together to give the appearance of a single take." (from Wikipedia) If this is true, that is just about as remarkable as if it was actually filmed in a single take. But what I want to discuss is the blood splatter on the camera lens. It begins here:


Theo has just run into a broken down bus to avoid gun fire, but the shooters see him and spray the bus with bullets. A person next to Theo is hit and blood sprays (à la Kurosawa in Seven Samurai) from the bullet wound. The spray of blood is barely visible in the left half of the image above.

Then we get this image:

Droplets of blood are now visible on the camera lens. And those droplets remain on the lens as the camera follows Theo through the war torn landscape:



Eventually (minutes later, blood still on the lens) Theo enters a building. Bullets are still flying and he cowers momentarily near a stairwell:


You can still see a drop of blood on the lens. All this you have likely noticed.

I am a big fan of cinéma vérité in general. I should note, however, that nowhere in Children of Men do we see any "complete" use of cinéma vérité, but we do see strong elements, not least of which is the brilliant use of hand-held camera and, in this scene, blood splattered on the lens. My first impression was "that's cool!" Later I had second thoughts. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense for a film to draw attention to itself; think of Don't Look Back (1967) or Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) - both used cinéma vérité techniques to underscore the intrusion of the filming process into the world of their subjects. This makes sense in some documentary filmmaking - a tilt of the hat, so to speak, to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle put into ethnographic terms. But cinéma vérité is a little more tricky in fictional narratives. Here, in Children of Men, the filmmakers have gone a little to far. The blood on the lens only draws attention to the fact that someone is holding a camera on their shoulder (or a steadycam) and following Clive Owen as he follows the complicated stage directions. Now this would not be such a bad thing if the rest of the film had the same aesthetic. But it doesn't. At times the films is quite conventional. But in this scene suddenly we are watching a "documentary" that draws attention to its own existence. The audience is now not in the film with Theo, they are watching a film being filmed, they are "unsutured." In other words, this little piece is "coolness" helps to undercut an otherwise brilliant and almost uncanny bit of filmmaking.

But that's not all. Notice the last image above. Why does it have less blood splatter than the previous images? Where have those other blood droplets gone? Interesting the blood droplets have been gradually and subtly disappearing from the lens as the scene has progressed.

Now consider this image:


Notice the one last blood spot just slightly off-center right. This shot is in the middle of a whip-tilt up from Theo to the stairwell.

Now look at this image:

About one or two frames later the blood spot has disappeared. It disappears when the spot passes in front of the dark line of the handrail. Then we pan back to Theo:


Not a single blood spot left. This got my attention and it got me wondering. Were these spots added in later for effect? Were they digital creations? Or did they start as real splatter, then gradually get changed, maybe digitally, over the course of the scene until they are conveniently "disappeared" so as not to interfere with the remainder of the scene (when Theo finally finds Kee and the baby). I find it interesting that this change is the opposite of cinéma vérité.

So what does this all mean? Obviously no film exists apart from its creation. Films are created artifacts, and questions of truth, reality, verisimilitude, artifice, etc., abound. Films are also spiritual to the degree that they tap into and reflect both the spirit of the age and the human spirit. In narrative film there is always a tension between what is up there on the screen (the plot) and what is going on in one's head (the story). Stories are universal, to some degree, but films as artifacts are particular. Children of Men tells a universal story of fear, cruelty, the will to survive, hope, and salvation (Theo, Kee, and the baby are a kind of futuristic Holy family. The birth scene is powerfully remeniscient of classic Nativity stories). In this sense the film is spiritual. Sure, the film is a fantasy about the future, but it also highlights important ideas about our present and our past, issues that are more important than this particular film. The film, as plot, however, presents that story in such a way that questions are raised regarding the honesty of the film's (or filmmaker's) intentions. I say this because I am always suspicious of communication that is full of rhetorical and stylistic flourishes.


