28 December 2006

Dull Outcome, No Kids:
A Review of Children of Men

by Gary Westfahl

special to Locus Online

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, and Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby

Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Michael Caine

If you linger until the very end of Children of Men — after all the credits, even after the copyright information and the always-startling disclaimer that the preceding film was a work of fiction — you will see as a final image the words "Shantih Shantih Shantih." As it happens, this is the Hindu word for "peace," the standard ending of an Upanishad, and the last line of T. S. Eliot’s classic poem "The Waste Land" (1922). Many critics have interpreted the concluding stanzas of "The Waste Land" as Eliot’s rather desperate attempt to impose some faint aura of hopefulness and order onto his grim, chaotic vision of contemporary life, and the fact that director Alfonso Cuarón thought of the phrase may reflect a realization that he is also offering the world a grim, chaotic vision.

Unfortunately, Cuarón is not exactly an artist in Eliot’s league, and the grim chaos of Children of Men clearly stems not from a sincere effort to epitomize the human condition, but rather from the circumstances of problematic source material being reworked by no fewer than five credited screenwriters and who knows how many uncredited contributors — a standard sign of a film narrative that everybody agrees is broken and that nobody knows how to fix. And once you get to the seventeenth rewrite, what usually happens is that whatever was special about the story in the first place has largely been lost, fitfully surfacing through leaden overlays of routine material.

While such comments suggest a less than enthusiastic attitude toward the film, no one can say that Children of Men represents a shameful trashing of a science fiction masterpiece. When P. D. James’s The Children of Men (1992) first appeared, science fiction readers defensibly derided its complete failure to offer any sort of rational explanation for its premise — in the year 1995, women all over the world suddenly stop having children, apparently dooming the human race to gradual extinction — or for its resolution — inexplicably, a single Englishwoman suddenly finds herself pregnant. Its sociological extrapolations were equally suspect, as James implausibly posits that the final generation of humans would develop into a distinctive subclass and that some English citizens would react to a childless society by forming bands to roam the countryside and engage in ritual executions of randomly selected victims. Other readers could readily criticize its pointlessly unsympathetic protagonist, Theo Faron, its clumsy style of alternating third-person narrative with Faron’s journal entries, and its listlessly meandering plot, which comes to life only in the closing chapters, when Faron accompanies the pregnant woman on a desperate journey to escape from the authorities. The screenwriters were wise to abandon many of the particulars of James’s story, retaining only the characters and the basic premise — the avowedly apolitical Theo (Clive Owen) is drawn by rebel leader Julian (Julianne Moore) into an effort to protect the miraculously pregnant Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) from the oppressive authorities who would exploit her baby for political gain — and it was equally wise to hurry through the novel’s preliminaries to devote most of the film to the woman’s quest for freedom. True, Theo is now an office worker, not a professor, the rebel leader is no longer merely an acquaintance, but Theo’s ex-wife, and the pregnant Englishwoman and rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are now of African descent , but these sorts of changes seem to neither improve nor damage the storyline.

Another intriguing change in the film is merely amusing. In the novel, the problem seems to be that all of the world’s men have suddenly become sterile, so that the story’s happy ending is the birth of a (presumably soon to be fecund) baby boy. In the film, the problem seems to be that all of the world’s women have suddenly become barren, so that the story’s happy ending is the birth of a (presumably soon to be fertile) baby girl. Why the difference? Well, novelist P. D. James was a woman, while director and co-screenwriter Alfonso Cuarón was a man, and whenever a couple cannot have children, after all, the woman tends to blame the man, and the man tends to blame the woman.

Something else that should have been changed, but was retained presumably for the sake of dramatic excitement, was the most illogical element in James’s story. If, after twenty years of complete global infertility, a pregnant woman suddenly appeared, everyone around her would logically forget about everything else and solely seek to ensure that she remained safe and that she received the best possible medical care. In both the novel and film, this is how Theo reacts to the news, and it is the only way anyone living in a childless world could sanely react. But the rebels resist this course of action: we cannot turn the pregnant woman over to the authorities, they argue, because the government would only use her baby to further its own evil aims. And government officials refuse to leave the woman alone because, they argue, the rebels would only use her baby to further their own evil aims. Unwilling to abandon such petty concerns even though the very survival of the human race is at stake, then, the feuding factions frivolously allow the world’s only pregnant woman to be chased across the countryside, her life threatened at all times, and the film heightens the absurdity of it all by dragging her through a veritable war zone of machine-gun fire and incessant bombings. It would be nice to posit that all of this is intended as the novel’s, and the film’s, incisive commentary on the unyielding stupidity of human beings, but both stories conclude in a manner suggesting that the decision to risk her life was, in the end, the correct choice — which would seem to make it all a commentary on the unyielding stupidity of storytellers.

