Revisiting Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron’s Dystopian Classic

As with many classic sci-fi films, Children of Men was at least a decade ahead of its time. If Alfonso Cuaron’s unsettling dystopian nightmare were released in 2018, you can bet it would’ve received the love it was due in 2006. With its depiction of immigration panic and a divided social order, this movie plays now like a heightened version of our present day.

Twelve years ago, however, Children of Men was a movie largely overlooked. It grossed less than $70 million worldwide on a budget of $76 million. While it did receive three Oscar nominations, it wasn’t recognized for Best Picture or Best Director. Critics generally hailed the film as a dazzling technical feat, but some bristled at what was underneath, calling it a “disappointment” or claiming that it “ends up drowning in its tortured symbolism.” I wonder how they’d view it today.

The year is 2027 and the entire world has been infertile for 18 years (what a premise!). As humanity faces global extinction, the world has been thrown into chaos and violence. Refugees flee to the United Kingdom, where one of the last functioning governments has become an authoritarian police state. Theo (Clive Owen) is persuaded by his ex Julian (Julianne Moore), the leader of an immigrants’ rights group, to escort a young refugee woman named Kee out of the country. The thing is, Kee is miraculously pregnant.

What follows is thrilling, visceral, and breathtaking. Upon revisiting Children of Men, I had forgotten how you can enjoy it as simply a gripping chase movie, as Theo and Kee flee from both the oppressive government and Julian’s violent organization. There are minutes-long scenes where you forget to breathe.

Cuaron fashioned his film as a different breed of dystopian sci-fi, intentionally not reading P.D. James’ source novel. He eschewed sci-fi cliches, such as long, ponderous monologues and endless expository dialogue. There’s no sleek tech or futuristic setting to induce our awe. The near-future England of the movie looks much like our own world, just a shabby and crumbling version.

Of course, this isn’t just a genre exercise. Children of Men can also be seen as a profound and visionary look at what happens when society breaks down, when fear takes over and envelops the world. Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki fill each frame with important information about this world and the characters in it. Here the exposition isn’t in the dialogue, it’s in the images. Take the below still of Julian as she’s mid-conversation with Theo.

Her entire background is a wall covered with newspapers. You can make out some of the ominous language: “SCANDAL” “RAID” “DRUG” “FALL OUT”, one of the sub-headlines says “Millions of people died in seconds.” But we can’t read all of that while we’re watching the movie and trying to follow the dialogue, right? It’s more of a subliminal effect; we know the world is drowning in disaster, even if we don’t have all the details. Shots like this help plant us firmly in the reality of the film.

Elsewhere, it’s more overt. We hear catastrophic snippets from newscasts on the (use your best British accent here) tele and radio or see neon advertisements on London’s streets instructing citizens to “REPORT ALL ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.” The world has become a grim, barbaric, and uninhabitable place.

Cuaron and Lubezki also teach us about their characters when no words are exchanged. In the shot below Theo stands in front of a cracked window that frames pregnant Kee sitting on a swing. Theo, who had a child with Julian that died of a widespread disease almost 20 years ago, is in the foreground with a pained and melancholy expression. In the background, Kee is on a playground that probably hasn’t been used in a decade. It’s a devastating portrait of innocence lost — as well as a future lost — for Theo, Kee, and all of humanity, but it also represents hope for a child-filled future, as the world’s only known baby is in Kee’s womb.

Children of Men could only have been made by an uncompromising master. We know this because of not one, but two impossibly ambitious long-take scenes. Cuaron and Lubezki employ a roving camera with few edits throughout most of the film to give it a documentary feel, but these are the two scenes that stand out, as well as the ones I’m assuming are taught in film school by now.

The first takes place entirely inside a car driving through the English countryside. It’s 247 raw and panicked seconds without a single cut as Theo, Julian, and Kee flee from a band of marauders. Julian is suddenly shot through the neck and there’s blood everywhere. Chaos takes over as they try to get out of there with their lives. Meanwhile, the camera follows it all while staying inside the car, swiveling 360 degrees. Watching it again, I was utterly mystified as to how they pulled this off. Sure enough, the idea Cuaron and Lubezki came up with to get this shot has to be seen to be believed. They rigged something called a Doggiecam to a contraption on top of the vehicle. Then they could remote control the camera to capture the action. There was so little room in the car, the actors had to lay down when they weren’t in the shot to allow the camera to swing above them. Here’s a behind-the-scenes shot of the car with the Doggiecam hooked up. It almost looks like something out of Mad Max.

This thrilling one-take in the car sets up the action for the rest of the movie. Theo finds out Julian was murdered by her own organization and that he’s next, so he escapes with Kee to escort her to the sea just like Julian wanted.

Later in the film Cuaron one-ups himself with an even more astonishing one-take scene. As Theo scrambles through a war-torn refugee camp searching for Kee, we see a 379-second one-take scene. This is an absurdly long time without a cut, even if you don’t consider the countless moving parts at play here: dozens of extras, explosions, gunfire, dialogue, etc. According to Cuaron, they had two weeks to shoot this scene, but did not even start filming until there were a couple days left, due to the extensive planning and choreography. Twice they had to reset the entire scene (which took five hours!), once because the camera operator tripped. With little time remaining to get the shot, they tried again and… one of the squibs of fake blood misfired and struck the camera lens. Cuaron remembers yelling “Cut!” but an explosion drowned him out, so he let the scene keep going. When they finished, Cuaron was distraught, but Lubezki celebrated, telling his director that it was a “miracle.” And he was right, this blood-on-the-lens “mistake” gave the scene an impossibly immersive quality that inserts you into this destructive world. It was something most people hadn’t seen before. Sometimes you can be both good and lucky.

In Trump’s America, there is no shortage of art that is considered “relevant” today. In Children of Men’s case, though, the word absolutely fits. One of the things art does best is reveal our anxieties about the future. Cuaron said he decided to turn his attention to this story after 9/11. With the current rise of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment around the world as refugees flee terrorism and war, this film plays very differently than in 2006.

“Is this what we are all headed for?… Are we living in the last good times?” That’s what Roger Ebert wondered back then in his review of Children of Men. While I don’t think we are headed for the exact dystopia of the movie anytime soon, it is worth considering how we will respond to the global violence, polarized politics, and broken system we have today. Amidst its prescient world-building, this is something the film has on its mind, especially at the end: Do we choose to despair or do we act on hope for a better world?


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