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Cuaron’s Latest Demonstrates His Potential

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, January 25, 2007

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” starts out as a complex rumination on society, but ultimately reveals itself as a glorified chase film. Ultimately, the visceral impact of “Children of Men” punches the gut more than it picks the brain, but as a “thinking man’s thriller,” it has few peers.

The film is set in London in 2027 in a world in which women are no longer able to have children. In its opening scene, the audience is informed that 18 year-old “Baby Diego,” the youngest person alive, has just been killed. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an office worker with a checkered past as a protestor, discovers Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a girl who has become pregnant. Working with an activist group led by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) called The Fish, Faron tries to bring Kee to a boat that contains the so-called “Human Project” in order to save the human race.

In terms of sheer craftsmanship, “Children of Men” is nearly flawless. Cuaron’s previous work includes both artsy independent films (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”) and Hollywood blockbusters (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), but “Children of Men” is his most accomplished film to date. The hand-held cameras and “cinema veritae” documentary style is at first jolting, but becomes increasingly immersive as the film wears on. Cuaron’s camera is constantly moving, one of the director’s trademarks, but rarely without purpose. Many of the war scenes are so perfectly choreographed that they resemble a musical more than a chaotic thriller.

The performances are solid throughout, but nobody outside of Owen is really given a chance to fully explore his/her character. In particular, Moore’s fiery, sensitive turn as Julian would have benefited from more screen time. Michael Caine has a show-stealing turn as the hippy-ish Jasper Palmer, and Danny Huston has a memorable cameo that recalls Joe Turkel’s diabolical Eldon Tyrell from “Blade Runner.”

“Children of Men” is set in the future, but it’s not a futuristic film. In fact, its deliberate resemblance to modern day is unsettling, but effective, evoking a “1984”-esque vibe without over-reliance on typical sci-fi trappings. In fact, the most spectacular special effects are during the technically complex war sequences, which resemble “Saving Private” more than they do “Star Wars.”

“Children of Men” has a lot to say about a lot of social issues ranging from immigration to religion, but its approach is not quite comprehensive or clear enough. There are many unanswered questions, and while that might be deliberate, it muddles many of the film’s themes. In ways, it feels like an incomplete picture, and probably could have benefited from another 20 minutes or so in order to slow down and more fully explore its intriguing premise. As it stands, it plows through its two hours with bulldozing force that leaves the viewer stunned and exhausted.

Some of the questions the film raises (why can women no longer have children?) are irrelevant, but others (why is Kee able to get pregnant?) would clarify the plot and give the film a better thematic anchor. Kee herself is held at an odd distance, and the audience is never given a chance to really understand her, or understand why she is so important to the human race.

“Children of Men” is a very good film, but it’s far from perfect. Its technical accomplishments and visceral approach to intellectual material is unique, but audiences are inclined to leave the theater with more questions. Cuaron has proven himself a great director, but he has yet to make a truly great film. “Children of Men” is his best to date, but it’s easy to wonder if there’s a “Director’s Cut” already waiting in the wings. Most films falter from being too long. “Children of Men” is one of the precious few that suffers from being too short.