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No Longer an Inconceivable Future: The Vision of Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men"

Science fiction films about dystopian world are dime a dozen in these days, but not many of them can surpass the sheer verisimilitude of Alfonso Cuarón’s "Children of Men," which has become more relevant since it came out 10 years ago. When I recently revisited it again at a local movie theater thanks to the belated theatrical release in South Korea (it already went straight to DVD/Blu-ray release here in 2007, by the way), I was drawn again into its grim dystopian world right from its striking opening sequence, and I admired more of the skills and efforts put onto into this superlative work which is one of the best science fiction films from the 2000s.

The premise of its story, which is based on P.D. James’ novel "The Children of Men," may sound preposterous at first. In 2009, a sudden epidemic of human female infertility was quickly spread around the world, and it was already too late when people came to realize what was happening. Wisely not explaining the cause of this epidemic, the movie instead focuses on the realistic depiction of its dire ramifications on the human society. Children no longer exist now in 2027, and the opening sequence begins with the news reports about the death of an 18-year-old celebrity who was the youngest person in the world.

As people come to lose hope in front of this slow but unstoppable end, the world has become more violent and despairing due to more wars, conflicts, and disasters. This is reflected well through one particular scene unfolded within a small, closed place. Its walls are fully covered with numerous depressing newspapers articles, and some of them are quite alarming to say the least (One example: “Russia Detonates Nuclear Bomb - Kazakhstan Annihilated”).  

Britain has been a relatively safer place than many other countries, but is turned into a harsh, oppressive police state which does not welcome any illegal immigrant coming into Britain. Illegal immigrants are openly labeled as the enemy of the state, and their human rights are callously disregarded by soldiers and policemen. Although feeling so sad about the death of the youngest person in the world, most citizens do not care a lot about the ongoing inhuman cruelty and injustice in their crumbling society, and they keep slogging through their another gray shabby day while their government constantly reminds them of being watchful of the threats from inside and outside. Imagine an Orwellian world with no future to be controlled at all, and you will get the picture. 

In the overwhelming absence of the future, people naturally hold more onto the past. Heavily guarded by soldiers, the central area of London looks a bit safer and brighter compared to other urban areas as maintaining its status quo on the surface, but the lifeless mood of doom still hovers around there. At a special government facility, its supervisor boasts about various invaluable artworks salvaged from the social/political chaos in Europe, but it goes without saying that all of these beautiful artworks will not matter at all around the 22nd century. 

For Theo (Clive Owen), a weary government employee who put behind his left-wing political activity a long time ago, the past is mainly represented by his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an old former political cartoonist quietly living with his catatonic wife in a rural forest region outside London. Though enjoying his short respite at Jasper’s cozy residence filled with the memories of their past, Theo still feels unsettled by a recent bombing incident which could have killed him, and there is a wry moment of gallows humor when Jasper tells a joke about the continuing collapse of their world.  

After he goes back to his usual daily life in London, he is approached by Julian (Julianne Moore), who has been the leader of an underground anti-government organization after their separation following the death of their young son. There is someone who must be smuggled out of Britain, and she wants Theo to help getting transit papers from the government. Theo is understandably reluctant at first, but he comes to agree to help her for old time’s sake and the money promised to him.

The person in question is a young illegal immigrant girl named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and Theo later comes to see why this girl is so important, getting involved with Julian’s plan more than expected. I will let you behold Kee’s undeniable importance for yourself if you have not watched the film yet, but I can tell you that Theo eventually accompanies Kee along with Miriam (Pam Ferris), a middle-aged nurse who is another person Kee can trust besides Theo and Julian. As planned from the beginning, they must take Kee to an offshore spot near the coast where a big refugee camp is located, and they should hurry before it is too late for her chance to be sent to some safer place far from Britain. 

The immediate sense of danger and fear is further increased around that point, and there are a number of stunning long take sequences to be admired for their visceral dramatic/visual impact. With a devastating plot turn, that famous sequence mainly unfolded inside a moving vehicle is indeed intense and captivating, and so are other equally masterful sequences in the film. In case of one action sequence, it is simply about pushing a vehicle along a gentle slope as quick as possible, but I can assure you that it is far more real and gripping than many bland CGI action sequences we have to endure in these days.  

Rather than merely being showy technical exercises, these long take sequences function as an organic part of Cuarón’s realistic storytelling approach. As his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera steadily and fluidly sticks around characters, we become more involved in their urgent circumstances without interruption, and we become more aware of possible perils around them which can get them killed at any point. Visual effects are judiciously used throughout the film for more realism without drawing our attention to themselves. I learned later that some long take sequences in the movie actually consist of multiple takes seamlessly connected together for generating continuous visual flow on the screen.  

Because he intended to make an "anti-'Blade Runner’" film from the start, Cuarón makes his film look contemporary as much as possible except modest futuristic details, which now look more contemporary to our amusement. Those transparent display monitors shown in the movie will soon look common to us considering recent technology developments, and a minor character occupied with his small electronic gadget during one scene reminds me of how much we spend our time on smartphones. Except for their tarnished dystopian texture, many other things in the movie including clothes, vehicles, and buildings look mundane and familiar to us as before, and I guess we will probably get the same impression when we enter 2027. 

And the movie's dystopian world comes closer to us as resonating with our ongoing post-9/11 era, via many stark moments of human darkness. Its ghastly sights of illegal immigrants brutalized by soldiers at the refugee camp certainly evoke those atrocities committed in the name of the War on Terror, and there is even an apparent moment based on one of the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. Looking around the bleak, volatile environment of the refugee camp roiling with multi-cultural cacophony, we cannot help but think of many wars and conflicts during our time—including what is happening now in Syria. Considering the increasing hostility toward refugees in many countries and the accompanying rise of reckless nationalistic demagogues during recent years, what is shown in the movie does not look like an inconceivable future at all, and that makes the movie more chilling and disturbing.

The performers look convincing as people who have lived with the approaching doom of their world for years. Clive Owen brings glum cynicism and gritty tenaciousness to his reluctant everyman hero, and he and Julianne Moore convey well the long history between their characters even though they do not say a lot about it during their scenes. While Clare-Hope Ashitey, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, Pam Harris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, and Michael Caine are also effective in their respective archetype supporting roles, Caine is especially poignant when his goofy but wise, compassionate character makes a small gesture of defiance although he probably knows well what is going to happen.  

After the critical success of "Children of Men," Alfonso Cuarón had been rather silent for several years, but then he returned with “Gravity” (2013), a technical tour-de-force which will be remembered as the crowning achievement of his filmmaking career for a long time. While the far bigger success of the latter eclipses the former to some degrees, both made me reflect on our world in each own different way. While the space adventure story of “Gravity” reminds me of how fragile our world is as being only protected by a thin layer of atmosphere from the space out there, the gloomy dystopian tale of “Children of Men” reminds me of how easily we can lead our world to ruin as letting ourselves blinded by fear and despair. As its ambiguous but powerful finale tentatively suggests, we can only hope that, regardless of whatever will happen to us during this century, we will be able to do better for ourselves—and, above all, our children.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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