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.