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‘Children of Men’: Universal’s Orphaned Masterpiece

Posted on Jan 9, 2007
Children of Men
from childrenofmen.net

By Sheerly Avni

Here’s how Hollywood’s “creative tension” between Commerce and Art really works: Commerce lures Art into his lair with roses and chocolate, swears his undying love, and then quickly leaves her for nights away at a nearby strip club called The Bottom Line. Then he throws the furniture and smacks her around the kitchen a bit, just to let her know who’s boss, and when she’s finally got her bags packed, to move back in with her sister The Theater perhaps—Commerce shows up with another batch of roses and convinces her to stay.

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There’s not a lot of love there, but it’s how the babies get made.

Take “Children of Men,” for example, by Alfonso Cuarón, the Academy Award-nominated director of both “Y Tu Mamá También” and the only good Harry Potter installment. His movie boasts stellar performances by Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. It’s based on a critically acclaimed novel by P.D. James, and what a story: a desperate chase set in a dismal England of 20 years from now, on a dying Earth that has been devastated by nuclear bombings, immigration conflicts, plague and environmental damage.

Not to mention the looming end of the human race—for the past 18 years, no babies have been born.  Enter a young pregnant illegal who is therefore mankind’s last hope, and you have the kick-ass sci-fi premise of a lifetime. By all rights, “Children of Men”  should be a blockbuster.

But as J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice last month, Universal has done everything it can to bury its treasure, treating the movie “like a communicable disease.” Dumped in limited release on Christmas Day and finally released wide this past weekend to just 1,200 theaters, “Children of Men” still managed to come in third, after “Night at the Museum” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” It has also been included on several critics’ top-10 lists, and is currently ranked number one on the New York Times’ viewing poll.

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Cuarón has pulled off the near-impossible: He’s made a big-budget, politically charged, visually stunning film—complete with hot leads—that grips as much as it entertains. By following these 10 easy steps, you too can make your own $80-million unpromoted masterpiece.

You don’t stand a baby’s chance in 2027 of winning an Oscar, but hey, at least you’ll keep your integrity.

1. Show no mercy.  The fascist government of future London (one of the few surviving nations) supplements its citizens’ rations with anti-depressants and a suicide pill called Quietus, which is plugged on the ravaged city’s moving billboards with the slogan, “You choose when.”

Heroes do not take Quietus. They trade in the right to choose when to die by choosing what to live for. In cinematic terms, that means death can come at any time—even to someone you love, even in the first act.

2. Crack a Joke. Grim settings do not require grim performances. Joan Didion says that we tell stories in order to live, but Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor knew that jokes are how we bear it.

The humor in this movie, and there is much of it, doesn’t lessen its dramatic impact—rather it helps us connect with these men and women as they struggle to hold on to their humanity in world with no human future. Significant portions, including a car chase in which none of the characters can get their vehicles to start, play like high farce. And even the most essential plot point of the film is revealed not by a text at the bottom of the screen or by a last-minute printed prologue but by a very stoned and barely recognizable Michael Caine telling a joke.

3. Love your backgrounds.  The eye candy is stellar: Clive Owen as Theo, an alcoholic bureaucrat who suddenly finds himself thrust into a heroic role, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julianne Moore as rebel leaders, and stunning newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitay in the role of Kee, the young refugee trying to bring her baby to term. There has rarely been a group of actors as likely to warrant nonstop close-ups. But in several of his interviews, the director has discussed the pact he made with long-time cameraman Emannuel Lubezki—to return to the strategy they followed in “Y Tu Mamá También.” In that movie, the love affairs were between not two, or three, but four: A woman, two boys, and Mexico herself.  And actors always shared the screen with the world they moved through, and thus Cuarón’s political readings of his own country’s class wars told themselves. He never had to push the message.

