Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review: Children of Men

It's dystopia week here at Sterne! Or apparently so, anyhow, since my timely viewing of the Children of Men coincides nicely with Tim's thoughts in the post below on Jericho and The Road, and the following review should best be seen as a continuation of m'learnéd friend's ponderings (i.e. I am about to plagiarise his ideas). We are gloomy bastards, it is true, but is it not possible that a discussion about different interpretations of mankind's future is of immediate import? That we should all be concerned with both the way our society envisions it's demise (or lack there-of) and whether the conjuring of post-apocalyptic near-futures is endemic of the times we live in or an apotropaic attempt to ward such fates off? And that these concerns are more worthy of time and brain cells than debating which of Channel 10's current batch of fading starlets had the nicest frock at that thingy with the horses that happened on Tuesday? The answer is of course No, and I for one thought Steph McIntosh looked fab, but since my knowledge of fashion is roughly equable with my understanding of immunobiology, it might be best to stick to talking about the End Times...

...As envisioned here by Alfonso Cuaron by way of a novel by PD James. Plot wise, Children of Men dips into the commonality of apocalyptic themata and posits a world that has undergone a paradigm-shattering event. Rather than a nuclear holocaust or simliar, however, Armageddon is writ in the form of inexplicable infertility. The final recorded human birth occurs roughly two decades prior to the beginning of the narrative, and both book and film open with the death of the world’s last ‘baby’ in the year 2027 (by all accounts grown into a rather pointless individual) in a bar brawl (a pretty pointless demise). Obviously, Children of Men shares an interest with the other examples of the genre Tim discusses below - exploring society’s reaction to the news of its own mortality, though James puts it infinitely more Britishly: “If there were no future, how would we behave?” However, Children of Men differs vastly from the likes of Jericho, whose characters and plotlines exist either to reify notions of the American Spirit or for mere cheap thrills; though both speculate on a world that has suffered an indelible break with historical continuity, the former is entirely suffused with what the latter lacks, namely a stultifying, crippling sense of ennui. People don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. What’s the point?

Interestingly, Children of Men is not a tale of the aftermath. It’s not about a struggle to survive or to redefine. Mankind still exists, with its social and political structures roughly intact, and could in theory continue to exist quite comfortably for about fifty years more before slowly sliding the way of the dodo or a Britney Spears marriage. But when faced with the fact that the whole of history is redundant, that the sum total of human existence has proved to be you, and the principles used to characterise your actions, justice or morality for example, are now as meaningful, and indeed as otiose, as children’s stories – in short, that nothing really matters anymore – well, why bother with anything? Or care about consequences (incidentally, I came to the conclusion long ago that I was the sum total of human existence, and I’m feelin’ fine about it, but in this as so many other things I must perhaps assume I’m the rule-proving exception)? Children of Men sees six billion odd people faced with the inevitability of a leisurely extinction, and essentially giving up on, well, everything. Government exists only is its most basic forms, where it exists. Work continues only out of habit. The populace is too torpid to bother even with the effort of suicide.It’s the proverbial whimper, sans bang.

There are of course exceptions: when the ability to reproduce mysteriously disappears from the race within the space of a few years, and science is left to shrug its shoulders in embarassment, people tend to shop elsewhere for explanations. James' dystopia displays a marked a rise in religious extremism and a degree of credence being given to previously incredible conspiracy theories. Mankind is nothing without it's little obsessions (though it'll be nothing soon enough, regardless). Some futilely stockpile caches of cultural treasures, against a day a thousand years hence when suspisciously asexual aliens will discover Earth and proclaim Love to have been mankind's greatest achievement (man, did you hate A.I. as much as I did?). A revolutionary, religious extremist, hoarder or exception of any sort Londoner Theodore Faron is not, however. Rather, the protagonist of Children of Men is a one time teenage activist turned bureaucrat turned petty drunk turned fifty-ish. Occasionally railing at humanity's inertia but unable to stir himself from his own apathy, selfish to a fault and wary of anything approaching responsiblity, Theo is an Everyman for a sluggish apocalypse. Offered a substantial boost to his drinking money by a group of radicals, however, he agrees to help look after a woman the group are sheltering for their own ends - a woman who turns out to be pregnant with the first new child in twenty years.

