Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why, the Last Man? Why?: CHILDREN OF MEN

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying... For No Reason

Fair Warning: This is not a review per se, but a discussion almost entirely focused on the conclusion of Children of Men.

At the end of Children of Men can anyone tell me how the world is saved, exactly? Because one baby is born? How is this even hopeful? While it indicates that the worldwide infertility problem may be spontaneously solved (oh boy, we really earned that one!), the totally-fucked political conflicts remain, war continues ravaging the globe, and Britain is still in the grip of fascism. Right? Did one baby solve all that stuff, or give us any hope that it might change?

You could tell me that is a point Children of Men makes. That the world's problems will not be resolved in such a pat manner as the miraculous birth of one child. But when I see that adorable little Jr. Christ Figure sail away on that boat bound for safe shores and glory, I sense Children of Men straining against its own story logic. I sense false hope, and confusion. I sense a cheat.

How many symbols can you find?

Allegorical science fiction is a dime a dozen. So is salt water taffy, but you may find yourself willing to pay more for imported chocolates. Dystopias, even believable dystopias, are not so hard to invent. In Children of Men, that dystopia is, yes, the trailer-gimmick that in the near future women can no longer bear children. Everything goes to hell, natch, and every simmering political conflict is brought to rolling boil, and the government goes, like, totally Dept. of Vaterland Security. Everyone's so sad they're chomping down suicide pills, and the government is so mean they shoot unarmed hippies point blank. These aren't just stand-in cardboard hippie figures, but real-deal Earth-mother midwives, and longhair pot-growing cabin-living hippies (Michael Caine, effortless, thoughtful, wrenching, embodying a full person, even though he's marked as straw-man sacrificial lamb from the moment we see him).

Many writers seem to labor under the bad impression that the imagination and invention that necessarily walk the path with s-f make natural kinsmen with political, religious or social allegory. It is not so. Making grand statements about the state of the world within an s-f framework is a more difficult task. The science-fiction story has to cohere on its own terms, and so must the metaphor, and if the fiction is running on all cylinders, they will fuel and inform one another. Children of Men's open-ended parable fails in the face of its story logic, and likewise the verso.

Children of Men does not extend its timeline into the unrecognizable distant future, but is set in a believable downer 2027. The political turmoil is more-or-less extrapolated from current problems like the inhumane immigration policies of superpower nations. Also it a allows cool tough guys like Theo (Clive Owen as a bummed-out former revolutionary... who must relocate his revolutionaryness) to still wear trench coats and get Starbucks, and there are lots of trees and mud.

Here's the fundamental misstep of Children of Men. The infertility problem is intended as a metaphor, allowing for the vague (and arguably defeatist) message in the end that we have messed up our world community so badly, that our only salvation is in the potential of future generations. This is a separate idea from the 1984-semi-coded warnings about current sociopolitical strife. Unless director and screenwriter Alfonso Cuarón has a serious gripe with the folks at Population Connection, the world is simply not having a problem having enough babies. Quite, quite, quite the opposite.

But Children of Men makes the infertility problem the central dilemma, and indeed the flashpoint that set off all the nukes that destroyed Africa, the excuse Britainia is using for establishing immigrant concentration camps. This infertility problem which we in the real world are, you know, not having completely obscures the myriad of other, more reasonable political problems the film identifies. Most of this is just leftist bad-tripping, but I'm personally inclined to agree with Cuarón's politics, so I confess the film's ultimate failure pains me a little. Like The Day After Tomorrow, the potential potency of a scary depiction of a self-destructive future is lost, in the interest of making a survival and chase thriller.

Children of Men is a pretty engrossing and exciting survival and chase thriller. Like all of Cuarón's films, it is beautifully photographed, with extraordinary sensitivity to light, weather and full of well-considered color choices. In a decade when too many hacks are simply desaturating their pictures for the easy illusion of style, Cuaron's fresh and tasteful eyes are even more valuable.

It also has a cheap suspense trump card: Theo must escort Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant woman in 18 years, on a perilous journey to a vague rendezvous with a revolutionary group that may not exist. That is it, the sum-total of the plot. Nobody really changes or learns anything; while there's some noodling about Theo discovering personal responsibility, he's already a former revolutionary, so it's not much of a personal journey to watch him strap the boots on again, especially when the duty is so morally unambiguous. Late in the picture, Theo must also protect the newborn. Another misstep: None of this is suspenseful, because every human being in the story wants the baby to live. The baby is never in danger. We may like Theo and Kee, but it's the survival of the child that is paramount. Between the warring factions, dogface soldiers, crazy revolutionaries and noble hippies, everyone wants the baby to live. Some of them want to steal the baby, but the net result is the same. There is a muddled gender ideology at the heart of Children of Men, too. Masculine aggression has ravaged the formerly fertile landscape. Not to get too New Agey on you, but there's no sense that healing female energies are at work, or a key to restoration. Run, hide, escape, but men yielding to the awesome powers of union, creation and birth? Don't hold your breath, childrens. Some soldiers standing around slack-jawed when they see a dirty baby is not the same thing.

Early in the story Theo suggests to Kee's revolutionary pals that she be turned over to the medical establishment. No, no, goes the counter-argument, the government will claim the baby, separate it from its black mother. As insidious as that may be, who cares? The s-f world as established needs more babies. Relocating the mother and child to a Never Never Land across the sea does not bring down the government, and does not repopulate the world any more effectively than if the baby had been born in a safe, medical environment. It's hard to tell, in Children of Men's estimation, what exactly our priorities are.

This year saw, however, a better constructed, more challenging film identifying the slippery-slope to totalitarianism in exclusionist immigration policy, in a military government's attack on the arts, in the very DNA of nationalism. It was V for Vendetta. The dystopian future story made sense, the action and adventure proceeded in a forward and subversive manner, and twin political and spiritual allegories reached a logical conclusion, intertwined, and left room for questioning and interpretation.


Jordan said...

Hey Chris. Looking forward to your post about "Inland Empire." I just saw it.

WELL ANYWAY, good show,


Chris Stangl said...

Thanks Jordan; I didn't want to post the INLAND EMPIRE essay until more of the country had a chance to see the film, so it didn't get lost in the shuffle. The discourse on the film has been very disappointing to me (to be polite), every review, positive and negative, seeming to order all viewers to just "give up." Surely the way to appreciate INLAND EMPIRE and mine the riches there is not to refuse to engage the text. I feel like I can't not write about the film, because it deserves better than the backhanded compliments it's receiving.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I generally agree with your thoughts on CHILDREN OF MEN. Basically, it's just a good action thriller, tricked up to be something more so the arthouse crowd can feel less guilty. Don't see where V FOR VENDETTA was any better, though. Overall, A SCANNER DARKLY is looking better in this company. (By the way, why give me a hard time on Winona when you made the same comment? I've got my eye on you, Stangl.)