4. On that note. Just hire Lubezki, and do what he tells you to do.

5. Women are neat! And handy! And versatile! The trope of the man who has to carry the woman to safety is one of the oldest in cinema, but Theo’s personal connection to his charge is deeper and more moving than a simple love affair. His other female sidekick is a homily-spouting hippie, the kind you wouldn’t want to be stuck with on a life-or-death chase—unless she turns out to be a trained midwife.

6. Beware Captain Kirk. You know that scene, the one where a blowhard pops up between gunshots to explain the moral of the story? It’s the scourge of American popular entertainment, from “On the Waterfront” to every episode of “Star Trek” and on to “Crash,” “Munich,” “Blood Diamond” and all the way through. It sucks.  It out Herods Herod, pray you, and Cuarón avoided it. 

7. Remember that we warned you: By following Rule 6, you have effectively disqualified yourself from any chance to thank the academy.

8. Be Mexican. Along with his countrymen Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”), Cuarón is redefining how we conceive of genre. One could make some sort of disparaging remark about how the media lump these entirely different artists together just because they are Mexican, if it were not for the fact that they are actually close friends and collaborators. See all three interviewed on Charlie Rose, where Iñárritu explains that “we like to keep our forks in each other’s salads.”

9. We’re not stupid. If there is a bright side to our hyper-accelerated technological death-march, it’s that we’ve adapted some neat new skills: We talk on cell phones, play Tetris, instant-message our friends and watch “American Idol” all at the same time, and that means we can follow the conversation between two characters even while the camera pans around the room to provide us with essential visual cues that help us reconstruct the story. We will get it.

No need for clumsy establishing dialogue, no solemn voiceovers, or subtitled meetings at Parliament. Cuarón uses images to tell us what we need to know: Through graffiti, TV graphics, and even the clippings and photographs on a pothead’s desk.

10. Pack your bags: Let’s say you get past the producers, there’s another hurdle. After they screen your baby, the good folks at marketing can still get you fired—and replaced by that promising A.D. from “American Pie VIII.” Relax. There’s always Mexico.

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By GENE in ILLINOIS, January 26, 2007 at 1:09 pm Link to this comment
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I agree wholeheartedly with Frank Delgado!! I read the book before the movie and was thoroughly disappointed with the film. I LOVED the book and was looking forward to many of the more poignant scenes coming to life ... I could NOT understand all the departures from P. D. James work! They missed out on SO much. We DO need a remake that is more in tune with James’ vision.

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By Jim, January 12, 2007 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment
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I found Children of Men to be both beautiful and haunting. I bet many filmmakers will begin to copy Cuarón’s style and methods of visual story-telling.

By the way, the phrase, “children of men”, comes from the old testament and means “mankind” but with an emphasis on the generations to come.

Thanks for the insightful review. It’s a sad commentary on our culture when movies like this are not rewarded. Do we want art, or do we want to sell popcorn?

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By TheEnd, January 11, 2007 at 12:27 pm Link to this comment
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NETTIE,

I imagine it’s called “Children of Men” for the same reason George Carlin says “God is a man… because there’s no way a woman would’ve screwed things up so badly.”  At least the film is being honest wink

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By Nadine Barner, January 10, 2007 at 11:41 pm Link to this comment
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It is truly a vizually stunning movie with incredible acting from Owen and Co. Depressing as hell, of course and not recommended on the heels of “Babel” if you can avoid it. I liked it very much, recommend it as weel but it did feel a bit flat yes, but can’t put my finger on why…

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By chanceny, January 10, 2007 at 12:42 pm Link to this comment
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I saw “Children of Men” over the weekend and was totally immersed in it, from start to finish.  There was no pandering to the audience by over explaining the circumstances of the world’s destruction, just enough scenery, news clippings and dialogue to frame the story.  It showed that,in just 20 years, all that decimation was not only plausible, but could be the actual outcome if we continue on our self-destructing, weapon manufacuring, polluting path. The acting was exceptional and Michael Caine provided much needed humor in the midst of the bleakness that encompassed everything.  Although it was intentionally set 20 years into the future, there was no science fiction gimmickry used which enabled the audience to transpose our reality to the story being related.  I appreciate having my senses exhanced,and the sights, sound and intelligent dialogue had me leave the theater feeling satisfied.

