I noticed that Children of Men is opening Christmas Day so I thought I would post my recollection of it (rusty though it is after three months), just in case anyone needs encouragement.
My first recommendation about this movie is not to read any reviews, including this one (though I’ll try not to ruin anything). Most of the ones I’ve read recently spoil things accidentally or not, and I’m glad I saw the movie without seeing anything about it besides the trailer.
Ironically, the trailer made me think it had given away most of the plot, which in turn made me uninterested altogether, but while watching the movie I realized the trailer was in fact a cleverly conceived paratext to prime you with the wrong expectations. I know I criticized the marketers of Pan’s Labyrinth for misrepresenting the movie in its trailer, but in the case of Children of Men the trailer is perhaps an essential ingredient of misdirection, designed to ensure your capacity for surprise.
The movie begins as all dystopian visions do, with offhand exposition crammed as naturally as possible into TV reports and everyday dialogue, and though it is utterly conventional, the movie does it as well as any other. As you would expect, the social and political situation depicted twenty years from now is consumed by today’s hot-button issues in the UK like immigration and terrorism.
After twenty minutes of such set-up, I feared Children of Men would continue in this track and allow itself to remain a tedious and uninsightful commentary on politics and society like V for Vendetta, but the possibility that Cuaron might do something new and unexpected with this material kept me in my seat. And sure enough, by the end of the first act (IIRC) something surprising happened that announced to me: this is not the movie you thought it was going to be.
From then on I couldn’t afford to blink, as scenes appearing sentimental in the trailer were shown in their actual context, and the true narrative of the movie was suddenly revealed via a portentous location and a telling profanity. From there the movie achieved successively new heights, from the most exciting low-speed chase since Al Cowlings puttered his Juice-conveying white Bronco up the 405, to a long uncut shot through a street battle that itself begins audaciously and ends nothing short of religiously.
Another reason I love this movie is that it had the correct ending. While watching I kept thinking, I hope it doesn’t go too long or show too much. Characters in the movie make a big deal out of an organization called the Human Project, and “the greatest minds in the world working for a new society” is a description sure to make anyone roll their eyes, but fortunately the movie is not about them. The Human Project is portrayed as so altruistic that a cynical audience couldn’t possibly view them without suspicion, and Cuaron makes the right decision not even to show these practically angelic ministers. Everyone I saw the movie with (about 10 friends) were disappointed by its lack of closure, but if anything I would have cut the final shot maybe five or ten seconds earlier. Those who want to ask biomedical questions, and those who wish the movie went longer, both confuse the story with its trappings.
Though Children of Men uses a sci-fi premise — all women have been barren for 18 years — it wisely never attempts to explain it, because it is not a movie about infertility or its cure. Indeed, the movie’s premise, its “political relevance”, and even the objective of the characters, are all window dressings to defamiliarize a story so commonplace it has become difficult to empathize with or even imagine. As soon as you become interested in the accidents of this movie you have lost hold of its essence. To be sure, the director regards his work as having lots of relevance to the current world, and there are moments when his attempts at comment on it seep through (tableau-like recreations of the photos from Abu Ghraib for instance) but I think the movie is even better than intended because the film’s own story transcends the built-in metaphors for which it was meant.
I rate Children of Men the best movie of 2006, and I can’t imagine even The Nativity Story making a better Christmas movie.