Children of Men is a very good movie. Inside of it is a great movie that is sabotaged by a central plot that is explosively idiotic. This fact is difficult to tell, difficult to see through all the critical acclaim Children of Men is getting but in a moment walking right out of the theater you get stuck with it: what does anything have to do with anything in that movie, let alone infertility?
Children of Men is a crowning achievement in design and implementation. For people who wonder why the Michael Bay school of quick cuts is painful and boring, you can just show them this movie as exhibit A: a complete and believable world, painted before you with the drama of the story bouyed by these incredible, intricate long shots. [Spoilers] The shot leading up to Julianne Moore getting killed and then the one where Clive Owen, inside the refugee camp are just two great examples.[/Spoilers] Today, everyone is expecting the violence to rise up so quickly. We are all possible participants in some clown's asymmetric engagement. But how do most action or horror movies deal with this? By using the same jaded standbys: stuff shooting in from off-frame, quick disorienting cuts. Yes, this works in creating shock but it never creates the deeper and more withering emotion: dread. Thats what a long articulated shot can do: build grandiose emotions. From the glory of Henry walking into the Copa in Goodfellas to the shocks of Cache, long shots are the stuff of powerful cinema. They give us the feel of unrelenting, unblinking, unedited truth. That's what we see today, on Youtube, in a thousand torrents. No longer is there a middle man correctively sanitizing the world experience. We can get the Saddam execution near instantateously and uncut. Meanwhile we get these hyperactive ADD movies and we find them unengaging pap. After the third or fourth time, shock horror can be watched with detatched disinterest. We are no longer surprised; untouched. But calculated sequences can always bring out their emotions in us. There is a truth to them because they share the inevitiability of the real world.
So see Children of Men for this very thing. Cuaron has proven himself an easy master of evoking an emotion.
What's the problem then? As you are sitting there, there is a good chance you will roll your eyes at the plot- which can be one of the worst things for a film: it can snap the audience away from the spell being woven by the creators.
Let's diagram this out. What is the plot of Children of Men:
1. In 2009 the last child is born. Women en mass begin to miscarry then become infertile. As humanity can no longer reproduce, we are on the precipice of extinction.
2. Therefore humanity begins to fall apart at the seams, setting off wars, nukes and hysteria. Britain is isolated from the madness.
3. Therefore everyone starts emigrating to Britain creating a wave of immigration.
4. This is somehow a problem because... um, they really don't explain it. Regardless, the UK decides to begin mass deportations of illegal immigrants.
5. Therefore Britons and illegals start forming an armed resistence to... well they want to stop the deportations... anything else? Mmmm, not as far as I can tell. I could see one of the characters (played by Ricky Gervais probably) saying "It sounded like a really good idea at the time."
6. So when a young girl is found to be pregnant the rebels plan to give her to a mysterious group called Project Human. What this Project Human will do is... I really don't know why. They don't want to make it public though because... no one else has any interest in solving infertility?
7. But not all the rebels want to give the fertile girl over. So they secretly plan an ambush and KILL several of their own so they won't give the girl over and instead use her as a political symbol (instead of, you know, curing infertility... because they have no interest in doing that I guess).
8. This leads our hero and the girl on a long chase across the country to get her to safety.
9. BTW, since humanity is slowly dying off, the government is giving out free suicide kits under the brandname Quietus because, obviously, that when faced with extinction the human survival instinct is to... not to stay alive?
There is one way to describe this: a Simpsons Idiots-Riot Plot. You know those episodes of the Simpsons, were Springfield runs out of electricity or the sun is blocked by a giant machine and so the people instantly riot? That's what the plot of Children of Men is like. And there is nothing sadder than playing serious what someone else uses as a sharp undisguised satire.
There is a disturbing lack of sense to this plot. It provokes reactions like: "dumb", "idiotic" and "who's asscrack were you smoking when you thought this was a good idea?"
Ok, let's try to come up with some general guidelines for human behavior. People act out of interests, either communal ("I want to help others ") or selfish ("I want to help myself") and the whole of our history can be defined by those two and their interaction. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. In a Hobbesian, zero-sum game world they are. To wit from Leviathan, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". That could be described as a pure, naturalist view of the world. Dog eat dog. Of course one could say that civilization and human culture is the repudiation of it (a Kantian world view) and that the 20th century was a study of the lethal excesses of it (the supposed communal world view leading to socialist and totalitarian terror). But that comes out from either the truth or the false promise of life being a positive-sum game.
Our stories are us deciding if going with the crowd or going alone will get us to where we want to be. And this can be said of all stories. Even slasher movies: the slasher kills because he wants to kill or get revenge. The victims fight and resist because they want to survive. Slasher films then play with this by having characters' natures undermine or help them, making for interesting switches (like the suicidal behavior of the preacher in The Blob or the kids in Scream trying to use their knowledge of their genre only to have it blowback on them).
Now, consider Children of Men: humanity becomes infertile. So what happens? Humanity begins devouring itself.
No no. I understand that Cuaron wanted to have a near-future dystopia but the very nature of a dystopia is for the Hobbesian worldview to spring up in our Kantian society. This means some necessary resource (ariable land, gasoline, fertile women/men, food, water) needs to go from overabundance to limited supply. A million apocolyptic/post-apocolyptic have been build on this very concept (The Day after Tomorrow, Mad Max, Sam Hell Goes to Frog Town as some examples, ranging from the lousy to the great to the fucking brilliant).
The problem with the plot of Children of Men: there is no resource limited so much as to make a zero sum game.
Problem: 100% human infertility. Not 99% human infertility (it isn't like only people X have fertile women. There are NO fertile women, anywhere). Not 100% infertility over all species (so there is ample food, companionship, etc). It isn't like there is some environmental condition that makes fertility difficult. We. are. just. infertile.