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By GW=MCHammered, January 10, 2007 at 10:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Capital Investors took over Hollywood and as is self-evident with most dollar-primary ventures, they crippled movie-making art. Now the dollar holds the gate keys. Formula may be one artist’s trump but recipe will never satisfy true creators.

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By NETTIE, January 10, 2007 at 10:24 am Link to this comment
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I actually did not find this to be depressing as some reviewers bally-hooed, it was more a testament to folks who, by sheer dint of relentless effort, survive horrible situations and work to live in a better life.  Some have what it takes and others don’t.  I don’t know that I would unless I had children in my care.  Certainly humor and moderate doses of consciousness altering substances will help.  My question: why “children of men” vs. of humans or better yet WOMEN?  WOMEN certainly the most resilient of the human species.  Or, demonstrate the interdependence of the species by making it “women and men.”  Ah, well.  Too picky?  Words are very powerful, yes?  Yes.

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By Samson-, January 10, 2007 at 8:52 am Link to this comment
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I saw this movie in Philly (Ritz East) on its opening weekend. I was very excited to see the movie, I had incredible expectations…

I thought the movie was good, not great. I liked the movie but did not love it.

I had hoped it focus more on the society and the macro-forces that created that future world. It used the larger issues as a backdrop to the intimate, personal story about a man, and how his past shaped his future. But the juicy tidbits about how and why the world broke down are not addressed head-on.

I still recommend this movie whole heartedly.

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By Troy in Hagerstown, January 10, 2007 at 3:40 am Link to this comment
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Having watched Children of Men and Babel both in the same week, I’m a little unsettled at the moment. Finding myself suddenly and deeply immersed in films of this quality is unnerving. However, all I can say is “bring it on.” Wow!

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By Roberta, January 10, 2007 at 12:23 am Link to this comment
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Saw it last night, here in New Zealand. Movie theatre was packed.

I liked it, it’s cool seeing these kind of movies outside of the US (as a u.s. citizen)  because you really get the perspective/notion of how absurd the current War on Terror is.

The beginning of the movie was exactly like the intro to Half Life Video game, which I was too scared to finish.

When is somebody going to do an Octavia Butler movie?

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By Z Weyand, January 10, 2007 at 12:06 am Link to this comment
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Great vision. The path from here to there is one slippery slope. The unasked question, the question no politician will entertain is:
How many people can the world sustain at the levels we are accostomed to? Pick a number any number then double it or triple it, then when do we answer the question , What about population
limits?

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By null, January 9, 2007 at 9:00 pm Link to this comment
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children of men, and all of the praise being lain at the feet of children of men has me absolutely stymied. this movie was terrible. upon ending, most everyone in the theater was just as stymied. absolute drivel.

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By azul, January 9, 2007 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment
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I saw the film on Sunday afternoon. I am still thinking about whether or not I can agree with all the accolades. I loved the Michael Caine character. I could not say though that this film is anywhere close to the “best film” I have ever seen. Also, I believe that humans are capable of creating better worlds. Although, I admit that might seem naive considering the mess this one is in at present. The fact is that the future is in our hands at all times, it’s going to be what we make it. Cause and effect.

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By Eleanore Kjellberg, January 9, 2007 at 7:08 pm Link to this comment
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“Children of Men” is not a “feel good” movie—after seeing it, you might be depressed for several days—-the images are bleak and grim, as if Dickensian England was transported to the 21st century; where desperation, anomie, despair and violence were all that was left of society.

In 2027 civilization was cursed with infertility, symbolically representing a lack of all future hope, however, the importance of this film was not the issue of infertility, or that the story takes place in 2027, but in the shocking and creepy feeling of how real everything seemed; images resonated with reality, and with the possibility that this could be the future. 

England in 2027—looked eerily similar to Iraq in 2007—the unpredictability of terrorist bombs; civilians rounded up and placed in cages,  military patrolling the streets in search of insurgents; and families huddled in their homes not knowing if this day could be their last.

