About a third of the way through the science fiction thriller Children of Men—set in a fascist, childless future England wherein radical activists led by Clive Owen and Julianne Moore try to safeguard the world’s only known living pregnant woman—there’s an action sequence so stunning that it slapped the professional detachment right out of me. When it began, I dropped my notebook and pen and bolted upright in my seat, and as it kept unreeling for several minutes without a cut, piling incident upon incident, moving from tight closeups to wide shots revealing a small army of foes chasing our beleaguered heroes, I began to lean forward, as if believing, on some level, that the extra centimeters gained by the change in posture would help me get closer to the movie, even enter the movie, like Alice stepping through the looking-glass.
The sense of spiraling panic is multiplied by director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s decision to shoot the entire setpiece in one take—an all-or-nothing approach that meant that if one or two details hadn’t come off as planned, the whole sequence would have been unusuable. This choice makes the setpiece’s inherent dramatic power insperable from its status as a directorial and photographic performance.
The problem with Children of Men is that it’s too much of a performance and not enough of a movie. It’s filled with emphatic yet fleeting references to a century’s worth of miseries and atrocities, from the U.S. war in Vietnam and concurrent domestic unrest to Bosnia-Herzegovina, 9/11, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And Owen’s character, Theo—an ex-radical turned civil servant who’s asked by his ex-lover, the guerilla leader Julian (Moore), to secure letters of transit for the pregnant Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey)—could be seen as emblematic of contemporary western political malaise, if you squnt really, really hard. Unfortunately, although these touches and Cuarón’s meticulous direction indicate otherwise, the film lacks a coherent vision. It’s a compelling pastiche, and that’s not nothing, but I wanted it to be great rather than just proficient and gripping; it never quite gets there, and it suffers in comparison to earlier classics in the same vein. Unlike, say, Brazil, which wove every scene, performance, line and design detail into an analysis of the mechanics of fascism and its bludgeoning effect on hope and imagination, or Blade Runner, whose jam-packed yet anonymous futureworld visualized life in an era where only machines with limited lifespans appreciated what it meant to be human, Children of Men’s references feel at once calculated and perfunctory—bits of faux-political plumage affixed to what is, in essence, a post-apocalyptic cousin of Casablanca, with Owen in the Bogart role and Moore playing a combination of Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid.
The movie felt less passionate and personal to me than Mad Max, Blade Runner, Brazil, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds or the sleazy but fascinating 1975 midnight movie A Boy and His Dog—movies that are mainly interested in building and sustaining a dreamlike/mythic free-associative aura that’s not “real” in any quantifiable sense. Children of Men has a few poetic or allegorical touches: for instance, Kee reveals her pregnancy to Theo by stripping off all her clothes while standing in a cow pen (she looks like she’s posing for Annie Leibowitz). Later, Theo loses his shoes and replaces them with flip-flops, in essence becoming Joseph to Kee’s Mary, who’s often seen in a hooded sackcloth-looking robe. But the film’s not inclined to commit to this line of presentation, perhaps for fear of being described as corny, so the touches play like little jokes. For the most part, Children of Men aspires to a kind of off-center realism. It’s not so much an allegory as a depressive leftist projection. Its vision of a brutal, paranoid, jackboot-policed, immigrant-abusing-and-deporting England is built on very specific contemporary and recent historical references, and the film certifies its “serious” credentials by embracing a grungy naturalistic vibe. Because of these choices, the film’s vagueness begins to seem not allusive, but evasive. It’s very, very tastefully pushing your buttons, writing sociological and political checks it has no intention of cashing. (At screenings, you can hear people whispering to their seatmates, “Guatanamo Bay.”)
