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Dystopian Fun for Everyone

I went to see Children of Men about a week ago. I’d had my eye on it since I first saw the trailer: novel, thought-provoking concept, respectable cast, directed by Alfonso Cuarón helmer of the only truly stand-out Harry Potter movie to date). So, when it opened in Longview, we were so there, and I, for one, was not disappointed.

This film has gotten a lot of criticism for things which I feel have nothing to do with how well it played on the big screen, so I won’t discuss them right away. It gets so much right: locations, technology, atmosphere, attitudes. From the large to the small, Children of Men convincingly transports the audience to a 2027 where no human pregnancy has occurred in over 18 years. Cuarón is very comfortable working with dark, gloomy material, as is his leading man, Clive Owen. Very ably backing him up are Julianne Moore, Michael Caine (always excellent), newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey, and a growing favorite of mine, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Amistad). Seriously, every time this guy pops up in a movie I’m watching, it happens to be a really great movie.

There are also some bold storytelling choices here that shatter the predictability of the plot. No character is sacred, and there is a very real tension throughout most of the movie as the ultimate ending remains very much up in the air right down to the final moments. Every time things seem to be moving comfortably down a particular path, there is a sudden reversal that throws everything into disarray. There is some really great work here in the action sequences as well, including one of the most intense car chases I’ve ever seen, during which the car’s speed never exceeds 20 mph!

Of course, the thing everyone is talking about is that (I believe) 7-minute unbroken shot that takes place in the midst of a chaotic urban battle near the end of the film. It is indeed impressive, although I barely noticed that the camera hadn’t cut once until the scene was probably a little over half over. It is a major undertaking to get everything to work perfectly during a shot that requires so much in the way of explosions, gunfire, and rapid but smooth camera movement, and it is carried off fairly well. However, I’ve seen Russian Ark, a movie which consists of a single 96-minute take involving 2000 actors costumed and scripted to cover 300 years of Russian history, and three live orchestras performing massive ballroom sequences . . . It makes 7 minutes of pitched battle seem a tad less worthy to write home about.

About halfway through the sequence in Children of Men, blood spatters on the camera lens (this was what first drew my attention to the lack of cuts), and as I watched I found this extremely distracting and annoying. A few minutes later, it suddenly disappeared and I assumed that there had been a cut even though I could not in any way detect one. A few days later, I read this about the filming:

Cuarón had access to his location for the shot for just a few weeks, and his crew used up all but the last two days simply preparing for the long sequence. The first take, which took all of the first day, was a disaster from start to finish. The second, which took up most of the second day, was ruined when the cameraman tripped. Each ruined take would require several hours for the crew to set everything back up and try again, so when the third take began, the sun was literally setting on their final day to use the selected location. No pressure.

With the fate of the scene hanging in the balance, filming began, but then one of the fake blood packets on a dying bystander exploded too close to the camera, spattering the lens as I described above. Disgusted, Cuar󮠹elled “Cut,” but fortunately the sound of an explosion drowned him out and no one heard. He sat through the rest of the sequence, and then Owen and the cameraman came over, elated at their success. He quickly pointed out that, certainly everything seemed to have gone well, but the scene was ruined by the blood. Both Owen and the cameraman, incredulous and furious, told Cuarón off, stating that the accident of the blood was an incredible boon to the scene and was precisely the sort of thing he himself was always looking for.

Well, when they put it that way . . . the scene went in the film and the blood stayed. But Cuarón recognized that it grew tiresome after a few minutes, and the production hired a digital artist to painstakingly remove the blood from every single frame of the final minutes of the scene. The job was, by all accounts, quite tortuous, and the digital artist hated them for it. So, when the blood disappears, the scene was not cut as I had assumed it must have been. Quite a story, I thought.

Anyway, about that criticism . . . apparently Cuarón has not at all interested in reading the original book when he worked on the screenplay and on filming. He thought it would distract him from what he wanted to do: namely, use the idea of a future world with no children as social commentary on certain American governmental policies of the present such as immigration and the environment and so forth.

He pretty much sucks at this no matter which way you look at it. A lot of people were disgusted with the movie because they found it jarring and irrelevant that he should try to use this concept as a soapbox for those issues. I greatly enjoyed the movie and completely missed the fact that this is what he was supposedly trying to do. Looking back I remember maybe one or two asides that might be construed as pertaining to those issues, but I don’t really see how they connect to the present, and I certainly don’t think they make any sort of coherent political statement.

One thing that I did notice while watching the movie, however, was the number of seemingly disconnected religious pointers floating around in it. Main character names included “Julian,” “Theo,” “Luke,” “Miriam” and “Kee” (spelled differently from the “circulating life energy” of eastern religion, but certainly pronounced the same). The title itself comes from a Psalm. These and other similar names and ideas appeared at random in the movie, didn’t seem to really go anywhere, yet did not seem to be coincidental.

I have since grabbed the book from the library and I plan on reading it, and I have discovered that the author is a Christian and her book explores many Christian themes and ideas through the premise that the film version took (or tried to take) in an entirely different direction. In the book, for instance, Luke is an Anglican priest, and the organization called “Fish” (a strange name for what is, in the movie, a terrorist organization) is much more closely linked to the ideas represented by the Christian fish after which it is named in the book. The faith upon which the book is based is strangely absent in the film, but the labels remained like cryptic signposts, pointing at nothing in particular. The director (seeking to “go in a different direction”) was too ignorant to realize that he had left in the terminology when he drained the ideology.

My attitude about that is one of sad amusement tinged with disappointment for what might have been. Children of Men is an amazing film experience just as it is, but compared to what it could have been it seems strangely hollow. I loved the movie, but it could have changed my life. Oh, well.

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~ by Jared on January 14, 2007.

One Response to “Dystopian Fun for Everyone”

  1. Well, I’m not entirely sure how to respond to your question. While I would certainly appreciate a world where no obnoxious hyenas disguised as small humans annoyed me in airplanes, restaurants, theaters, and basically everywhere else, I’m not sure I would like to see [i]all[/i] children disappear from the planet. Then again, I don’t want any children myself, so why should I care if the human race dies out after I pass on? A world without the “think of the children” argument could be close to paradise.

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