James' book and Cuaron's movie are very different beasts. This is not least because the movie moves along at a clipping pace while the book wallows in the ponderous lethargy of its characters. The central tenet of the plot is the same though, as essentially is the character of Theo. However James is interested largely in exploring the possibilities and concepts inherent in a fictional, if verisimilitudinous, future. Cuaron wants to directly explore how our understanding of a dystopic future is coloured by contemporary experience, how it affects us here and now. His use of camera angles makes this apparent. Much of the movie is spent following the characters from behind in the manner of news or documentary footage; at one stage the fourth wall is tumbled deliberately, horrifyingly, by a spatter of blood on the camera lens. The audience is instructed to enter into a direct discourse with the film, to relate to it as though to a current event.

Thematically, too, the same occurs. The 2027 protrayed with brilliant attention to detail in the movie is an extension of our 2006, but with all the stops removed. Freed from the responsibility of caring for the future, the environment has gone to hell: Great Britain, the whole island, is a slum. It is, nevertheless, slightly better than most of Europe, and is therefore the target destination du jour for fleeing refugees. If humanity has any drives left in Cuaron's vision, though, they are either gross self-pity or anger; both are stirred by the maudlin patriotism of London's tabloid media, an accerbated reflection of our current xenophobia and fear of terrorists. The result is that the dehumanised 'fugees are hunted down, locked in cages and carted off to ghettoes, if they aren't shot on sight. James' Britain 2027 is nowhere near so specific - criminals are sent to prison camps, certainly, but man's inhumanity to man in her future comes only from a generalised tendency towards amorality or to willful negligence in the abscence of something to care for, coupled with occasional violent outbursts against figures representing impending mortality (the elderly, for example). Cuaron's vision sees lack of responsibility breeding a lack of inhibition, an instinct towards rapaciousness - the wille zur macht expressed in its most crude and vile form. If predjudice exists today, when all consequences are removed what's to stop the slightest excuse giving vent to acts of atrocity tomorrow?

The treatment of the 'fugees is handy fuel for religio-political groups such as the Fishes, themselves looking for a pretext to spill a bit of the ol' krovvy. It is the Fishes who are sheltering Kee, the miraculously pregnant Afrian refugee Clive Owen's Theo is first paid to, and then willingly, protects. An extrapolation from other figures in James' novel, Kee is nevertheless a rounded character and an appropriately non-archetypal prospective mother for the new generation of humanity. An unapologetic whore, loud, resolutely dim-witted but nevertheless quite charming, were she Australian, she'd be a bogan; were she British, a chav (case in point: she wants to name the hope of humanity's future 'Froley' if it's a boy, 'Bazooka' if it's a girl). Her characterisation highlights one of the films great triumphs, which is its portrayal of natural human tendencies. The novel has a predisposition, given the univeral ennui of its inhabitants, to imbue any act of basic humanity with mythic sensibilities, a whiff of the holy. In contrast the movie is full of simple human acts: acting the goat, tripping over, banging your head, making a cup of tea, making a joke. This last, particularly - there are several obliquely, awkwardly humourous scenes; ill at ease with the rest of the plot and the mood of melancholy, not necessarily particularly funny, per se, but neccessary nonetheless, both as a device to alleviate often unbearable tension, and because that's what people do. When they're desperate, or bored, or nervous (or all three at once in combination with being British; believe me, I should know), they make jokes, no matter how stupid.

