New-Release Tuesday: Children of Men

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

“Your baby is the miracle that the world has been waiting for.” It’s an odd sort of Nativity.

If you’re looking for a conventional greeting-card telling of the Christmas story, look elsewhere this holiday season. Children of Men tells the story of a very different miracle birth.

Loosely based on a novel by P. D. James, Alfonso Cuarón’s film posits a future not terribly unlike our present. It’s just that, roughly fifty years from now, the chaos that we see in places like Darfur and Baghdad and on our borders has pretty much gripped the planet; only Britain, by embracing heavy-handed police-state tactics (and by virtue of its island status), has managed to retain at least the vestiges of civilization. Oh—and there’s this other inexplicable thing. For fifteen years, nary an infant has been born on the planet.

Theo was once a political activist, but now he’s just a nine-to-fiver who enjoys his cups of coffee and visits to the rural enclave of his buddy, the reclusive radical Jasper Palmer. One morning, his routine cup of coffee gets spoiled by a bomb blast—and not long after, he’s abducted by a group of radicals pressing for immigration reform. They’re headed by Theo’s ex-wife Julian, and they need his help getting the proper papers for a young woman named Kee. She’s carrying a secret, and they need to get her out of the country. Theo is to travel with her as part of her cover so that she can be successfully delivered to “The Human Project,” a quasi-mythical island community devoted to preserving hope for the human race.

When factions split “The Uprising,” as these terror-minded reformers are styled, Theo and Kee go on the run and Theo learns Kee’s secret. She’s pregnant. When Theo seeks sanctuary with Jasper, he delivers that pronouncement about Kee’s miracle baby. During the closing third of the movie, Kee’s infant becomes the ironically disregarded centerpiece of a tug-of-war over the fate of mankind while Theo finds his reticence to become involved seriously challenged.

Those who accused Cuarón of being a little too pleased with himself over this 2007 masterwork are probably justified. On one level, the narrative seems constructed for the sole purpose of allowing Cuarón the opportunity for three virtuosistic chase sequences in which a hand-held camera at least seems to track choreographed action over unbelievably dangerous and complex distances—and the effect is certainly mindboggling. On another level, it’s easy to see why some of my colleagues find Cuarón’s violent and oppressive futuristic vision overly precious, gratuitous, and sophomoric. At the very least, this is a film that is not particularly designed to please anyone but Cuarón himself.

All the same, the film pleased me immensely, though I wouldn’t have nominated it for best picture of the year—not by a long shot. The cinematic technique draws too much attention to itself to be brilliant; and yet this self-awareness, plus a certain satiric slyness, elevates Children of Men from mere precociousness to scruff-of-the-neck relevance. It also doesn’t ask to be taken too seriously, though many certainly did so.

For instance, the production design (and the film’s publicity, to be honest) presents Children of Men as futuristic—even as Science Fiction. But it would be a mistake to expect that sort of “inner consistency” from this film. Cuarón seems more interested in the central premise—the idea of global infertility, and the hope (or despair) that springs from that—than in explaining it or providing any sort of unified vision of the future. Blade Runner this is not. So Cuarón’s setting is necessary only to make the infertility plausible—not the politics, the science, or the metaphysics. Expecting too much of Children of Men is to court disappointment.

Still, what Cuarón does here he does exceedingly well. Aside from Chiwetel Ejiofor, here just chewing scenery as the most militant of Theo’s antagonists, everyone in the cast does outstanding work. The story is consistently surprising, the camerawork is astounding, the script is literate if stilted at times, and the production design accurately captures a third-world feel in first-world environs. No matter how we might react to the violence with which Children of Men bludgeons us, it’s more a reflection of what really goes on in much of the world today than it is a harbinger of times to come.

On a symbolic level, the film is not an allegory of the Nativity. Again, there is not the kind of consistency necessary for such a reading. Rather, it seems a satiric commentary on the hypocrisy of our annual observance of the Nativity—the obligatory moment of peace, joy, and reverence that interrupts our bloody and destructive pursuit of power. Oh, and did we notice that most of that destruction is wrought in the name of peace and piety?

For what it’s worth, however, the film is rife with religious symbolism. It seems to posit God not as an absent landlord, but as a reluctant landlord. The birth of the Son of Man two thousand years ago was not the first time that the birth of an infant was a ray of hope in the darkness of human existence, and it will not be the last, Cuarón suggests. In between times, God—like Theo, hint hint—will be off trying to enjoy a cosmic cup of coffee. It’s our bombs, says Cuarón, that disturb our deity’s calm and rouse him to action.

Similarly, Theo’s willingness to give his life in the interest of perpetuating the Human Project recalls the endpoint of that other Nativity story.

For those who want a creative, violent, and moderately challenging alternative to the schmaltz, materialism, and Hallmark-card shallowness of the usual vision of the Christmas season, Cuarón and Theo are here to save the day. If you’re looking for serious sci-fi, earnest political commentary, or a searing depiction of the future of mankind… Well, don’t expect that much.

Children of Men is now available on Netflix. You can also stream at Amazon.

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