While clinging to its most egregious flaw, the film disappointingly also contrives to downplay the most interesting aspect of James’s novel — namely, the effort to imagine what a human society without children would be like, previously attempted (and, in my opinion, less successfully) in Brian W. Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964). Despite its egregious shortcomings, the novel did offer a filmmaker any number of ideas for fascinating and disturbing scenes of a childless civilization: deserted playgrounds and abandoned toys; college classrooms filled with senior citizens; demented women pushing around baby strollers containing dolls who are treated like children; people obsessively staring at photographs and videotapes of children. Surprisingly, Cuarón’s film offers very little along these lines: for example, one brief scene in which Theo, Kee, and midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) visit an rundown school, and Kee sits on a swing set, goes by too quickly to have any impact, and the film’s ubiquitous cats and dogs, apparently everyone’s substitutes for children, are never brought to the forefront as such. Instead, we are simply told that the absence of children has terribly saddened everyone, resulting in widespread insanity, violence, and governmental oppression; but we rarely observe the sadness itself, only the effects of that sadness — the bombs, the gunfights, the strange rituals, the caged prisoners, and so on. Thus, the film seems to be childless in two respects: there are no children around, of course, and neither the filmmakers nor the characters really seem to be thinking very much about children as they deal with various secondary crises.

Instead of confronting the issue of childlessness, the film chooses to address other, more familiar problems afflicting human societies of the past and present. First, as a Mexican national, director Cuarón is surely opposed to heightened American efforts to arrest and deport illegal immigrants from Mexico, and so he chose to have the British authorities focus their repressive energies on rounding up and abusing their own illegal immigrants, drawn to the country because its brutal regime has at least prevented the chaos now destroying other nations. And changing the novel’s pregnant woman from a British citizen to an illegal immigrant seems a transparent device to further underline the injustice of it all. At times, then, the director seems intent upon twisting James’s story into an argument to the effect that any vigorous action to curb illegal immigration will inexorably turn a society into a fascist dictatorship; and this also represents a crude exaggeration of the novel’s somewhat more humane policy toward immigrants, who are freely allowed in as exploited "guest workers" until they reach the age of sixty and must be deported.

In addition, the film seems to randomly borrow from other nightmarish visions of totalitarian futures, and while watching it I was variously reminded, for example, of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the films Soylent Green (1972) and Blade Runner (1982). Repressive societies of the past are also referenced: scenes of citizens running through city streets dodging bombs and gunfire brought to mind the sectarian violence of Beirut in the 1980s, while images of burning bodies and people stripped to their underwear being shot to death are clearly derived from the Nazi Holocaust. Going either farther back in history, the wall of one building being bombed displays a version of Picasso’s classic painting Guernica (1937), as duly noted in the final credits, recalling the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, and the film’s half-serious linkage of Kee’s story to the Christ story — Kee jokes that she is "a virgin," and upon hearing she is pregnant, the first thing Theo says is "Jesus Christ" — even brings King Herod’s violent efforts to eliminate the Christ child into the picture. The overall message seems clear enough: then, now, and in the future, you can be sure that governments will always gleefully seek to slaughter, brutalize and oppress their helpless citizens at every opportunity. It is an attitude straight out of the counterculture of the 1960s, an era represented in the film by the pot-smoking and I Ching of Theo’s eccentric friend Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), by background songs like John Lennon’s "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)," the Rolling Stones’s "Ruby Tuesday," and King Crimson’s "In the Court of the Crimson King," and by the code phrase Jasper gives Theo to identify himself as an ally to a friendly official named Syd (Peter Mullan) — "you’re a fascist pig." Again, this represents a departure from the more nuanced stance of the novel, in which the British dictator Xan — only briefly seen in the film as Ian (John Sharma) — is a fully developed character who is allowed to argue, with some degree of persuasiveness, that his repressive regime represented a necessary response to an otherwise disintegrating society. But Cuarón wants no shades of gray to spoil his black-and-white vision of virtuous innocents opposed by fascist pigs. (And is this why, when Ian shows Theo the view from his lofty window, we see a huge balloon in the shape of a pig?)

