WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
Some films grow in reputation over time. They’re ahead of their time in many ways and directors begin to be influenced by a work and audiences revisit it over the years and an appreciation grows.
And in some cases, the message of the movie becomes even more relevant as current events unfold throughout the years.
In the case of “Children of Men,” a 2006 dystopian thriller written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, it’s now regarded as one of the best movies ever made.
Cuarón is now a two-time Oscar winner for Best Director for “Gravity” in 2013 and “Roma” in 2018. He shares the honor with George Stevens and Ang Lee of being the only directors to have won Best Director twice without ever directing a Best Picture winner. Cuarón also has been nominated in six different Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay), an honor he shares with Walt Disney and George Clooney.
He’s directed only eight films between 1991 and 2018. Six of them received Oscar nominations (and interesting enough only two are in his native Spanish).
He’s a damn good director and “Children of Men” might be his best movie.
Quick plot summary: It stars Clive Owen as a former political activist who now drinks his days away at a job he hates. The film open with TV news announcing the death of the youngest person alive (18 years old). It’s been that long since humankind has stopped having babies due to unexplained infertility and the lack of children — and the lack of a future — has taken away hope. Society has crumbled in many major cities. Armed militias roam the streets and refugees try to come to London but are criminalized as illegal immigrants and thrown into literal cages. Owen is asked by a former girlfriend (played by the always marvelous Julianne Moore) to help escort a woman on an important trip. Little does he know that she’s pregnant. And terrorist groups want to take her baby.
Owen is an underrated actor. He’s always got this smarminess to him where he’s not 100 percent trustworthy (as seen in the underrated film “Closer”). He was once considered to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, along with Ewan McGregor and Jude Law. Eric Bana was eventually selected but it fell through and his “Munich” co-star Daniel Craig took the role.
Michael Caine has a small but memorable part as a lovable pothead. Caine is always excellent and along with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep he’s the only actor/actress to receive Oscar nominations in five straight decades (all three have won multiple awards).
There are also cameos from the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam but neither have big parts or are particularly memorable.
Technically, “Children of Men” is a marvel. Some of the shots are nearly impossible to pull off and yet the camera moves in a way that doesn’t bring attention to itself.
The biggest feat is the use of single-shot sequences for many scenes, which sparked concerns for the studio due to the time and cost. The movie doesn’t have a lot of special effects but cost $75 million to make (it broke even at the box office basically when you include domestic and international). One single shot which involves Owen’s character searching a building while under attack took 14 days to prepare for and five hours between takes. During one take, blood spattered onto the lens and the cinematographer convinced Cuarón to leave it in, adding to the documentary feel of parts of the movie.
The car crash scene was also incredibly difficult to shoot because of where the camera moves during the single shot. With today’s drones, it’s possible they could have done it differently.
There’s some splicing together of shots to make multiple shots appear to be one using computer technology but the effects weren’t as advanced as they are today. During “1917,” I didn’t want to give Sam Mendes too much credit for his single-shot movie considering how much of it was edited in post production.
In “Children of Men,” the single shot scenes (it’s only in sequences not the entire movie) makes you feel like you’re there but you almost don’t realize it’s being used. Unlike “Birdman” (a single-shot Best Picture winner from Cuarón’s close friend Alejandro González Iñárritu), the camerawork isn’t showy. It advances the story but never becomes gimmicky.
When Owen was running through the staircase avoiding being killed, it reminded me of “The Raid: Redemption” almost.
“Children of Men” also might be the most hopeless of the dystopian sci-fi movies I’ve seen (a genre I enjoy a lot).
In modern teen films like “Divergent” or “The Hunger Games,” we see action and spectacle front and center instead of drab colors and hopelessness.
In films like “Blade Runner,” “Escape from New York,” “The Warriors,” or “Logan’s Run” (all four I love), the viewer becomes enamored with the futuristic backdrop, the unique production design and the interesting costumes instead of wallowing in the bleak surroundings.
Probably the best comparison to “Children of Men” is “A Clockwork Orange” but that’s a movie that didn’t have the grand scale or cityscape surroundings of “Children of Men.”
In many ways, “Children of Men” is the anti-sci fi film. There are some very, very subtle futuristic elements such as a news stand with newspapers that change on their own using CGI effects, but you don’t see a fascination with technology or future-predicting like in films such as “Minority Report,” “I, Robot” or “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”
Instead, “Children of Men” focuses on realism and you see long shots of damaged streetscapes that look like the bombarded scenes in “Full Metal Jacket.” There’s a sense of despair looking at the roads unmatched by any other movie. There are other dystopian films like “The Road,” “28 Days Later,” and “I am Legend” (all three have some sort of zombie-ish element) where the streets look barren and hopeless. But the streets of “Children of Men” aren’t empty. They’re bustling full of people and yet every person seems to have dread on their face.
It’s a very religious film. When Clive Owen is surprised by the pregnancy and asks who the father is, she jokes that she’s a virgin and his face almost believes it. Her birth is eventually in a barn, which is pretty obvious. Although much of the other religious symbolism is much more subtle.
The title, according to director/writer Alfonso Cuarón, is based on Psalm 90: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”
The movie closes with the final line from T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Wasteland”: “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Shanti means peace in sanskrit.
“Shanti” is also a common beginning and ending to all Hindu prayers.
The movie itself is all about hope. When the soldiers and rebels, all fighting with one another, finally see the baby, they all stop and stare. The birth of a child gives them hope and pause. Children give us hope. It’s that simple.
The ending features Owen, the young woman and the baby on a boat fleeing to freedom and safety in the form of a boat called Tomorrow. Owen dies on the boat and the mother and daughter float away and the audience doesn’t know what eventually happens to them as the credits roll, featuring the sounds of children laughing and playing.
Cuarón encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions.
“We wanted the end to be a glimpse of a possibility of hope, for the audience to invest their own sense of hope into that ending,” he said. “So if you’re a hopeful person you’ll see a lot of hope, and if you’re a bleak person you’ll see a complete hopelessness at the end.”
Personally, I interpret the sounds of laughter as a sign that society is rebuilt.
Obviously many have pointed out the political parallels in “Children of Men,” especially the idea of illegal immigrants being kept in chain-link cages.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been this sense of dread and hopelessness among many. There’s an uneasy feeling in today’s society which I saw in “Children of Men.” Terrorist attacks. People dying. Buildings being burned down. Lockdowns. Strict government actions.
The movie isn’t just getting more relevant but it’s growing in appreciation.
In 2016 it was voted 13th among 100 films considered the best of the 21st century by 117 film critics from around the world, according to a feature on BBC.com.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone ranked it number two on his list of best films of the 2000s, saying: “After repeated viewings, I know Children of Men is indisputably great … No movie this decade was more redolent of sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action.”
It’s a film you have to watch more than once I think. It sticks with you and repeated viewings improve the experience.
In the end, I think it works because it’s a movie that uses symbolism over narrative to evoke feelings in the viewer. Some movies make us think but the best movies make us feel something.