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film. It’s superbly crafted and compelling throughout, and filled with note-perfect performances—particularly by Moore; by Michael Caine as the hero’s elderly, pot-growing, ex-hippie mentor, and by Owen, whose characteristically coiled, sour performance hints at wellsprings of emotion the character doesn’t dare reveal. (After enduring a particularly hideous onslaught of violence, he retreats from his compatriots and collapses behind a tree, sobbing; then he steels himself and heads back into action.) Some of the political and historical nods evoke a fleeting chill. The film is set in 2027, when an unexplained fertility crisis has rendered women sterile; that in turn means that the most conspicuous and constant source of solace—the presence of younger generations who will someday succeed their elders—is evaporating like water on hot pavement. Owen’s wary, numbed performance suggests the sense of helpless emptiness that this entire society must feel (moreso than the film itself, which often seems merely disinterested). The story begins with a TV news story announcing the death of the only citizen successfully carried to term in three decades, assassinated at age 18 by an autograph-seeking fan. The conspicuous, public displays of grief—open weeping in workplaces and Princess Di-style flower piles honoring the victim—suggest that the entire society has become so numbed by daily existence that these media-fueled cathartic outbursts are a collective source of relief, a chance for much of the nation to feel something, if only for one day. But for the most part, the film’s ripped-from-recent-headlines touches seem like opportunistic attempts to add depth to what is, in its curiously hard heart, the most elaborate cinematographer’s reel in recent memory.
The first time Cuarón and Lubeski mount a one-take action showstopper (there are other one-take scenes prior to this one, but none so extravagantly chaotic), I was shaken, even awed, and rightly so. The sequence’s power comes not just from how it’s directed, but its events, their impact on the characters’ lives and emotions, and their blunt confirmation of the terrifying (yet faceless, and therefore chillingly banal) force brought to bear on our scrambling underdog heroes. But as the film ploughs onward, Cuarón and Lubeski stage another such sequence, and another, and another, always jacking up the scale, accelerating the pace and cramming in more details. Eventually the other facets are subsumed into just one, showmanship, and urgent questions like “What does this futuristic fantasy have to tell us about life today?” and “How will the hero get out of this pickle?” are displaced by more mundane thoughts, like, “Is this take longer than the last one?” and “How the hell did they do that?” and “What time is it?”
Initially, Cuarón and Lubezki seem as though they’re going to change up the film’s tone as the story unreels and as Theo becomes more politically involved and emotionally invested in Kee’s plight. The film’s first third employs a striking bit of camerawork that visualizes Theo’s detachment: a behind-the-shoulder tracking shot that follows Theo through an environment charged with emotion (for instance, his office on the day that the baby’s death is reported) and then peels away from him to focus on other, far more demonstrative people. It’s as if the camera equals Theo’s conscience, and we get to see the exact moments when he sloughs it off. Curiously, though, as Theo becomes involved and activated again and has the detachment figuratively and literally beaten out of him, Children of Men retains its aloof, even cold tone. It makes you wonder if the filmmakers really care for the substance of what they’re showing you, or if they’re just keen to get to the next eye-popping one-take setpiece. (In retrospect, the first big action setpiece is reminscient of the highway driving sequence in War of the Worlds, but without the CGI.) Cuarón and Lubezki stage scene after scene with the same can-you-top this brio, guiding Owen through increasingly huge and chaotic tableaus which, as my colleague Keith Uhlich has remarked, feel uncomfortably like first-person shooter video games. Panicked heroes drive failing old compact cars along muddy back roads while enemies race along on foot behind them, gaining ground whenever the vehicle stalls; Owen sneaks through a guerilla camp at night, staging a sneaky rescue/escape, while Lubezki’s medium-distance compositions let us see that he’s always mere inches away from being spotted; ragtag armies shoot at each other in a war-torn city that resembles the grimy English backlot version of Hue in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Over time, the film’s rhapsodically reviewed long takes start less an outgrowth of the film’s story and themes than a cannily-presented stunt—a marked contrast to the more justified long take aesthetics of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Gasper Noe’s Irreversible, Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and even the time-travel sequences in Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Children of Men has a gloomy majesty, but in time, it stops being about what it purports to be about and becomes a paean to its own proficiency. The tail wags the dog.