As usually, I was late to the party. Everyone ranted and raved about Children of Men when it came out, so I got the DVD almost immediately when it came out. And then it lay around for ages, was moved from one flat to another… and last Saturday we finally thought, “The value of a DVD lies in watching it, not having it,” as Confucius said. Or Yoda. I forget which.
Now, having seen the film, I’d say that the raves were warranted… if the reviewers left the cinema roughly two thirds into the film. The first hour or so of Children of Men is the most compelling, most chillingly credible cinematic dystopia I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most breathtakingly well shot films – just how on earth did they shoot some of those long takes?
For a long time, Children of Men succeeds in making a horrific vision of the future all too credible by taking our present-day world and extrapolating. None of the over-the-top gadgetry of other near-future films. (While I’m embarrassingly fond of Strange Days, that millennial melodrama does look extremely dated. That film was right, however, in assuming that whatever entertainment technology will be the next best thing, it’ll largely be used do commodify violence and porn. Now let me go back to play GTA 4.)*
I also like that the film doesn’t provide lots of explanations and exposition. It throws its viewers into a world where the youngest child is 18 years old, where people have become almost indifferent to small-scale terrorist bombings but can’t stop crying over the killing of a Brazilian teen just because he happens to have been the last baby born. Where “Rah, rah, we are the best!” chauvinism has become the norm. And every one of these developments has its roots in our present day. Eighteen years of a slow, ongoing apocalypse will do that to you, I guess. But none of this is dwelled on. While watching the first hour of the film I never felt like the film was trying to tell me something in six-foot high, bolded letters.
But then the film becomes more heavy-handed. We get images that are clearly inspired by Abu Ghraib. We get grimy ethnic refugees in wartorn Bexhill. And to me at least, it all looks less like an extrapolation of our current world and more like editorial comments on current conflicts. Yes, the beginning of the film also commented on our present-day world, but it did so much more subtly, in the background. There’s a richness to the scene-setting that is more convincing and more complex than the in-your-face correspondences of the last 30, 40 minutes.
It doesn’t help that while the first hour of the film focuses on dialogues and characterisation, it ends on what is mostly running and shooting. At least the main character doesn’t become an action film hero (there’s a gorgeously funny escape roughly at the half-way point which plays refreshingly different from what you’d get in a Hollywood action film), but still, there are only so many variations on the theme of running away and being shot at .
Sadly I’d heard so much about the key scene where the guns fall silent at the sound of a baby crying, so when it came it didn’t strike me the way it struck many viewers. The Bexhill transition had taken me out of the film so much that the scenes of awe-struck ‘fugees staring in almost religious rapture at the first baby in 18 years, with the occasional poor sod in the background being shot while gawping, struck me as almost Monty Pythonesque – “Oh look, bab-eurgh!” “Look at its widdle fing-blam!” Or perhaps I just had a phase last Saturday of being a callous bastard… or perhaps it was that I didn’t quite buy the Uncanny Valley CGI Baby. Earlier scenes – the amazing sequence in the car, or Michael Caine’s final moments – got to me much more.
(Yes, I am evil.)
In some ways I think I’d reacted better to the film if I’d known less about it – but even then, I would have felt disappointed by the abrupt shift in tone. The moment that Peter Mullan’s cartoon character Syd turns up is the moment that the film sharply turns into something different, and much less compelling, than before. I came away feeling that I’d seen the beginning of a masterpiece and the end of an okay dystopia. I just wish I’d been able to finish watching that masterpiece before someone spliced a decidedly inferior film, though one strangely starring the same actors playing the same characters, into the reel.
*Actually, I haven’t got the equipment to play GTA 4, so I’m stuck with lower-tech virtual snuff. Poor widdle me.