An Appreciation – Children of Men
What I like the most about what Cuaron and his writers—along with Clive Owen—did with the Theo character was make him someone who is not in complete control. When Theo takes Kee and Miriam under his wing, and while they slowly make their way to the coast, the film becomes an action movie. But Theo is not your typical action hero. He doesn’t necessarily know what to do or when to do it. He very much fears violence, and is aware that he could be killed for what he is doing. In fact, the idea that The Human Project even exists is only a rumor, and when Theo learns of this he fears that the risks he has taken may be all for nothing. Owen fills this role very well. His haggard face shows a man who has been through much in his life, the weight of his past clearly showing through the lines of his face. This is an underrated performance from a solid leading actor. There are other small touches that highlight Theo not being a typical hero. Take, for example, the fact that Theo goes throughout the film without his regular pair of shoes—much of the time he goes through the plot wearing flip flops. When he runs across a junk filled alleyway, he twists and sprains his ankle, and for the rest of the movie he walks around with a limp. But Theo continues on, determined to get Kee to the people who can help her and possibly solve the riddle to saving civilization.
The way in which the film was directed and assembled is an act of pure craftsmanship. Cuaron and his team deserve more recognition for what they did in the production of this movie. I say this because the film is extremely well put together and directed, but the real achievement is that they do it almost without being obvious. First, let’s start with the camerawork and the look of the movie. Cuaron, with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, shot much of the movie with the hand-held shaky cam style of photography. But unlike most action movies, where the quick cutting and constant camera movement can cause motion sickness in its viewer, the cinematography technique is used here in a manner that allows us to see what is happening and how things are happening. During action sequences, the camera focuses on the subject and allows it to give us the information we need to know in regard to how the events are unfolding. We can follow where the danger is coming from, what is at risk, and how characters relate with one another within the sequence. If the camera quickly rocks or shifts to the side, it’s because something within the world is causing it to move, like an explosion that happens right next to the cameraman. The frame doesn’t shake for the simple reason that it can; there is a reason for it to move.
The editing of the film helps contribute to the documentary-like feel that it gives off. Most filmmakers and editors should watch this movie to see how action scenes should be put together. A lot of mediocre modern-day movies tend to think that the faster you cut, the more kinetic and exciting action sequences can become. But in my moviegoing experience, I’ve found that the faster one cuts into a scene, the less cohesive it becomes. This movie proves that longer takes can actually help make an action scene better. There are a number of sequences in the film that are done almost entirely in one shot, with no cuts. One scene in particular involves Theo, Julian, Kee, Miriam, and fellow Fish Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), escaping an attacking group of rebels in their car. At a certain moment, the camera is placed inside of the vehicle, rotating between the characters, while showing the attackers chasing after them at the same time. This is a highly complex shot, requiring special effects and timing to be pitch perfect, but when viewed in the completed film, it looks almost effortless. When the camerawork, special effects, and good acting are combined together, it creates a scene that looks and feels as if it were completely spontaneous.
This can be said even more so in what is arguably the best shot of the entire movie. It happens at the climax of the film, and lasts just over six minutes. It starts with Theo trying to get back to a kidnapped Kee during the middle of a firefight between the military and rebel forces. This is an amazing scene, one that you must see for yourself if haven’t already. It’s great because of two main reasons: 1) because it is a well-staged sequence fully realized, feeling authentic and immediate, and 2) because it was done without a single cut. We start at the moment when Kee is kidnapped, and then follow Theo into the alleyways and streets, through and around vehicles and piles of rubble, all the way into the main apartment complex where Kee was brought. Theo jumps, crawls, and hides himself from the bullets whizzing by his head. Innocent bystanders run by and take cover. Soldiers fire their weapons, and a tank blasts off a round into a building, explosions happening from all directions. I wonder how much time it took for the filmmakers to stage this scene. The number of cues must have been countless, the timing having to be spot-on in so many different instances. But what a great spectacle of filmmaking this is, the events happening in real time, like we were experiencing it the way Theo did at that particular moment.
But what makes Children of Men special is not just how well it was made or how good the action is, but how Cuaron was able to infuse every moment with the importance of what is at stake and what would happen if Kee were not able to make it to her destination. While the technical aspects are already impressive, what I take away is how Theo was able to find redemption within him. He’s able to let go of the ghosts of his past and find that person who once believed in something and fought for it when there was hope that it could possibly become a reality. In that ending passage, with Theo teaching Kee how to hold her newborn baby, I felt a sense that Theo had finally come around full circle. He found what he had lost, regained his enthusiasm for life itself, and grasped on to the idea that there will, in fact, be a better tomorrow.