There was a time a couple years ago when it seemed like every day the headlines were just trying to out-crazy the day before. Planes falling out of the sky, anthrax in the mail, snipers on the loose, hurricanes, that lady releasing doves for each charge Michael Jackson was acquitted of… you wouldn’t have been surprised to get the morning paper and read that killer bees had swarmed Congress, rabid baboons were loose on the Space Shuttle and the Olsen twins had torched themselves outside of the “Today Show” window to protest censorship of rap music and video games. There are no baboons in CHILDREN OF MEN (there is a deer walking through a building, come to think of it) but this is a movie that perfectly captures that knot in your stomach, that feeling of madness, where the world has gone so crazy you keep bouncing between complete desensitized detachment and wanting to cry at the slightest provocation.
Technically this is a sci-fi movie, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels so fuckin real. Most dystopia movies are stylized in some way to make them look cool. This one goes for reality. The only futuristic technology you see is for mundane things like video games and animated bus ads. It looks great (like all of director Alfonso Cuaron’s movies) but not like a beautiful painting, more like a good documentary, and mostly shot handheld. There are 4 or 5 classic sequences here that I have no idea how they could’ve possibly been done. Like, there’s a scene where Clive Owen, the hero, runs through a war zone surrounded by total fuckin mayhem. In what appears to be one continuous handheld shot he runs between buildings, up stairs, through hallways evading hundreds of gunshots, seeing tanks blow up buildings, having emotional moments with other characters. And not a moment of it looked artificial to me. The only thing in the whole movie that struck me as a special effect was, of all things, a baby. And that was a good special effect. But the rest looked like reality.
I don’t know, maybe it’s not a mainstream crowdpleaser. I’m pretty sure I heard a lady say “This is stupid” near the end, during one of many incredibly intense moments. I can’t understand how a movie that grabs you by the collar and shakes you like this could bore normal people. I understood it with SOLARIS. But sadly that maybe happening because this is that type of sci-fi without lasers, spaceships or kung fu. And in case you’re wondering it’s not a sequel or remake of Schwarzenegger’s JUNIOR. Not sure what the title means exactly but this is the story of a world in about 20 years where all women are infertile and the youngest person in the world (18 year old “Baby Diego”) has just been stabbed to death. With no hope for the future the whole world has gone to shit, civil wars and bombings and who knows what. We see on TV propaganda that all the great cities of the world have somehow fallen, but England claims to stand strong. It’s fucked up though – Clive almost gets blown up going for his morning coffee. I guess this must be pretty common because later he goes home from work early not using the excuse “I would’ve been dead if I had stopped for napkins” but “Baby Diego’s death is affecting me more than I realized.”
Clive doesn’t really give a shit, so he needs a nudge to go on an adventure. He gets kidnapped by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), leader of a group of militants called The Fishes. She needs his help to transport a young refugee woman who, we learn later in the movie (if we haven’t seen the previews or read this review) has somehow become pregnant. So they need to bring her to a group that may or may not exist who may or may not help, while other factions fight over the baby.
This may not be a movie for the lady who said it was stupid, but if you’re reading this you’re probaly into movies and I would say this is a must see. It’s hard to explain how much this movie impressed me except to say that there’s never been one quite like it. I mean holy shit. Even if you don’t like the story of this movie for some reason, you will see some masterfully constructed scenes, the kind of pure moviemaking that doesn’t come along every year. I mentioned that one scene, there’s another one about sneaking away from a farm at dawn. Again, there is a long sequence of complicated stunts that are done in one continuous shot, and yet somehow this is done with the sky just starting to turn light. It’s not the kind of light that stays around long enough for you to do 150 takes of a scene. But it looks like the real sky. How the fuck did they make this movie? I knew this Alfonso Cuaron was good, I knew he could make a pretty movie. Everybody knows that. But this? All the sudden he’s a master. He has taken the limitations of the medium by the neck and told them to go fuck themselves. And their mama too.
Most of the people I’ve talked to who have seen it seem to think it’s the movie of the year or the best movie in years. But I’ve seen some bad reviews. I’m sure there are legitimate criticisms, but most of what I’ve seen is of the “they never explain why such and such happens” variety. As if it is some requirement of good storytelling that every god damn thing has to be spelled out for you. As if it’s not allowed to let the audience think about things. I guess these are the same people driven crazy by MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE:3 purposely not explaining what exactly the weapon they were all fighting over does. It was lame for them to miss out on a fun movie like that for such a stupid reason, but to miss out on this one is a low down shame. This one’s gonna be around for a long time though. Maybe they’ll figure it out in a couple years.
These people are also bothered that the movie is obviously relevant to the world we live in, but you have to digest it and interpret it for yourself. It’s not just “war is bad” or “I am against racism” or “in a world where feelings are against the law, only one man can do kung fu using guns.” But that’s one reason why the movie is smart. It’s kind of like an impression of the fucked up times we’re living in now, a natural extension of today’s world. But there’s not some direct symbolic parallel like “oh, this represents Bush, this represents Tony Blair” or some shit like that. Instead it’s just the kind of world that we know can happen now that we’ve seen Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Homeland Security, Iraq, terrorist watch lists, etc.
And come to think of it, there’s no “Big Brother” character. The whole world is oppressing you, you don’t need a Big Brother.
But the best thing about the movie is that it’s fucking intense. It’s more like war journalism than a 1984 type of story. Somebody told me this reminded her of THE PIANIST, which is a good comparison. It’s a similar kind of relentless brutality and series of harrowing escapes. Usually in a movie the heroes will be in these action situations and you have to suspend your disbelief that they manage to not get shot, to not get hit by the flying car or whatever. Here it just seems like pure random luck. He’s not a warrior, he’s potential collateral damage. But he happened to turn the right way to miss the bullets. The guy that was going to shoot him happened to get shot at and turn to fire back.
It’s not what most people would call an action movie. But in a weird way the movie I kept thinking of was MAD MAX. Because this has some of the most intense chase scenes I’ve ever seen. To be honest, I was not 100% into the movie in the early part, but suddenly there is a scene where the protagonists are driving along a wooded road and they see a flaming car rolling across the intersection in front of them. For a second you think it’s the type of random disaster that happens in a world like this. They have to slam on their brakes and back up to avoid the fire. But then you see people running through the trees screaming, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at the car. It’s a fucking ambush. And it gets worse from there.
I don’t know why this movie isn’t getting all that much attention, but believe me, it will. People will study this movie. Movies will copy this movie. The world, hopefully, will not turn into this movie. But it’s definitely one for the books.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.