Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Children of Men.

criterion logoNo children.  No future.  No hope.  In the year 2027, eighteen years since the last baby was born, disillusioned Theo Faron (Clive Owen) becomes an unlikely champion of the human race when he is asked by his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) to escort a young pregnant woman out of Britain as quickly as possible.  In a thrilling race against time, Theo will risk everything to deliver the miracle the whole world has been waiting for.  Employing stunningly long takes filmed by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men presents a politically charged, near-future dystopia that is all too recognizable from the present day.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital film transfer, supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and approved by director Alfonso Cuarón, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • A new piece on the making of Children of Men, featuring new interviews with actors Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Clare-Hope Ashitey, co-writer Timothy J. Sexton, Cuarón, and Lubezki
  • The Possibility of Hope, Cuarón’s 27-minute documentary on the issues and theories behind Children of Men
  • Comments by Slavoj Zizek, an extended interview on the film and its adaptation from P. D. James’s novel
  • Theo and Julian, interviews with Clive Owen and Julianne on the development of their characters
  • Under Attack, a behind-the-scenes look at shooting the film’s complicated action sequences
  • Futuristic Design, a review of Children of Men‘s outstanding art direction and world-building
  • Visual Effects: Creating the Baby, an examination of the film’s digital effects
  • A new video piece with scholar James Udden on Children of Men and the long take
  • Quietus “You Decide When” commercial
  • Deleted scenes
  • Gallery of production photos, posters, and promotional art
  • Trailers and TV spots
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring extensive production design artwork, Zizek’s essay “The Clash of Civilizations at the End of History,” and a new essay by film critic Charles Taylor

Working from a previously developed script, co-writers Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, and Clive Owen freely adapted P. D. James’s source novel into a staggeringly familiar vision of a near-future dystopia, where female infertility has left the world without hope or compassion. Britain has maintained its “civilized” society primarily by the brutal treatment of immigrants seeking refuge from the rest of the world’s anarchy, but its refugee camps, like Bexhill-on-Sea, are squalid tinderboxes ready to blow up into full scale revolt, and militant groups for “fugee” rights, like the Fishes, aim to bring an uprising to their government’s door.  Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a once idealistic activist and now a cynical bureaucrat, is kidnapped by the Fishes.  They are led by his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) and she asks him to obtain travel documents for a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) whom they hope to sneak out of the country.  Convinced to help them by the promise of payment, Theo uses his contacts to obtain travel papers but they require him to accompany Kee to her jumping off point out of England.  After Julian is killed in an attack on their vehicle and Kee reveals to Theo that she is pregnant, Theo discovers that Julian was murdered by the Fishes in a plot crafted by the group’s new leader Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who plans to keep Kee and her baby as symbols of the movement.  Theo escapes with Kee and her midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) in an effort to carry out Julian’s plan to turn Kee over to the Human Project, an enclave of scientists based in the Azores working to cure the global infertility epidemic.  With the assistance of Theo’s friend Jasper (Michael Caine channeling his best John Lennon), a reclusive former political cartoonist, Theo, Kee, and Miriam are smuggled into the Bexhill refugee camp where a nearby rendezvous with the Human Project is expected.  Overnight, Bexhill becomes a war zone between the camp’s refugees and the military and Theo is challenged to protect Kee and her child from the dangers around them, including the Fishes who have broken into Bexhill looking for Kee and the baby.  Amid the chaos, a deadline for their scheduled appointment with the Human Project looms and Theo must make great sacrifices if he is to live up to his promises to Kee and Julian.

On its face, Children of Men sounds like a classical Hollywood narrative; having a goal-oriented protagonist; a clear beginning, middle, and end; and a linear progression that even includes a defined deadline to work toward; but its treatment of space is decidedly uncharacteristic.  While classical Hollywood narratives emphasize persons and objects of narrative significance through balanced compositions and a clear distinction between foreground and background, Children of Men frequently destabilizes that approach, allowing its visual perspective to wander, to become distracted, even allow for moments of lost contemplation, only to return to Theo and discover that he’s left or leaving the scene, his attention turned to other matters.  It’s easy to get lost in Children of Men.  Cuarón and his production team have fashioned a highly developed world of decaying infrastructure and shabby communities.  The authenticity of this hopeless mise-en-scène is supported by the use of very long takes (sometimes actually shot; sometimes digitally masked together from multiple shots) and handheld shakiness that conforms to the style of ad hoc, documentary shooting.  While not without scenes of exposition, Children of Men relies heavily on this dystopic environment to describe the fictive history of the film’s last 20 years, leaving the viewer to comprehend the film’s devastating predicament from what Slavoj Zizek describes as an oblique perspective.  Still, the camera’s willingness to be drawn away from Theo and the film’s narrative thread to explore the people and places that form its background is something altogether different, and it has become the overwhelming topic of interest to various scholars and critics fascinated with the unusual world of Children of Men.

