– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
It’s been a relatively uneventful train ride – quiet, save for the droning on of the TVs up on the ceiling. And, then – a rock cracks against the windowpane, and another and another. He bolts upright, looks outside. Shanty-towners, coming out of their hovels culled from the old boxcars, strewn with graffiti. There’s one that catches his eye, particularly – all in red: “The Last One To Die – Please Turn Out The Light.”
So, we’ve done it – the two of us. After two and a half months, we’ve finally hit number one. This is it. The big one – the final, full entry in this most prestigious series of essays between Glenn Heath and myself. It’s astounding to think that it’s been two and a half months, already. I just can’t get over that, mang – it’s a real trip. While there’s still two more discussions and a ‘respectable rest of the very best’ post to go until all is put to pat and proper, I think this may also be the time to admit that this is the last you readers will see of me. After this, I depart for far seas in January, first for China and then onward to the Himalayas, to live as a mountain man for two years. Well, no – not really. But, I had you going there for a second. This being the last of these posts may also explain it’s lateness, by a day or two – that I just can’t bare to part with it, and all that.
Alfonso Cuaron is a director whose work has always intrigued me – one of those three Spanish directors who rose to prominence in the nineties, in tandem with Guillermo Del Toro and that other fellow whose name escapes me at the moment. With stuff like 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, he’s shown himself someone distinctly focused on the relationships of traveling journeymen three in number, something that, among other things, was carried over into his adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter novel, Prisoner of Azkaban – which is, coincidently, the only entry in that series that I can really stomach watching. In his most recent, Children of Men, there are again three travelers, for most of the film, making their way through a dense and cluttered world entirely within its own context – but, this is the film that provides the best example of the director’s raw talent, something that seems to remain understated in his previous films. This is a film that, hell – to use an old fashioned tried-and-true cliche, is a real ‘tour-de-force.’
Children of Men is actually adapted from one of P.D. James’ shorter novels, one of few that she’s done that hasn’t been a detective story, and it may be one of the best examples of what a director can do to really make an adaptation their own work, using its relatively sparse-in-length source material as a jumping off point in the same way that Spielberg and Kubrick did with Aldiss’ “Super Toys Last All Summer Long,” placing us in the context of some future date and enveloping us so convincingly within it that we’re oftentimes left dumbstruck, and cringing at the state of things. Cuaron does Spielberg one better, though – he astounds, with his truly immersive vision of 2027, and while the phrase ‘a world in turmoil’ is one often used, it can find no more succinct a home than here.
The title of the film comes from a passage in Psalms, that runs something like “thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men,” which is a quote that does very much seem to sum up the social context of the film that we’ve arrived at. And truly, this is very much a spiritual film, with many not shying away from calling it a modern-day Nativity Story for our times. which is a very accurate definition, I think – the story emerges as one of societal rebirth, and with the presence of the baby always marked by the crossing of the chest. Near the end of the film, its cry is enough to lull the gunfire, if only for a minute. Hands outstretch for it as she’s carried by. And, in the background, musical accompaniment by John Tavener, subtly reinforcing this spiritual subtext through repetition of Latin verse and chants, and great choral sounds.
Our induction into this projected world of twenty years later is slow and gradual, so slow that, in the first ten minutes, when we hear or see something that makes the context of the story explicitly obvious to us, it’s very much like a cold slap of water on the cheek – for the first few minutes of the film, we follow Theo as he learns that the youngest person on the planet – at eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours and eight minutes old – at has recently been killed in a riot of his own cause. There’s nothing too conspicuous about our first initial site of London in 2028 – the streets are grayer, and the display screens on the side of the buildings are bigger. Out of nowhere, the shop Theo’s just left explodes outward, and there is no sense, for a minute. Smoke, screams. Noise. The giant display screens shatter into darkness. And, the camera tracks forward onto a dim, bloody silhouette emerging from the clouds –
The future world that Cuaron sets up is, like that found in McCarthy’s (or Hillcoat’s, since we’re in the land of filmdom) The Road or Miller’s Mad Max films, something rapidly degenerative, somewhere nearing the brink of the pit. In contrast to something like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, there’s very little revolutionary technology or any of that apparent, only things left behind – things used up and discarded. The extent we see of our twenty year’s progress is a newer model of a car, here and there, and perhaps some new mode of advertising projected onto the side of a building, somewhere. But, it’s obvious that science and medicine have, on the whole, failed to resuscitate us, and everywhere Cauron’s subtle camera turns, there’s some vestige of steadily-boiling unrest – from the quieter signatures of The Human Project on the walls to the various politico-terrorist groups and factions, hiding out in the woods – that seems to finally come to a head at the end of the film, as everything coalescences seemingly over night, and bursts out into the street; humanity seems very much to have resigned itself to its eventual end, something very much akin to the thought process behind James’ novel, which ran something akin to the notion that with no future, no better society to hope for, there is no real massive regard for compassion, or mercy.