Children of Men may be a film as much about virtuosic filmmaking (and about drawing attention to itself as such) as it is about deeper themes of fasiscm and fear. My contention is that the film's deeper messages may have become clouded in the whirlwind of intense faux vérité and the foregrounding of its own artifice. In other words, just at the moment when the viewer should be thrust into the film's thematic climax, a little flag (read: blood splatter on the camera lens) is waved saying "don't forget how brilliant this filmmaking is and who made it!" For me that is why, when the credits rolled at the end of the film, I felt the film had let me down, just a little.
CHILDREN OF MEN

Rated:R

For movie details, please click here.

About a half-hour into Alfonso Cuarón's dark tale of the near future, Children of Men, there's a sequence that begins with the film's reluctant hero Theo Faron (played by a suitably hangdog Clive Owen) being driven through the devastated English countryside to an undisclosed location. Also in the car are several members of the Fishes, an immigrants-rights organization that has enlisted Theo to help with its latest mission. These individuals include the group's leader--and Theo's ex-wife--Julian (Julianne Moore), her right-hand man Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a young black woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who they are trying to smuggle out of the country under the nose of the authorities. As they round a bend in the road, a rusted-out car comes careening down a hill and explodes in front of them. At the same time, an armed mob emerges from the trees and swarms their vehicle. Luke throws the car into reverse and drives wildly in the opposite direction, but he's pursued by two men on a motorcycle, who fire several bullets into the car, hitting one of the passengers and shattering the front window. Theo opens his door and knocks them off their bike, as Luke turns down a side road and guns the engine. They speed off, leaving the mob and the assassins in the rearview mirror. It's only after they've gotten away and you remember to take a breath that you realize the entire sequence was filmed in a single take.

Children of Men is filled with scenes like this one, which dazzle you with their technical complexity and visual virtuosity. On this level alone, it's easily one of the best films of the year and represents a new level of artistry for Cuarón. Set in the year 2021, the film imagines a future where mankind has lost the ability to reproduce. This development has plunged the world into chaos. England is the only country on the planet to still have some semblance of order, largely because its citizens have surrendered their freedoms in favor of (relative) safety. One of the first acts of the new regime was to round up all non-native Britishers and toss them into overpopulated detention camps. Not everyone agrees with this policy, though; militant groups like the Fishes are striking back at the government through bombings and other acts of intimidation. Then there are people like Theo, who are caught somewhere in the middle. Although he works for the government as a low-level bureaucrat, he doesn't support those in power. But his revolutionary zeal perished several years ago along with his young son Dylan, a victim of a flu epidemic. These days, Theo is happier to simply escape from the world by visiting his pal Jasper (Michael Caine), a '60s-hippie type who lives in a secluded house in the country where he grows some stellar pot.

Despite its sci-fi trappings, Children of Men is very much a companion piece to Cuarón's critically acclaimed drama Y Tu Mamá También. At its heart, this is a classic road movie where one man's trip across a country (in this case, futuristic England) represents his internal journey towards some kind of self-awareness. Not long after the aforementioned roadside attack, Theo discovers the truth about Kee (she's pregnant) and also learns that the Fishes intend to use her for their own ends. (Because she's an immigrant, they hope that her pregnancy will shame the government into reversing its "no foreigners" stance.) So he spirits her away in the dead of night and escorts her to the coast, where they are supposed to be met by representatives of the so-called "Human Project," an underground scientific organization that may or may not exist. It's through his grueling experiences on the road with Kee that Theo remembers how to care for a person and, by extension, a cause.


Children of Men actually improves on Y Tu Mamá También in many ways, particularly because Cuarón doesn't smother the proceedings in overwritten narration. This is an intensely visual story in which most of the important details about these characters and the world they inhabit are communicated through images rather than dialogue. In fact, the film is at its weakest when it tries to explain too much; some of the early conversations between Theo and Julian sound painfully expository. Once Theo sets off on his quest, however, Children of Men becomes both a white-knuckle adventure film and an emotional drama that makes a potent case against the anti-immigrant sentiment currently being expressed in England as well as in this country. Cuarón's carefully choreographed long takes grow increasingly more elaborate, climaxing in a stunning tracking shot that finds Theo pursuing Kee through a war zone as bombs and gunfire rain down around him. Children of Men is a film that demands to be seen more than once, if only to figure out how the heck the filmmakers pulled sequences like this one off.

Critic: Ethan Alter





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