Thus, unwilling or unable to fully explore the novel’s singular premise, and overly inclined to drift into more familiar territory, the multiple screenwriters of Children of Men have failed to create a film about an awful dystopian future without children; instead, it is simply another film about an awful dystopian future — well done in its own way, perhaps, but offering nothing that science fiction filmgoers will regard as particularly distinctive. At one point in the film, Miriam muses, "Very odd — what happens in a world without children’s voices," yet the bulk of this film is unfortunately not very odd at all, at least to these eyes.

And this is why I find it very surprising that Children of Men is being promoted as an Oscar-worthy film, conspicuously opening in a few Los Angeles theatres during the last week of December in order to qualify for the honors. However, the film strikes me as too laden with gratuitous violence, especially in its interminable final sequence, to really appeal to film connoisseurs, and its calmer intervals of Masterpiece Theatre-style acting, despite all those British accents, are frankly not that impressive. For instance, the filmmakers were possibly hoping that multiple nominees Julianne Moore and Michael Caine would be recognized for their supporting performances, yet both actors are (unusually) given little to do in the film and (unusually) do not do it particularly well. But Caine does have one interesting speech in which he describes life as a "cosmic battle between faith and chance." So, if one’s faith in the ability of filmmakers to deal with science fiction is not rewarded with this film, there does remain the chance that, someday, another filmmaker will return to the evocative theme of "a world without children’s voices" with more interesting results.

Gary Westfahl's recent projects include Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy; samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His next book, Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, is scheduled to appear in 2007.


At Friday, December 29, 2006 6:25:00 AM, Niall said...

(And is this why, when Ian shows Theo the view from his lofty window, we see a huge balloon in the shape of a pig?)

No, that's a Pink Floyd reference.

At Friday, December 29, 2006 12:09:00 PM, JeffV said...

What Niall said.

Regarding the rebels' stance on the pregnant woman--I think it's completely realistic. The world over the past few years especially has proven that human beings are irrational, self-destructive apes.


At Monday, January 01, 2007 9:31:00 AM, Jeff Patterson said...

This film did nothing more than annoy me. The idealistic motivations of all involved is never made clear, The lead actor's supposed "nuanced performance" amounted to nothing more than staring blankly at things, and the meticulously composed climax sequence resembled so many commercials for first-person-shooter video games strung together.
For such a beautifully crafted film, it's pretty bad.

And Michael Caine needs to retire. Really.

At Tuesday, January 02, 2007 9:43:00 AM, thomas conneely said...

I agree with the comments in relation to the film's divergences from the ( unexplained ) and somewhat implausible plot line of the original novel.
However, i must disagree with the overall negative tone of the review, as i found the film a visceral and genuinely engaging experience, and one that lingereed in my mind long afterwards.
Might I suggest that the film's script is , dare i say it , in too 'english' (or european?)a style for the reviewer's taste seeing as he missed a few of the references? Don't get me wrong, i don't mean this as any insult, but a full scale 'Hollywood' production of this would have looked a lot different. And starred, say, Ben Affleck. Shudder. Yes, Michael Caine is annoying to a degree, but he's supposed to be a dope smoking elderly crusty, which i think he portrayed rather well. and okay, i know it starred several US actors etc, but the tone was different, and in my view better.
And while the final sequence is somewhat game-like in its long panning shot shoot out, it certainly makes you pay attention. Is that not the point of it all?

At Thursday, January 04, 2007 3:46:00 PM, Claywise said...

Yo, JeffV! "Apes"? That is an insult to the great orangs, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos of the world. Those species, truth to tell, seem much more "rational" than we humans ever have.

At Saturday, January 06, 2007 7:55:00 PM, John Kessel said...

I'm afraid I find the Westfahl review much less persuasive than the film. For one thing, Westphal seems completely impervious to the amazing cinematography and pacing of the movie. At the very least he seems unable to acknowledge the degree to which this movie embeds the future into its background, and the degree to which a lack of exposition can be a virtue rather than a flaw.

It's true that a film having many people contributing to the screenplay can be an indication of a botched work, but that is not always the case. The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, for example, both are notorious for having many people work on thier screenplays, credited and uncredited. A strong directorial vision can unify a script written by many hands.