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By Larry Slade, January 9, 2007 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment
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I wanted to like it. I read about how great it was supposed to be before I went.
I was pretty surprised about how weak it was.
After an hour of not caring about any of it I just left.
I wrote about it on my blog if you want to read what I really thought.
Or just go and find out for yourself how over-hyped some comic book deep movie can be. Who knows, maybe you’ll like it.
I loved The Fountain, a movie that was not at all supported and bombed terribly.
Oh Well!

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By Jeff, January 9, 2007 at 5:01 pm Link to this comment
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What many will hate about this movie is what I love: It’s one smart person’s perspective in the world—Theo’s. The world didn’t pander to his needs, and the movie don’t spoon feed us everyone’s backstory.  It was an awesome film!

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By Matt, January 9, 2007 at 4:35 pm Link to this comment
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Nice article.  CoM is by far the best movie I’ve seen this year (‘06).  It’s too bad Universal buried it.

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By Pinky, January 9, 2007 at 2:58 pm Link to this comment
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I found the movie to be the most visceral, emotionally-charged, thought-provoking, and troubling film I’ve seen in a long, long time.

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By Hotspur, January 9, 2007 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment
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Without question, the best movie I have seen in years.  (Just saw “United 93,” and while it’s equally in a class by itself, I can’t begin to compare them except to say they are the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” three nights ago and, though good, it’s not in the same league.)  It’s a crime the way this film has been buried thus far; maybe a little grassroots push can get it the attention it so richly deserves.

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By frank Delgado, January 9, 2007 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment
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I picked up the book ” The children of men.” After reading the first two chapter I couldn’t wait to see the movie. I called my sons and friends to tell them about the book and the movie. Then I rushed to see the movie.
I am sorry to say the movie was lacking. Those two chapters I read were more fullfilling than the whole movie. The important parts in the movie were so rushed that they did not have time to sink in. The plot is so profound that it deserves a better remake.

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By DeezTreez, January 9, 2007 at 12:43 pm Link to this comment
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A disturbingly, beautiful film. All at once, too close for comfort and too engaging to take my eyes off. If we’re courageous enough too look into the abyss and honest enough to admit our own culpability in its creation, we just might recognize redemption when it shows up.

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By sammy, January 9, 2007 at 12:32 pm Link to this comment
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A tour de force for Clive Owen and Alfonso Cuaron. The hidden heroism of the man (drunk) on the street makes this a powerful statement. You can make a difference…even in a world run by the mad cowboy.

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By Ian Campbell, January 9, 2007 at 12:32 pm Link to this comment
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As much as I wanted to like the movie, I couldn’t.  Too many unanswered questions, leaving the film extraordinarily flat. 

It’s such a linear movie.  No side plots, only unanswered side questions.

The book must have been more complex (as they always are)  The screenplay for “Children of Men” was so watered down, P.D. James should be disappointed.

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By paul kibble, January 9, 2007 at 10:44 am Link to this comment
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The trinity of talented Mexican filmmakers—-Inarritu (Babel), del Torro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Cuaron—-represents a triple threat that puts most of these directors’ North American counterparts to shame in terms of command of the medium’s resources and sheer audacity of vision. Despite the best efforts of the marketing gurus who now run the studios (into the ground), Children of Men will continue to find an audience among those of us who still believe that movies can stir the heart and engage the mind while still entertaining. (The action sequences in Children have a visceral immediacy that should make Tony Scott or Michael Bay do double backflips of envy). Cuaron and his confreres may once again make going to the movies a fresh pleasure rather than the tired and tiring habit that it’s increasingly become for far too many of us.

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By MARIAM RUSSELL, January 9, 2007 at 6:33 am Link to this comment
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That is the best movie review I have ever seen. I hope the movie is as good.

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By dgw2, January 9, 2007 at 4:38 am Link to this comment
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best movie ever!

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