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I’ve had this argument before, many times. I forgive a movie a great deal if it shows me something new, or shows me something rendered in such sharp and living detail that it’s impossible to look away. That’s what the movies are best at, and so perhaps trying to punch up Children of Men with tighter or more involved plotting would have been a mistake. At least one of my friends was not willing to give the film a pass for that alone, so I’m certain opinions will vary—but as a pure experience, there’s nothing like it.
CoM is set in 2027, fifteen years after women ceased to become fertile. The whole planet has disintegrated into chaos, and the movie squeezes in a remarkable amount of information about its ghastly setting without so much as stopping for a drink. We learn almost by accident about New York being nuked, about immigrants being deported or shipped into concentration camps, about “Quietus” (a voluntary euthanasia drug distributed by the government)—and about Baby Diego, “the youngest person on the planet,” murdered when he spurned an autograph. Mere seconds after Theo Faron (Clive Owen) learns of this particular bit of news, the coffeeshop he was just standing in is blown to bits.
He’s numb to it all now. He drinks, he sits slouched against the metal-grilled windows on the bus to and from work, and he meets his quasi-hippie buddy Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine) for good times and a bit of homegrown weed. There are no answers as to why humanity is suddenly unable to reproduce, and worse, nobody really expects one. Life has become a holding action in which some people decide to go on for no particular reason and others just elect to quit early.
Theo’s lethargy is shattered by the reappearance of Julian (Julianne Moore), his ex-wife. She’s now a member of an underground resistance, “the Fishes,” and they snatch Theo off the street one day and bluntly make him a deal. They need transit papers for a woman, a refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), and they know Theo can procure them. He finally agrees, mostly for the opportunity to be that much closer to Julian, and within hours finds himself a hunted animal along with Kee, Kee’s handler Miriam (Pam Ferris), and a slew of others. All of them want what Kee is carrying: an unborn baby. She’s the first woman to become pregnant in decades, and no one knows why.
What will probably come as a surprise to many people is how the film uses action-movie techniques to give us a story that is essentially plotless. It’s not about the mechanics of their escape, or about how Kee has managed to get pregnant, or the even larger questions of why humanity is dying off. It’s a breathless forward rush through one blighted war zone after another towards something like salvation. The story and its implications all take a backseat to the sheer experience of the film—and, I suspect, there’s a kind of moral packaged in that: Let’s experience this now, by proxy, so that maybe when we come out of it we’ll want to do something to not experience it in reality.
Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá tabién, and the Azkaban installment of the Harry Potter franchise) achieved all this by shooting the film in as many long, unbroken takes as he could get away with, each one becoming successively more immersive and disturbing than the last. There is one sequence in particular that is stupefyingly well-crafted, possibly the best single take of any movie I have yet seen, set inside a car that is attacked by a mob and where people rather suddenly die. No less stunning is another incredibly long take near the end of the movie, set in a refugee camp that’s exploding in armed revolt and which looks like Lebanon during the worst of the 1980s.
That brings me back to the paradox of the movie: its realism and grit, in a way, winds up also becoming the sharpest thorn in its own side. After a while, we realize that if anyone in the movie can be killed, then we’re that much more reluctant to forge emotional connections with them. I suspect the filmmakers were willing to accept that as the cost of putting their vision on screen, but that doesn’t make it any the less bitter for us to swallow. But the good parts are so good—so starkly observed, so immediately absorbing—that none of those things will come to mind until it’s over.
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