If none of the above jibberings about the Nature of Man come Judgement Day adds bouyancy to your aquatic vessel, rest assured that the movie is well paced, well acted and maintains a palpable air of tension from the first minute. The cinematography is stunning, quite beautiful in its attention to squalour, and utterly immersive in its realism. Too, there are some quite astounding set pieces, one done at speed in a car (which calls to mind a scene of equal inventiveness in Spielburg's own technically great but narratively trite sci-fi/refugee/road flick War of the Worlds), and a climactic scene involving a breathtaking twelve minute continuous take, visceral and harrowing, and presumably a nightmare to stage. A nightmare to watch too, but one you can't, indeed daren't, look away from. That said, Children of Men is not without flaws: arguably it gets a leeetle too hagiographic in its treatment of women; the imagery involving animals is pleasant, but overly cute; and some may find the symbolism of the ending a tad clichéd. Each to his own. These are ultimately minor faults, and I highly doubt you're going to see very many mainstream movies as provocativly and elegantly handled this year. Especially not coming from the director of a Harry Potter movie, fer chrissakes.

17 comments:

Tim said...

A very interesting, enjoyable post. This is the first film in ages I've felt that I must see, although I doubt I will until it's out on DVD. Such are the sacrifices of parenthood! Perhaps pan-infertility would have an upside. Only joking, kids.

I have the book somewhere but I'm a bit dubious about it. Michael Moorcock reckons it's a dud, even going so far as to post a review on Amazon under a pseudonym. Then again, maybe he just owes Brian Aldiss money.

Jon said...

The latter I suspect. Either that or he tried to chat James up at a party once and got shot down. The book's no great shakes, that's for sure (far too slow, a little too arch come the ending), but not an insult to the intelligence. Not like China Mieville, Mr Moorcock.

Sf writers tend to get a bit shirty, I think, when other popular genre writers start edging into their territory - people (read: literary critics) don't take them particularly seriously as it is; having your audience pinched by a crime novelist is an extra slight.

Go see the movie, though, if you get a chance. It's a bit of a corker.

Anonymous said...

That was great, Jon. Thanks. I liked the book a lot, for whatever that's worth. One person's ponderous is another person's elegiac? etc.

Something a bit strange and probably scary in its implications is that the film appears to be scheduled to open in the USA on December 25. I hope that doesn't mean what I think it means.

TimT said...

I don't agree with this idea, articulated in this and the previous post, that if some big disaster happens to people, all of a sudden, we'll start mucking up, taking the world to the verge of apocalypse. Civilisation is more than just a sort of habit people pick up in their leisure time. It has history, it has meaning, it has purpose.

Apocalyptic and dystopian fantasies are great, and it's amazing how a simple idea applied by writers like James or Aldiss or Moorcock or Ballard CS Lewis can make for fascinating narratives. But what critics often don't recognise is that there's a strong element of moral fantasy to apocalyptic fantasies, too. A few writers get this - definitely those listed above.

(Oh, yeah - I also reckon Moorcock's paying back an Aldiss bet. Interesting, really - in a lot of his criticism, he spends a great deal of effort explaining why he's not that interested in SF, really. It's just so *tiresome* of everyone to keep on talking about all that stuff he did back in the 60s ...)

Kate said...

That's what I was trying to say, only, better. Though I quibble about the 'hagiographic' treatment of women; I think all the female characters in the film are really very convincing and sympathetic.

TimT said...

PS Please forgive high-falutin' tone of my post, and probable misreading of your post/s. I'm commenting at work. I'll re-read this arvo.

Tim said...

I don't agree with this idea, articulated in this and the previous post, that if some big disaster happens to people, all of a sudden, we'll start mucking up, taking the world to the verge of apocalypse.

That's not what my post is about at all. In Jericho, and in particular The Road, the apocalypse has already happened. My objection to Jericho is that it doesn't try to imagine what that kind of event might mean for the survivors on anything other than a physical level, and it fails at that, too.

Kate said...

TimT, consider the examples of countries like Somalia. Sometimes, society does fall apart, in dreadful ways. Yes people do try to keep going, and making lives for themselves, but I think if you put enough pressure on a group of people things can get pretty damn hairy.

Tim said...

Sorry, Tim, I hadn't read your second comment when I posted my response.

