Thursday, March 29, 2007

Children of Men

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Charlie Hunnam

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, adapted from P.D. James' 1992 novel, is the latest in a long line of films depicting dystopian futures on the brink of self-destruction (think 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, or 1984). What Cuaron's film has, however, that those other titles don't is that it presents a dark future that's actually somewhat plausible and realistic. It looks like present day... except worse. That's the way it should be. Whether the story is the better for it is up for debate, but there's no doubt that it makes it very interesting to look at and a serious technical achievement.

The right decisions were made for the look and feel of the picture, which is a rare occurance in today's Hollywood system. This is first class filmmaking, yet its brevity prevents it from fully tackling the lofty issues it wishes to address in its sparse running time. While it may not stay with you long after it's over, Clive Owen's performance definitely will. It's one of his very best and anyone familiar with his resume will know how much that's saying.

It's November 16, 2027 and Owen is Theo Faron, a former political activist currently residing in London. The London we see here is one ravaged by terrorism, overpopulation, and environmental destruction. For nearly two decades women have been infertile (although the movie never makes it precisely clear how) and the oldest living human on the planet, an eighteen-year-old named "Baby Diego" has just been murdered, sending the entire country into a further tailspin.

Theo is kidnapped by his ex-wife Julian (an effective Julianne Moore in a smaller role than you'd assume) and she needs a favor. A big one. She needs a travel permit for an African refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) so her and her band of revolutionaries (known as "Fishes") can get her to something known as the "Human Project." a secret group dedicated to saving the human species. Theo obtains the permit from his cousin, which stipulates he must accompany her. The catch: she's pregnant. How she could possibly be pregnant is somewhat of a miracle the movie never really explains, but doesn't have to since miracles don't need to be. Her pregnancy is now the last hope for the human race and it's up to Theo to protect it. What happens in their journey to find the "Human Project" I won't reveal but lets just say it involves the firing of a lot of rounds of ammunition, deaths, and a pot smoking Michael Caine.

What works about Children of Men has more to do with what it doesn't do than what it does. For example, I can't tell you how relieved I was to finally see a movie set in the future where the cars weren't flying and people weren't wearing ridiculous Jetsons style clothes. In a film where the world is coming to an end one would figure the filmmaker would be smart enough to make the right choices, but I bet few would. Director and co-writer Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien and Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban) is smart enough to do very little to let us know we're in "the future." He realizes it's much more terrifying to give us our world as we see it now, but ravaged by decay, war and neglect. With the direction we're going in these days some of the images and ideas in this film don't seem too far-fetched, and that may be the scariest thing. What we're witnessing in this film doesn't feel that off the mark.

The way Cuaron shoots it is also a lot smarter than you would expect. There seem to be many long uninterrupted takes that give the movie a documentary type feel like every thing is unfolding in real time. That was a very wise choice that gives the film a real sense of urgency and dread I don't think another director could have had the foresight to accomplish. There's a scene late in the film where Theo is on a bus and gunfire erupts. You see blood on the camera lens. Theo gets off the bus and starts running through the streets with the same camera tracking him, blood still dripping from it. If that doesn't make you feel like you're there I don't know what will.

Watching, I was reminded of the original Star Wars trilogy and how George Lucas' attention to detail was such that you could see specs of dirt on the light switch plate in the background of the shot. It's that same kind of detail Cuaron brings to this picture. He took the time to make sure everything was right and realistic given the situation, but that it never causes a distraction or draws attention to itself. It takes a very skilled filmmaker to do that and isn't the kind of work that's immediately noticeable. It shouldn't be because it's so masterfully subtle.

It's getting to the point that whenever I see Clive Owen's name attached to a project I know it's guaranteed to deliver. He's a chameleon who can slip into any role but lately he seems to be specializing in playing ordinary guys thrust into extraordinary situations. A lot of actors do it, but few do it better than he. I don't think anyone he's played has been more ordinary than Theo. He and his ex-wife haven't spoken in 20 years and he's still grieving over the death of their son. How Owen tackles it is interesting because he wisely underplays him. This is a man who's basically dead to the world and walks around in a self induced haze. He could care less about anything and when his character is forced to step into the uncomfortable position of hero we feel like we're right there along with him. He's just a regular guy trying to get through the day hiding his pain with the small bottle of whiskey in his pocket. He never asked for any of this, yet when it happens he does the only thing he knows how to do: help.

Moore, as usual does great work, this time in a small role. While I would have liked to see more of her, the limited involvement makes perfect sense in the broad spectrum of the story. In fact, it's a necessity. Michael Caine is entertainingly loopy as Jasper, an old friend of Theo's and now the only person he can trust to help protect this girl. As Kee, newcomer Ashitey is basically the heart and soul of the film as she conveys the girl's conflicting emotions of anger and hope perfectly. It's actually a very brave performance.

If there's a problem with the picture it's that it settles into a routine of hide-and-seek, making it feel at times like just another action movie, while the story behind it suggests anything but. While it's incredibly exciting (especially the last half hour) I kept waiting for it to take that next step and become something truly special and unforgettable. It never really gets there. Perhaps the film could have used more time to explore all the issues it brought up, but as is it's a very focused and compressed motion picture that doesn't slow down for a second.

I haven't read James' novel on which this film is based but I heard it's a very loose adaptation with many changes. What we're seeing is nearly exclusively the director's vision. I can't say Children of Men breaks any new ground as far as storytelling in this genre, but it is smart and an impressive technical achievement that confirms Cuaron is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

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