Top 10 films of our lifetime #2: Children Of Men
25th September 2014
I bloody love a good apocalypse. I think if I were a director, being given the chance to ruin the world and set up camp at ground zero would be like being a kid in a sweet shop: so much potential for iconic imagery, so many stories to tell, so many angles. In Children Of Men, Alfonso Cuaron tells the biggest story - the imminent extinction of mankind - yet manages to make it small and personal at the same time. And, true to form, he captures some unforgettable imagery along the way. I hope the real apocalypse looks this good - Ali.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón / Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, PD James (novel) / Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
|nd so it ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. So many disaster movies and apocalyptic fictions see fit to snuff out humanity with an extinction-level event, giving us at least the courtesy of an exit akin to that of the dinosaurs.
Flaming death. Asteroids. Mega tsunamis. Aliens who have never heard of Will Smith. That's all well and good: everyone loves a front row seat to the end of the world. But that narrative does not ring true. Because deep down in the pit of their stomach, every soul on Earth knows that when mankind finally meets its end, whether it's tomorrow or 10,000 years from now, it won't be by some natural disaster you can see from space – it'll be on a microscopic, invisible, cellular level. We will die from the inside out, and it'll be slow and painful and unstoppable and really, really shit. Bruce Willis won't save us. No one will save us. We'll be fucked.
This cheery concept is the kernel of Alfonso Cuarón's chillingly familiar sci-fi apocalypse Children Of Men, a movie where humanity has been staring its own assured extinction in the face for years. Infertility has rendered the planet sterile. No new babies have been born for almost two decades. What you see is what you get. Last man standing is king of the world. "I can't really remember when I last had any hope," says Theo (Clive Owen), "and I certainly can't remember when anyone else did either."
Cuarón has created a terrifying world that has grimly accepted its fate but continues to go through the motions – because what else can you do? Why bother fighting terrorism when the world will be ashes before long anyway? Why protest politics when we're all going to be dead before the next passing of Halley's Comet? The looming threat of planetary annihilation is certainly the only way I can ever see UKIP getting into power; Cuarón does a pretty good job of showing what Britain might be like if they ever did.
Propaganda flashes from every bus shelter and ad hoarding, the dim wattage of the moving images a subtle reminder of a future in which technology proved itself utterly useless to our survival. Coffee shop patrons are caught up in bomb blasts on their way to work and shrug it off as part of the commute. Passenger trains are attacked by yobs who rage at their own impotence. The London of Children Of Men is a city choking on its own death rattle.
If hope remains a pipedream, there is at least humility in the form of Theo – an unlikely saviour, but welcome company nonetheless; I can't remember the last disaster movie I saw where the hero wasn't an insufferable bore. Theo is distinctly British – boasting that unique combination/contradiction of stiff resolve and self-defeating sarcasm – and as such marks himself a cut above the rest of his lantern-jawed brethren. Children Of Men's innate Britishness plays in its favour – Cuarón shot the Fleet Street bomb scene just six weeks after the actual 7/7 bombings, at a time where Londoners were doing their utmost to defy the terrorists by going through the same motions. We like our heroes unwilling and self-deprecating, and it doesn't hurt if they enjoy a drink and a smoke too.
Whenever I think about Clive Owen, I think about how disappointed I assume he was not to land the role of James Bond, but then I think about how good he is here – how naturalistic and charming and relatable – and I realise I'm glad he didn't get it. Bond isn't a role one slips into; he's a suit that wears you. Among the doom and the despair of Children Of Men, Cuarón leaves room for laughter and love and Owen makes the most of these quiet moments, forging effortless bonds with Julianne Moore and Michael Caine in just a few short scenes. Ever since Chancer, Clive Owen has and will always be cast for stoic, stolid types, but Cuarón teased a winning performance out of him.
A magnetic leading man is needed here, because as Cuarón's camera goes off on his trademark tangents, the film always needs a strong moral centre to return to. There's nothing in Children Of Men to rival the jaw-dropping spectacle of Cuarón's opening shot to Gravity, but the extended sequences here grip you by the throat until you realise you've stopped breathing.
The refugee attack on the car is brutal and chaotic yet masterfully orchestrated, while the escape from the Fishes compound is heart-in-mouth stuff, but the final set-piece in which Theo and his young ward Kee – carrying the first baby to be born in 18 years – navigate a warzone is in turn terrifying, touching and tense as all hell. You want a sense of danger? You want high stakes? Try a newborn baby, the future of humanity no less, stuck in the middle of a gun-fight as society's remnants race each other to extinction. One stray bullet shy of deleting a species.
Through all the dust and the rubble and the bombs and the tanks and the blood on the lens, Cuarón finds the humanity and zeroes in on it with laser precision. These scenes are indicative of how the director is capable of making even the most overwhelming stories feel small and uncomfortably personal. The fate of the world decided on the streets of East London.
Children Of Men is like a cracked mirror that reflects back at you whatever you want to see. I'm stumped to think of an apocalyptic sci-fi that hits quite so close to home; as an action movie, it contains scenes that will turn your hair white; if you're after a character piece, look no further than the mini-episode featuring Michael Caine's Jasper and his ailing wife, finding dignity in death.
Ultimately though, Children Of Men is an allegory for faith, and indeed the lack thereof, and as such represents the human spirit in microcosm: the vulnerability, the grim acceptance, the fight that's still left in the locker. It's simultaneously uplifting and depressing in equal measures – a beautiful film about hopelessness.
#10: The Cabin In The Woods by Matt
#9: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Matt
#8: Let The Right One In by Neil
#7: Inception by Matt
#6: There Will Be Blood by Ali
#5: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World by Ali
#4: Zodiac by Ed
#3: Pan's Labyrinth by Luke