Children of Men--what can I say? Easily the best mainstream film of the year. Would make an interesting double feature with A Prairie Home Companion--where Altman's final opus is all lighthearted hijinks disguised as an elegy, Children is all death and destruction and despair disguised as a Nativity parable--a story of hope (a livelier, far more passionate one than the ossified version staring Keisha Castle-Hughes). You come out of both moved and elated, but in radically different ways.
I've read dissenting opinions on the film--was the reference to Guantanamo opportunistic? I don't know; all I can see is that the atrocities at Guantanamo and the anger against illegal immigration seem to come from the same wellspring of emotion, a kind of rabid, incoherent hatred that can't be bothered with being logical, only effective (or as effective as its blinkered way of thinking will allow it to be). It's no more arbitrary or inconsistent than some of the classic dystopian visions--say, Blade Runner with its elaborate psych test (when the bounty hunter has photographs, for crying out loud), or Brazil where the hero's such a moron that the whole thing is doomed from the start (of Brazil, I've said before that I see it more as an examination of a repressive bureaucracy than of a fascist regime, and better yet a canny portrait of the impotent liberal. It's hardly the definitive portrait of fascism--the novel 1984 and its most recent adaptation have it all over Gilliam's picture in that respect).
All that matters, I submit, is that it feels right--the kind of hate directed at 'fugees' might also conceive a Guantanamo-cum-concentration-camp type prison system. It's not supposed to be logical, only believable; I don't see any inconsistency in that.
And it's not as liberal-leftist as you might think; the rebel group is as bad if not worse than the fascist regime--Owens and his precious cargo have to negotiate a delicate path between the two warring groups. That final scene, of the ship picking her up--is it such a happy ending? Maybe, if she weren't so alone. As is, it's open-ended; those men could just be another group out to exploit the hapless girl, only this time no dark knight in tattered armor will save her. Either that, or the ship is a construct of a fevered mind, dreaming its way out of a hopeless situation. A quick cut to black is no way to put such questions to rest, though Cuaron does tease us with the cries of children bubbling up from behind the black screen (a token of hope, or yet another sadistic tease?).
As for the question of all those long takes--frankly I hope the film puts to rest the question of whether or not suspense is better served by quick cuts or long takes, and that future action filmmakers will give this film a closer look. Brian DePalma is a passionate advocate of such shots, partly out of sheer perversity (aside from Cuaron, there are precious few others doing it), partly because of the possibilities they offer--of complete and immediate immersion in a created world, of pinning all elements of a sequence quickly and firmly in a viewer's mind (instead of having him construct it from different shots stitched together), of giving the viewer the luxury of seeing something happen in real time, with no cheating (the pursuers are really this close, and quickly catching up).
Do they belong in this film? They should belong in more films, I think; take away Tony Scott's license to direct while we're at it.
I don't agree that the shots turn the film into an elaborate video-game, either; I think Cuaron is careful to keep us empathizing with Owens (something videogames never do--can't look at Owen's scene by a tree and think the man has no feelings), with Moore (the conversation over their child), with Caine (his farewell to his mute wife), with the young heroine (by turns sassy (she's a virgin--yeah, right), scared, ignorant (she doesn't know enough to breastfeed a crying child--but then no one taught her to)). If we don't see close-ups of Owen and company's reactions as they flee, it's no more than what we might expect in any film that values a more open-ended view over a more directed one--shots Renoir or Tarkovsky might appreciate, though I'd imagine they would be amazed at what Cuaron achieves (I'd add Sokurov and Angelopolous; even Noe, only I loathe his work--like Von Trier he seems more a gimmicky sadist than anything else).
As for the film's substance--well, one might call the picture a parable reminding us what it's all about, what we're all fighting for or defending, or protesting the destruction of--basically hope, and the simplest and most effective incarnation of said hope. Along the way we see the reaction of various people to this hope, including the soldiers in the aforementioned battle scene. Are their reactions believable? Partly it depends on how willing you are to swallow such risky imagery, I suppose; I submit that Cuaron helps it along with a few details: the soldiers that kneel (religion, rearing its spiky yet still impressive head again), the moment carefully prepared for by all the 'fugees' reaching out in murmured awe; the fact that the rebels wait only so long before launching yet another rocket at the tanks (a miracle may have walked by, but we can only wait so long before it's business as usual).
It's a combination of the aforementioned Nativity story, an atrocity exhibit, a headlong chase and a Grail quest, where only the worthiest pass and the rest are left slumped on the wayside, monuments to their own sacrifice (Owens, in particular, seems to represent some kind of forlorn Lancelot, and his story of attempted redemption takes up most of the film). It's an action movie with an outsized heart and the cojones for risky imagery (the aforementioned kneeling, for one); an entertainment that pushes buttons, only this time the right kind of buttons, infuriating the right kind of people; a testament, finally, to what is (or should be, anyway) most precious to us, and what we are prepared to pay to keep it safe, or get it back.
Wonderful film, I say. Liberal wankfest, unabashed occasion for celebrating the excesses of the far right? Maybe, and maybe it's about time.