He misses many references (such as Pink Floyd's floating pig over the power plant) and seems unable to pick up on the implications of many details that are clearly set up deliberately in the film to offer explanations. For instance,when Theo is being held in a room with old news clipping over the windows, the clippings (some of them a deacade or more old) clearly indicate that after the human race went infertile, many efforts were made to try to remedy or get around this thorugh cloning and artificial insemination and other interventions--which failed. All this adds credibility to the scenario.

Much of the review seems to be a comparison of the book and the film, complaining about how the film doesn't follow the book. He seems unable to judge the movie on its own terms. Strange, since he also doen't seem to much like the book either, and in the end asks that Curon make a different movie than the one he obviously set out to make, and passes over themany clever touches that seek to make this future world seem lived in and convincing.

The behavior of the rebels toward the pregnant woman is not as simple as Westphal makes it out--they do make efforts to take care of Kee, such as assigning a midwife to take care of her, and when chasing Theo and Kee and the midwife, they deliberately do not shoot at the car they are escaping in. As for the government, they do not know of the existence of a pregnant woman, so Westphal's complaint about their threatening her life are non-sensical.

Finally, it seems to me that the breakdown of civil society presented in the story, and the mass of refugees, is not at all unlikely 20 years into a crisis like this. We face equally grim civil situations in many places around the world today with less universal and dire causes.

In the end it seems to me that Westphal is not able to see the film that appears before him on the screen because of his preconceived notions about sf and the source material.

At Sunday, January 07, 2007 8:30:00 PM, Anonymous said...

How a film compares contextually to book should have no bearing on the review of the film. A movie is a movie and a book is book. (Blade Runner being the prime example) In this context, I could care less about the difference between the two. Comparative articles make for terrible reviews but sometimes interesting literary/comparative exercises. To be frank, some of the changes sound as if they only enhanced the story. The structure of the government and knowing more about the dictator is irrelevant. This is a story about people and the bleakness of their reality. The movie is excessively bleak yet very hopeful at the same time. Rather than give up and retreat from the horrors, Theo does what he sees as the right thing for the good of humanity and literally loses everything in the process. That is hope.

Also, Gary did you miss the first twenty minutes of the film with everyone in their cubicles with pictures of children all about?

The dog and cat thing didn't bother me either. Not everything needs to be spelled out. It was obvious what they were doing with all the dogs and cats. Any childless person with a pet would figure that out.

Makes me wonder... did you see a different movie than me?

At Tuesday, January 09, 2007 6:14:00 AM, Tim Bartik said...

I agree with many of the points made above by Kessel, Klaw, and Jeff V. The movie is not intended to be an exposition of what would happen in a world without children. Rather, this is simply used as a metaphor for broader social problems in our world today.

There is an interesting interview with the director, Alfonso Cuaron, at the rotten tomatoes website in which he makes his intentions quite clear. (See http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/author-9052/reviews.php?rid=1563932 )

In response to the question about why women have become infertile in the film, Cuaron’s response is “ To be frank, I don't care about it because it's not true. It's just a premise. For me, what's important was the metaphor of the premise.”

Cuaron also makes it clear that he is very focused on presenting his vision in a unique cinematic rather than literary way, saying that “I despise moves that explain...” He complains that too many movies are becoming uncinematic, movies that he complains that “you can watch with your eyes closed”.

I think it is mistake for us to define science fiction too narrowly. Science fiction is not exclusively intended as a medium that tries to explore with complete realism some futuristic scenario. It is also a medium that uses the future or some technology as a metaphor for our current society. Certainly this is something that many famous science fiction writers have done. I don’t have the exact quote readily available, but I recall that Ursula K. LeGuin, in her introduction to one of the editions of “The Left Hand of Darkness” saying that the book is not intended as a way of predicting anything that might happen, but rather as an indirect way of getting at truths about our current world.

At Tuesday, January 09, 2007 5:18:00 PM, Robert Jennings said...

I am still waiting for someone to make the pertinent point about the problem with changing the sex of the unborn child from male, (in the book) to female (in the movie).

I am convinced that Ms. James knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote that the child was going to be male, whereas the makers of the movie seemed to have missed the entire point and changed the sex and the background at their own convenience for audience sympathy.

