7 October 2008

CHILDREN OF MEN (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2006, UK/US) - Despairingly beautiful cinema


Sometimes it takes an outsiders perspective to offer an alternative critique on another society, and such is the case with the Mexican film maker, Alfonso Cuaron, who in 2006, released his science fiction masterpiece ‘Children of Men’ to widespread critical acclaim but muted commercial success at the box office. Though the film was a success in the UK, the release of the film in America was severely criticised by the preeminent critic J. Hoberman of the village voice who underlined how the distributors effectively ‘dumped’ the film so that it was never given a proper release nor promoted with the vigour usually associated with traditional Hollywood science fiction films.

Any film that aspires to art-house aesthetics is bound to make any studio quite hostile and apprehensive towards those involved, and with American audiences having entirely oppositional cinematic sensibilities to their European counterparts, it did not come as a surprise why studios lost their nerve when it came to marketing and pushing the film into cinemas. If they had kept their faith in Cuaron’s vision then the film may have even received more awards and appeared with more much more frequency on critics and audiences top ten end of year lists.

In interviews published as the film appeared in UK cinemas, Cuaron talked about how he wanted to downplay the science fiction elements of the film, in an effort to avoid alienating the younger generation as it is clear that the ideologically profound message of restoring mankind’s faith in humanity is one that is deeply sentimental but also universally identifiable by all types of audiences especially the youth. Perhaps this explains why Cuaron alternates our sympathies between three characters that slowly merge into the symbol of the baby, and the increasing focus on Kee’s character as the narrative unfolds provides yet further evidence of Cuaron’s want to engage a generation that would typically stay away from a genre defined by male preoccupations.

The problem with depicting a vision of the future on screen today is that such a challenge is plagued with endless Hollywood representations of a post apocalyptic society ridden with overly familiar imagery of implausible, fantasy based scenery that serves no real ideological function other than as casual spectacle to keep the audience entertained. Critical dystopia is engineered by speculation and ‘Children of Men’ succeeds brilliantly in the dense intertextual allusions to actual contemporary cultural events, creating a richly textured mise en scene layered with a far greater degree of realism than is usually expected from similar films in the genre like the disappointing ‘V for Vendetta’.

Science fiction continues to act as the ideal vehicle for the exploration of contemporary fears and anxieties and the post 9/11 context has created a hysterical media induced paranoia around terrorism that permeates every frame of Cuaron’s film. The representation of illegal immigrants serves to underline the current xenophobic prejudices of middle England newspapers like The Daily Mail that resurface in the film as frightening propaganda adverts instructing people to report any suspicious behaviour or suspected ‘fugees’. Such provocative Orwellian imagery has become iconic of virtually every dystopia represented on film, but its potency and presence seems altogether more powerful in light of today’s growing fascination with surveillance.

In terms of genre, the film interestingly morphs from a science fiction film into a road movie in which Theo (Clive Owen) undergoes his own spiritual awakening, and then in the final sequences becomes a war film as Theo and Kee dodge their way through a war zone deeply reminiscent of recent conflicts like The Balkans, Iraq and The West Bank in Palestine. Cuaron seems to favour humanism over politics, and uses ‘The Fishes’ to illustrate the complexity of political activism and how everybody involved in the militant terrorist organisation seems to conceal a hidden agenda. Luke’s assassination of Julian (Julianne Moore) radicalises our political attitudes and soon we distance ourselves from ‘The Fishes’ as the level of fanaticism becomes brutally decisive in confirming Theo’s rejection of any kind of political allegiance.

What also distinctly separates ‘Children of Men’ from similar science fiction films is Cuaron’s bold decision to use long takes, especially in the car ambush sequence and the final sequences through Bexhill prison. The fact that Cuaron was not burdened by a heavyweight film star attached to the project surely gave him greater creative freedom in terms of trying to push the technical constraints of working with the long take technique. Such impassioned commitment to the long take challenges many of the technical conventions we typically associate with the genre and Cuaron’s minimal and subtle use of computer generated imagery never interferes with the narrative or ideas being explored on the surface.

Many have categorised ‘Children of Men’ as a British science fiction, which even though is a film fully financed by an American studio, still manages to adhere to one of the most striking aesthetic principles of many of the best British films, that of truth and realism. This is a film of real beauty, intelligence and an exceptionally well made Hollywood movie that offers the perfect marriage of European sensibilities and American genres.

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