Instead of any sort of progress, there’s just more of everything as it was, to such an extent that it’s begun to crowd the people inside of the city off from their own air supply – in one shot, near the beginning of the film, as Theo is being driven to The Ministry of Arts, he spots the residents of some gray, concrete-slab apartment building flinging their possessions out of their respective windows – and, down below, on the street, there’s barely room to move among the litter of human debris. This weird, enveloping sense of initial hopelessness is embodied by Clive Owen’s Theo Faron, one of many bureaucrats that, despite what seems like the inevitable, impending doom of the world coming along at an accelerated pace, continues to put pen to paper, if only to have something to do until it’s all over. We’re told later in the film by his ex-wife that he used to have some real spirit in him – along with the rest of society, given the mention of protests with meat on their bones – even going so far as to invite several officers in for coffee, and spiking their drinks with LSD. Now, however – he’s a desk jockey. There is an occasional sense of something still lurking under the surface of his dogged eyes, in the form of his visits with Michael Caine’s character Jasper, but it never really passes his lips save for a wry smile in the back of a car. We’re informed even later on that he’d had a kid with Julian, who’d died in one of the various flu pandemics that had occurred in the film’s alternate history of 2009 – “he’d have been about your age,” Jasper tells Kee, at the end of the film’s first hour. “Beautiful child.”
Near the beginning of the film, Theo is picked right up off the street by a subset of the Fishes – a politico-revolutionary band of freedom fighters, or terrorists, raising their fists up for the rights of the waves upon waves of illegal immigrants pouring into the country, due to the constant state of civil war the rest of the world seems to be in, and the reactionary measures that have been taken to keep everything in some form of order. Leading the group is Julian Taylor, portrayed by – well, Julianne Moore. Quickly, we learn that the two of them were married, once before – as mentioned above, they even had a child together, whose death drove a gradual wedge between the two of them. She comes to him now with an offer, to be a courier to a young girl from one side of the country to the other – and, in this, one could very well make a comparison to John Ford’s Stagecoach, I suppose, although I won’t, at the moment – why, she doesn’t say; only that she’s a “fugee,” or a refugee. Theo’s aim is to get her to the boat christened appropriately the Tomorrow, sent by the Human Project, the “greatest minds in the world working for a new society.” But, why? As we come to know her at first, she’s a nervous girl covered in blankets, distrustful of Theo. It’s only later on in the film, when they’ve all reached their ranch in the fields with the loss of but one, that Theo realizes just ‘what’s at stake,’ and it’s here that the film’s almost neo-Biblical subtext starts to emerge, with, among other things, the reveal taking place inside a manger, among the animals: her belly pokes out from her body in a way that hasn’t been seen for eighteen years or more. She’s pregnant. “I’m scared,” she says.
Since Julian’s death in a scene just before, Luke – played by Chiwetel Ejiofar, whose name I will never try to type again – has made the bold decision to use the baby as a bolster for their political cause, something Theo overhears, skulking around. Waking the girl and the midwife up in the middle of the night, he absconds with them – and, from then on, the film follows the three of them from one end of the UK to the other, and finally out to sea, where jets shoot past overhead and toward the city in the distance, giving it its own final eulogy. The Human Project starts to become an almost mythical name at this point, something apart from the soiled and crowded surroundings presented to the characters, of evolution in the place of the eternal stagnancy that society seems locked into – and, its something indicative of the general cautious sense of optimism that pervades the film, from Kee’s reveal onward. She, or her baby, literally comes to represent the entire future of the human race, no bones about it. Even as characters are shot, dragged away and black bagged, Theo and Kee continue onward toward the sea, and everyone whose eyes meet the baby seems strangely affected by it. They smile, through dust-stained teeth – wide, and hard.