To put it another way, this is a problem everybody can agree on. It's like the ability to wear pants and sunny June weekends. It has a 100% approval rating. The only person who would hate it would be an implausible character that a bad writer would use as a crutch instead of coming up with something good.
But Children of Men expects us to believe that this somehow leads to world unrest. At least if they gave us a Day of the Triffids answer and had two groups of people think that "the other" did it to them and a world war accidentally started (say, like the paranoid North Koreans, cut off from the outside world, believe that the Japanese did this to them and so they launch some nukes only to have them blow up early in their tragectory and the Chinese are completely taken by surprise and think its some goddamn US sneak attack from Japan and so WW3 accidentally starts only to end quickly as we realize the misunderstanding but its already too late for 80% of the world's breadbasket).
There isn't even the hint of human weakness or misunderstanding or shortsightedness. Nope. People just go crazy, like in the Simpsons.
So then what happens? People start going to Britain, the Brits start deporting illegals... and then an insurgency breaks out.
Huh? Again, what's the motivation? Illegals want to STAY in Britain. You know how illegals stay around? THEY KEEP A LOW PROFILE. Starting a fucking war and making the 80% of the population that didn't know you were there to get really scared of you isn't a good idea (and is why it hasn't happened). Maybe if the resistence were a bunch of unscrupulous thugs seeing a big payday in the world's only fertile woman... that makes sense. You can see some shortsighted moron thinking that. But then Britons and illegals forming a politically driven insurgency... why?
The one way that Children of Men tries to get around this by saying that most of the terrorist attacks were self-inflicted by the government (for the tin foil hat crowd, this would make sense and a perfectly good plot point. Right up there with no Jews in the WTC)... but then the movie has the "we're actually all peaceful now" rebels turn out to be a paranoid organization which, in the course of the movie, murders its own members, murders harmless people (Michael Caine, the people in the refugee camp) who pose it no threat while taking a joyous glee in it, start a battle in a refugee camp with the military and are by the end of the movie almost comical in their willingness to bend over for the plot whenever the writer needs the protagonists to be endangered.
The whole time you are thinking: what is the point of their actions? It isn't rebellion, it isn't to overthrow the government. They seem to be just violence as its own end. But the writer wants us to believe that they come from a place other than bloodlust (he has them say "political" many times). But not once after the 30 minute mark do their actions in any way support (or even derive from) their aims.
Finally, probably one of the most insulting things, is the ubiquitous suicide kits. Ok, who in their fucking right mind thinks that makes any sense? Isn't the hope of humanity lie in... humanity? In the immortal words of Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans: "Stay alive! No matter what it takes! I will find you!!" It isn't like there is an inevitable apocolypse. Not once is the situation as dire as it is in On the Beach or the other nuke movies. A reasonable person would think "hmm. All living things have been fertile since the beginning of time. But only humaninty just stopped while everyone else went on. It seems to make sense that there is a causality to this and, once we find that, a cure."
Shit, even the Existentialists were for life in the face of death. One of the major points of The Stranger is how life is defined as the struggle against a real and tangible death. So much literature is about those very same things and it makes sense that it conforms to an agreed on facet of our natures.
The whole suicide kit just seems to lead to the whole approach of the story: images and icons used to create a sense of unescapable dread, no matter how retarded they are. The scenario of Children of Men comes off like some bad horror sci-fi written by an angsty high schooler. "So- dark... so cold, so cold..." I feel that a lot of this comes about for a particular reason: Cuaron, like many directors, had specific images or set pieces he wanted to create and he reverse engineered the story out of it. But that doesn't forgive anything.
One of my favorite definitions of SF/speculative fiction is by Theodore Sturgeon: "[A] good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content."
What betrays Children of Men is that the story actually harms the message it tries to pass along and is inconvenienced by its specific context. [Spoilers]And it is obvious by the scene of Key and Clive Owen walking out of the apartment and soldier and rebel alike showing her reverence. This ends with the protagonists out of danger... and the firefight instantly starting up again. It was powerful... but cheaply convenient and then quickly thrown away when it no longer served its purpose.[/Spoilers]
There are a thousand other plots that could have set up a this specific story. Too bad there was probably a sense to do something "different".
And I think that's one of the things that got the critics in such a pant about this movie (and had them in a less critical state of mind). The others being Cuaron himself and his obvious abilities to make a powerful technical piece. For critics who see enough movies to tire of filmmaking cliches pretty quickly, a movie that has its own fresh style can get by with a lot. Combine that with a hunger for movies to tackle the times we live in and that adds up to the critical praise this movie has gotten.
But I don't see it having any deeper penetration. Other than hat-tipping at things like Iraq and the London Bombings and Abu Graib this movie doesn't say anything about them. It has no opinion about them other than them being powerful images. And what the movie actually has to say is generic and uninspired, like the similar V for Vendetta (e.g. "Fighting's bad m'kay? Let's all just get along and work for a better tomorrow").
Watching this movie made me think wistfully about how great it would have been for Cuaron to have done V for Vendetta. His eyes-to-the-pavement London was one Alan Moore wrote. The way Cuaron had the refugee camps stretch on forever was how oppressive the camps should have been in V for Vendetta. And that story too had a good reason for evoking the Hobbesian Leviathan: a worldwide atomic war that left Britain untouched and a resultant anarchy that was crushed by a tolitarian regime. That book is a case study in how a revolution comes about even in spite of the dark philosophy that designed it. It's a story worth rereading and letting its questions wash over you. Sadly, Children of Men viciously needs antidote from such things: to think any deeper about it is to become disgusted with its actual true nature. Best to think of it as a beautiful moronic woman. You may have a month of exquisite pleasure... all the time waiting for the other shoe to drop.