Alfonso Cuarón just won best director, as well as a slew of other awards for Gravity and while I applaud gravity and its overt style, I can’t help but feel like the academy overlooked a real masterpiece 8 years ago, by the same director. So here it is, not a review, but why I love Children of Men. I’m going to really try to avoid spoilers here, mainly because I think this movie knocks it out of the park on every level of dramatic structure, and really should be seen with little knowledge on its subject matter.
Children of Men works as a strange conduit for portraying how individuals play their roles in society. It addresses futility in change, consequences of apathy, and maternity. The performances are out of this world (seriously, I’ve never seen Michael Cane in a better role). The “near future” look holds up on a level similar to Blade Runner. And let me just say, if there’s a film in recent memory that utilizes cinematography to hammer in a theme, it’s Children of Men. Emmanuel Lubezki was also just recognized for Gravity and holy hell it’s about time. There are no fancy cuts, oblique angles, and very few shot, reverse shots. Instead, Lubezki rides the line between fluid shots and traditional static shots, equalizing the audience with Theo. Let me explain. As you watch the movie you are given very little information that the main character is not privy to. This gives it a very realistic approach and allows Cuaron to blindside the audience with beat after beat, until Theo’s struggles feel like problems they have to deal with. The cinematography is so important to this approach because you have to immerse the audience in such a way that when you make a point, it’s as to the audience as it is to the affected characters, and Children of Men does this brilliantly. I promised very few spoilers and I’ll keep that promise. In the opening scene of the film, Theo gets coffee from a café, everyone inside is transfixed on the horrific events of that morning and Theo apathetically gets his coffee and leaves, the camera follows him outside and down the block, as Theo adds some alcohol to his brew, the building behind him explodes, there are zero visible cuts during the scene. What’s so well, functional about an opening like this is it manages to introduce the premise (no children born since 2009), the main character, and the central conflict of the film all in the first two minutes, and without cutting (visibly).
A quick word on fluid shots (aka “tracking shots”). You may be wondering why I keep saying “invisible cuts” or things of that nature. Children of Men fooled me for a very long time into thinking that the fluid shots of the film (there are several of them) were all glorious “tracking shots”. That’s how good these guys are, they are masters of the invisible edit and honestly, the film doesn’t suffer in my mind for knowing that. At the time these shots drew a lot of comparisons with the “tracking shot” in Atonement, and how the latter had the longer shot and was therefore more impressive. Here’s the problem with that sort of thinking. While on a technical scale the Atonement shot was very impressive, it did little to reinforce the conceit of the film. The shot takes place while Robbie is in the army and has little to do with the theme of redemption, or the inciting incident of miscommunication. It is a masterfully executed scene, but watching it alone would give the audience no understanding of the theme of the film. In Children of Men every fluid shot tells us something about Theo, the audience follows him through his journey through hell and in every shot we can see his driving goal, and the constant danger he is in while attempting to achieve that goal. The shots are used to set the tone and define the movie. They don’t stand out from the rest of the movie because each one subtly reinforces the theme and gives the audience a realistic perspective of the consequences of activism.
I know I made a promise to stay spoiler free, but I just can’t fully explain my appreciation of this film without touching on one more thing, so if you have not yet seen Children of Men, I recommend you stop reading here. As I said before this is a movie about individualism and how it plays out in changing society. Theo being the audience is subjected to the two extremes and one median of the spectrum through Luke, Julian and Jasper. Luke is 100% activist, leader of the resistance and willing to pay any price to institute political change. Jasper is a pacifist who just want to let the world’s problems play out around him. Julian rides the line between social change at all cost and morality’s absence in the world she lives in. And all paths lead to their deaths. There is a beautiful truth in that no matter what reasoning you align with, the world changes, and every action has its consequences.