One of the things, but just one, that this film has become renowned for in the four years since its release is Cuaron’s inarguably innovative use of the camera as an almost interactive viewer in the story, nearly a participant. It’s not handheld, or documentary-esque in a literal sense, as would be the dictate – instead, it remains unblinking, and always, there is an emphasis on the constant long shot, especially in moments of great trauma or chaotic development. It is documentarian instead in its ‘you-are-there’ sense of reportage, and where other films would cut, sometimes as a necessity, this film follows its characters through the heat of the moment, and the crowds. And, most emblematic of Cuaron’s approach, and most often mentioned, are two scenes in particular, one inside a car and the other without, in a broken city at dawn. Such a thing pervades the film in a subtler fashion, as well – in scenes of prolonged discussions and even the birth of the savior-baby – but, these two seem to show it at it’s most powerful.
In the former, Cuaron incorporates this single shot technique from what seems like an impossible vantage point inside the car, following the group as they try to make their way to the insurrectionists camp/ranch in the country – the camera seeming to weave from the backseat to the front, from the passenger side to the driver’s seat, from looking forward to looking backward – as Julian regales the group with stories about Theo’s wild youth as a squatter, and a fiend to the police. Noise from up ahead on the road, suddenly – and, the camera’s moved up next to the dashboard now. There’s something moving down toward the road, something burning – it’s the hulk of a car’s remains, blocking off the road. All is frenzy. Great masses of people descend from the trees at both sides of the way, hurling rocks and bottles at the windows – chasing after car, as it pulls away in reverse. Two of them are on a motorcycle – Julian screams something about Kee, and there’s two quick shots, spidering the windshield. Her head rocks back in the seat – blood everywhere. Ringing in our ears, constantly – police vans shoot by. Miriam’s urging Luke to “just – go – faster!” And, then they pull over to the side of the road. Luke hops out of the car, and shoots the two roadside officers – urges Theo to “get back in the fucking car!” And, then the camera lingers for a moment on the bodies of the two patrolmen, lying in the road. Still.
It’s an absolutely breath-taking sequence, and all the more astonishing when you’ve learned just how it was accomplished, with the moving seats, and the dodging of the camera, and what not. And, the moment of reflection provided by the shot of the two policemen is just one of many in the film, something which can again be seen during Theo’s visit to his cousin Nigel’s Ark of the Arts exhibit, after the two of them argue quite genially about the preservation of art even after the pretty certain fate of all humanity ensues, and what worth would it all have, in the final calculation of things – we leave the scene lingering on the seemingly knowing, smiling face of a sixteenth century man.
The other shot of mention moves us through the breaking point. The revolution that takes place near the end of the film seems to bare less resemblance to the iconic and primal, as depicted in something like Soderbergh’s Che, and more the dirty, the chaotic, and the bloody – what comes bares a lot of similarity to the Czechoslovakian and Ukrainian insurrections, as seen in the photos by National Geographic, and other similar magazines: all dirt, and dust, and people cradling the bodies of their loved ones on the side of the road, and the insurrectionists have lost any claim to the moral high ground. Buildings are pitted by bombshells, and there’s a facile effort made by some to hide in shanty dug-out train cabins. Through this, Theo and Kee run with baby in tow, hither and yon without any real place of safety – constant noise, and confusion. The effect is something disorienting, as the two lose track of each other, and Kee is dragged off by Luke into the building off at the far end of the road. As he goes to retrieve her, he finds Luke, resting in the crevice beside an open window – “you forget how beautiful they are,” Luke tells him, before blasting his gun down at the soldiers below.
As the two of them come down the stairs, silence overtakes London – soldiers, homeless squatters, all seem absolutely blindsided. In awe of the young girl in her mother’s arms. Chests are crossed – and, for the first time in a while, those grim faces are smiling. Only for a moment, however – before the fighting suddenly resumes. The two make their way to a dinghy, and out onto the sea, where the Human Project’s boat should be arriving any second now – and, it does, just as Theo slumps over. His last word is “Jesus!”
The boat approaches up out of the mist, and Kee tells her baby, “it’s going to be okay.”
And, it is.
There are, astonishingly, very few essays or what-have-you’s available on the film around the web, from a general and cursory glance. It’s – just shocking, really.
Glenn’s final entry, Edward Yang’s 2001 masterpiece Yi Yi, can – sniff, sob – be found here.