The camera’s lack of slavish allegiance to Theo and his story results in multiple interpretations regarding to what Children of Men‘s narrative perspective attends.  For scholars like Ben Ogrodnik, the film’s “restless camera” and “narrative asymmetry” contemplates a politically self-conscious film that emphasizes the socially marginalized background to Theo’s world and transforms him into the film’s object rather than its subject, thereby making his expanded humanity more of an integration into society than a realization made internally within him.  For others, like Charles Edgar Hicks, Cuarón’s film is an expression of Bazinian realism and transcendent posthumanism.  Through the use of long takes that are at times disjointed from the film’s protagonist and scenes that are obviously impossible to shoot by human hands alone (such as the roving camera within the Fishes’ vehicle during the bravura sequence where Julian is killed), Children of Men reveals the mechanical and human intersection that is film’s nature and supplies a more objective vision of the world and its condition.  Anirban Kapil Baishya observes how the film’s “cinema-verité mode” captures “the realism of live TV footage of actual news coverage of war” and how the film frequently lingers on imagery that evokes modern detention camps like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and The Maze.  Baishya suggests that these moments evoke the socio-political concerns of recent history, perhaps demonstrating Zizek’s view that these narrative asides offer historical contexts necessary for a healthy society and lost in the times of late-capitalism.  Zizek contrasts the barren, soulless “Ark of the Arts” where Michaelangelo’s David stands meaningless with the briefly invoked image of Michaelangelo’s Pietà cast as a grieving mother on a Bexhill street cradling her dead son, noting how history, humanity, and social context must interact for art to be meaningful and effective.  Still others note the citations of the Nativity in Children of Men – the “virgin” mother (joked at by Kee), the miracle baby, the “manger” scene where Kee reveals her pregnancy to Theo, the uttered “Jesus Christ” whenever anyone discovers Kee and her baby, the repeated gathering of contented animals around Theo, the awe and reverence of the fugees and soldiers during Theo and Kee’s exit from the Bexhill firefight (Children of Men did have a Christmas release after all) – and we wonder if the roving camera might also be considered as a more spiritual intervention on both Theo and a dying Britain.

These critics may disagree between themselves on the significance and meaning behind the film’s approach to story-telling, but all seek to assert that deeper meanings are being made beyond the typical Hollywood Bildungsroman where an average person (read: male and white) finds personal growth and awareness through adversity and experience.  These approaches connect the change in Theo to something decidedly outside of himself (society, spirituality, technology) that acts convivially with him.  What is compelling and fascinating about Children of Men is that these heavy issues are not expressed primarily through exposition, but through camera movement and production design.  The richness of the film’s worn-down environment overdetermines the camera’s gaze, and the camera’s roaming observation in turn re-emphasizes its mise-en-scène.  This interplay between what is seen and how it is seen becomes the means through which the film’s philosophical and ideological substructure is revealed, what Zahid R. Chaudhary calls Children of Men‘s “optical unconscious.”  The effect, a sense that the camera’s point of view is motivated without being ascribable to an actual participant in the narrative, is wondrous and nearly transcendental.  It is a rare film that can inspire such engagement in this breadth and manner, and one that reflects the work of consummate artists.

Banksy GazaWith the Criterion Collection having already assigned spine numbers to Sólo con tu pareja (1991) and Y tu mamá también (2001), Cuarón’s big budget, major studio supported merger of science fiction futurism and art house filmmaking is a natural next step.  In many ways, Children of Men elaborates on the aesthetic approach initiated with Y tu mamá también with bigger stars, more prominent source material, and far greater resources.  It is a visually stunning, philosophically sophisticated, highly technical, and, above all else, incredibly moving film.  For us, it’s the best film released in 2006, a truly excellent year for the cinema.  Banksy naturally seems like a no-brainer for a packaging commission, his Kissing Coppers (2004) even appearing in the film.  His street art is entirely in keeping with Children of Men‘s ubiquitous, politically engaged graffiti, and this piece, a watch tower doubling as a children’s playground swing ride that was released earlier this year in Gaza, seems like a custom-fit for a potential Criterion edition of the film.

Credits:  Children of Men has the benefit of already having a fairly robust DVD/Blu-ray edition.  Our cover summary is partly developed from that packaging and we’ve ported over the special features for inclusion in a Criterion release of the film.  Criterion’s Y tu mamá también includes a new feature with cast and crew revisiting the film, and so we’ve done the same here.  We’ve also supposed a new video piece by James Udden on the long take.  Udden’s essay “Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuaron’s Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization” canvasses many of the readings and counter-readings of Children of Men‘s cinematography while also providing some much needed historical context for the long take both within Cuarón’s filmography specifically and cinema history generally.  Charles Taylor was selected to provide a new essay given his piece “Dirty Happy Things” written for Criterion’s Current.  Those looking to further explore Children on Men will find plenty of commentary available, and we owe credit to Ben Ogrodnik’s “Focalisation Realism and Narrative Asymmetry in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men,” Kim Voynar’s “Interview: Children of Men Director Alfonso Cuaron,” Adam Kossoff’s “The Long Take In the Digital Epoch,” Charles Edgar Hicks’s “Children of a Posthuman Realism: Alfonso Cuarón’s Posthuman Adaptation of P.D. James’s The Children of Men,” Kirk Boyle’s “Children of Men and I Am Legend: the disaster-capitalism complex hits Hollywood,” Anirban Kapil Baishya’s “Trauma, Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction & The Post-Human,” Sarah Schwartzman’s “Children of Men and a Plural Massianism,” Heather Latimer’s “Bio-Reproductive Futurism: Bare Life and the Pregnant Refugee in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men,” Zahid R. Chaudhary’s “Humanity Adrift: Race, Materiality, and Allegory in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men,” and William Whittington’s “Sound design for a found future: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.”  The density of Children of Men prevents us from coming even close to discussing it exhaustively and we highly encourage readers to delve into the film’s relationships with race, gender, citizenship, geopolitics, commercial film production, evolutionary theory, religion, and still other topics.

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3 thoughts on “Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

  1. aaronwest April 27, 2015 / 11:17 am

    This would be a dream, and as you’ve indicated, could happen since they have a history with the director. Easily one of my favorite films of the 00s.

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