Written by: The CinCitizens
CC2K unabashedly looks back at our unabashed love for Children of Men.
There’s too many opinions out there to call any one movie the unanimous choice for movie of the year, but Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men comes pretty darn close for us at CC2K and amongst the filmlovers I know in general. It was both mine and Mr. Wambold’s #1 movie of the year, and I believe Tony’s #3 choice on the top ten list we’re all anxiously awaiting.
And yet we have yet to publish any sort of article about the movie on these pages. I suspect that one reason for this is that it’s hard to find an “angle” to write about something you feel almost unqualified admiration for. Beyond making a bland list of what went right, there’s no nitty-gritty of what went wrong to dig into. So how do we deal with this film critically in any meaningful way?
Long have I pondered this question, and many were my struggles to find with an answer. In the end, I came up with two broad fronts on which to wage this war:
1) What did the filmmakers do that evidently separates this film from so many of the good-not-great movies out there?
2) Where does Children of Men rate amongst the great dystopic narratives our society has told about itself?
In regards to #2, I’ll define the playing field as including both films AND literature. How does Children of Men look when put up against acknowledged classics of the dystopia film genre like Metropolis, Blade Runner, Brazil, THX-1138 , and 12 Monkeys? What should be included in the canon of Great Dystopic Films? What IS the Greatest Dystopic Film of All Time? And how do these dystopic flims rate against the great pieces of literature on the subject (1984, Brave New World, maybe Snow Crash)? Do they compete on equal footing, or do cinematic and literary representations about the Fall of Man do different things?
I’ll leave it up to Robert and Tony to tackle these questions first, and then show them both what they did wrong and what the correct answers were in my rebuttal.
A Story Living Its Greatest Life
Lance, I’d like to start by addressing something curious you said in one of your guidelines for discussion. While running down the great dystopic film narratives of our time, you mentioned Blade Runner, and in your list of great dystopic novels, you included 1984.
I note this because Blade Runner of course started as Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Orwell’s classic was made into a pretty damn good movie with John Hurt and Richard Burton.
But let me hasten to add that I’m not trying to bust your balls. Far from it! Rather, I’m loudly agreeing with you – when we talk about the great dystopic narratives of our time, Blade Runner (to me) will always be a movie; 1984 will always be a novel.
That brings us to Children of Men, which originated as P.D. James’ novel, The Children of Men. I haven’t read James’ book, but that’s not my point here. What I suspect we saw in Cuaron’s grim vision was a story living its greatest life.
Let me expand on that idea: I think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a pretty drab novel. I haven’t read any other Dick novels, but from what I saw in Androids, he’s addicted to gerunds (-ing verbs), which I find wearisome to read. But his idea clearly clearly had legs, and Ridley Scott gave it its greatest life. In the same spirit, Michael Radford’s film of 1984 has a lot to admire – a pitch-perfect John Hurt as Smith, solid design – and yet Orwell’s idea clearly lives its greatest life in book form (unless a mysterious 2009 film version dazzles us).
(Incidentally, I have a sneaky feeling that I might soon be arguing that the Lord of the Rings cycle found its greatest life onscreen. But that’s a whole other argument.)
Going solely on the evidence that I had never heard of James’ novel until Cuaron’s movie came out, I will dare to argue that Cuaron gave James’ idea its greatest life. Well, I’ll add one more piece of evidence: Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. J.K. Rowling’s third Potter book is one of the best, yet her story lives its greatest life in Cuaron’s movie, which might wind up being the best film – the only true film – in a bloated franchise. That is, unless Joss Whedon delivers on his threat to direct the seventh film – a confluence of geek divinity too fantastic to contemplate.
So, what did Cuaron and his creative team do right?
They didn’t try to do everything.
To drive this point home, let me compare COM to its unexpected cinematic sibling, V for Vendetta, which tried to adapt an overrated graphic novel and compete with The Matrix, for some reason. The more I think about V for Vendetta (the comic and the movie), the more annoyed I get. The comic strikes me as seminal reading for someone who likes dressing up in capes and quoting Shakespeare loudly and at length. The movie is no less self-satisfied, right down to the trailers, which promised “an uncompromising vision of the future,” but instead gave us a sleek, gleaming and edge-free fairy-tale London. (to me) will always be a movie, and COM, by contrast, added a minimum amount of detail to their dystopic, near-future London. They added a lot of trash, a lot of grime and a few clever multimedia elements. Besides that, they built their future with found elements: cities, roads, houses, apartments and refugee camps.
Seriously, think back to COM and try to remember anything more than that.
Given the minimal design built into COM, the filmmakers were forced to do their sci-fi world-building intellectually and tonally, and that meant showing us a world that had given up. The tone of COM, incidentally, reminded me of an underrated indie movie called Last Night, which follows a group of people on the last day of the world. In the movie, the world is set to end at midnight for an unspecified reason (presumably a supernova), and everyone is resigned to it. COM shows us a similar world, but a few months before utter resignation sets in.
But I’ve gone on long enough. I cede the floor to the rest of you.