The difference is that when the child is born, presuming it will be whole, and well, if the child is male, when he reaches puberty at about age 14 it will be possible to begin harvesting sperm from him. If, as was stated in the book, all the women of the world are still fertile, the entire human race can be rapidly jumped started again, with the sperm passed around to thousands of different women who would be delighted to become pregnant and bear children. With the influx of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of new children, civilization, as well as the human race, is saved with only a fifteen or sixteen year delay.

On the other hand, if the child if female, as is stated in the movie, then great difficulties arise. Even if the girl child reaches puberty at the age of 11 (about normal these days), and begins bearing children immediately, it will be an additional eleven to fourteen years after the birth of her first child before that first child reaches sexual maturity and can begin reproducing as well. Even assuming the best conditions, a girl will likely bear no more than forty children in her entire reproductive lifespan, presumably with the usual 53% female, 47% male birth ratio. This add twenty-two to twenty five additional years before the human race can be saved, and the book makes it abundantly clear that civilization with its rapidly aging population and the lack of young people to take on heavy duty/stressful/dangerous and possibly even creative jobs, is already teetering on the brink of collapse after a mere twenty plus years without new blood coming into the population pool. An additional twenty five years may easily be too much to save civilization. It may even be too long for the survival of the technology civilization produces which will probably bee needed to endure the survival and education of any new children.

I feel this is certainly a significant point. Am I the only one who noticed this? I think Ms. James crafted an extraordinarily balanced novel, unsettling and yet relentlessly logical. I have always felt that it would have been relatively easy to transport the move to the big screen. Unfortunately, time has again shown that those people who create movies have no real interest in turning the written word into cinema; they only use the printed word as some sort of jumping off place to generate their own concepts, with lots of action and violence added in.

---Robert Jennings

At Saturday, January 13, 2007 5:52:00 PM, Ted said...

Am I the only one who noticed this?

I imagine that many viewers are aware of the issues created by changing the infertile sex from men to women. But as other commenters have pointed out, the movie is not the novel, and should be judged on its own terms. Also, it's clear from Alfonse Cuaron's comments in the above-linked interview that he was interested in infertility strictly as a metaphor for hopelessness about the future. This type of approach is by no means limited to moviemaking; it's used all the time by writers, including SF writers.

I haven't read the original novel, but I liked the movie quite a bit. I was bothered by a couple of examples of people's behavior toward Kee and her baby -- the rebels do in fact shoot into a car that she's riding in, as part of their plan to kill Julian; government soldiers completely forget about Kee as soon as she walks away from a building -- but for the most part I found the movie very effective.

At Monday, January 15, 2007 11:47:00 AM, MW said...

I agree about the tension -- every mainstream discussion I've read spends some time dwelling on that. This is a film that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. I don’t think I’ve felt so tense in a movie theater in years.

The source of the infertility seemed abundantly obvious to me -- the environmental degradation is so thick it’s nauseating. Of course there would be implications for human biology! I, for one, was happy not to be beaten about the head and neck with stupid pseudo-scientific explanations. As others have said, the source doesn't really matter when the film is about the absence of hope that children represent and the transfiguration produced by their reintroduction.

I also don't know how anyone can watch the faces of both the refugees and the soldiers in the closing sequence and dismiss the sequence as nothing but gratuitous videogame violence. I thought it a strong comment on how entrenched individuals can become in conflicts long after their original terms of reference have faded. It’s a moment of grace and really, how better can you depict the symbolic power of a baby?

That said, I do think it would have been more interesting to create a film in which men were the cause of the infertility epidemic. I could have bought all that rage and despair as the last thrash of a patriarchal tail unable and unwilling to perceive its own hand in its destruction.

At Tuesday, January 23, 2007 3:10:00 AM, Martin said...

Repressive societies of the past are also referenced: scenes of citizens running through city streets dodging bombs and gunfire brought to mind the sectarian violence of Beirut in the 1980s, while images of burning bodies and people stripped to their underwear being shot to death are clearly derived from the Nazi Holocaust.

I doubt Cuarón expects us to go back that far.

In the film we are told that Theo and Julian met at the February 2003 Stop the War Coalition march in London. The visual imagery is all about the early 21st Century. Bexhill stands in for Palestine and Iraq, the stripping and caging of detainees is a clear reference to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graihab.

At Friday, January 26, 2007 3:35:00 PM, Jack Womack said...

What John said.

>>The overall message seems clear enough: then, now, and in the future, you can be sure that governments will always gleefully seek to slaughter, brutalize and oppress their helpless citizens at every opportunity.

Been known to happen.


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