TimT said...

I admit, I haven't seen the TV series (Jericho) or read the book (The Road), though I intend to do the latter. Though the impression I got was that while the show offered an almost idyllic portrait of small-town America, albeit in a rather weird context, the book seemed to offer simply unrelenting savagery.

I object to the simple dystopian view that a nuclear war/meteorite strike/holocaust of your choice will be enough to destroy all culture, or wipe out the aspirations held by privileged westerners.

There's some historical support for this argument. In the 17th century, London suffered two major disruptions in two terrible years - the black plague and the great fire. It was enough to break up the population and send them into the countryside, and the city could have simply fallen apart. But it didn't - which suggests that repeated disasters won't necessarily be enough to wipe out history. (Interestingly, though, as fantasies like War of the Worlds and Children of Men show, they can live on as archetypes in popular memories.)

Though there might be counter examples, such as the one Kate mentions ...

Paul Martin said...

I enjoyed reading your take on this film. As I say in my review of the same film, I felt there were some really innovative devices used. In response to Tim suggesting watching on DVD, I think this film really needs to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate those devices and the fantastic attention to detail. I'm a big fan of urban and industrial wastelands, and this film had them by the bucketload.

As I say in my review, I think this could have been a really important film, but failed to do so because the director failed to fully commit to some of the risks he took in depicting such a dystopian future.

Ampersand Duck said...

Great review, although you talk about the world still holding together when it's made quite explicit in the movie that Britain is the only 'culture' or 'country' or 'civilisation' that IS holding together. There's constant mention of the anarchic collapse of 'everywhere else', and the survival of Britain has been attributed to that 'carry-on' quality of the British, the same one that got them through WWII.

Any thoughts on that would be interesting, especially in light of Jericho.

BTW, FWIW I thought Alfonso Cuaron made one of the best HP movies.

Jon said...

Laura: I didn't dislike the book, but, yeah...a little too elegaic for me, I guess.

Kate: 'Hagiographic' may indeed be too strong a term. The female character were very sympathetic and well-rounded, certainly. It's just that they're so, well, good. All but two of the male characters, from memory, were portrayed as hypocritical, violent or woefully indifferent. The women, however, were all concerened solely with Kee's, and later the baby's, well-being. Didn't quite ring true for me, but like I said, it's hardly a major fault, if one at all.

Timt: I agree, society doesn't necessarily have to fall apart given a major crisis, and the example you give is particularly pertinient. It's just unfortunate that it can and has done so in the past though, and likely will again. Kate's right about enough pressure applied in all the wrong places. That said, I'm not really making judgement calls about the possibilities raised in CoM, just discussing the ideas it raises. That said, nuclear war is, I think, rather a deal-breaker. I can't help feel but civilisation is well and truly shat on, in that eventuality.

Apersand Duck: You're probably correct, but I read the "Britain Soldiers On" broadcasts as state-sanctioned propaganda, designed to reify the government stance on illegal immigrants. Caine describes Europe as a hellhole, and there's hints that something nasty happened in New York, but I can't recall any overt descriptions of how the world is holding up. Then again, I don't remember my last name, most days.

TimT said...

Tim, now I come to think about it, Moorcock may be plugging the Aldiss book because apparently Moorcock provided the initial idea for the book.

I guess I went off on a bit of a philosophical tangent in these comments, but you never know. I may do a post further to them in the next few days.

Anonymous said...

Your writing is beautiful and your review makes me appreciate the film (which I enjoyed) all the more.

Jon said...

Thankyou anonymous commenter, but beware: further praise may make my already overlarge head swell to dangerous proportions, and it's a par'lous enough endeavour fitting it through doorways as it is.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the film last saturday, and I was very impressed. Good review too.

What would the world look like after mankind has gone extinct in such a way? I was just pondering over that question on my blog (http://lackofsound.blogspot.com/2006/11/cities-falling-silent.html). Those pictures say so much, although they're only sad because we look at them from a human perspective.