Dana Stevens, the resident movie critic for Slate, called Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men "the movie of the millennium.” Though I'm inclined to agree with her, I'm also aware that such grandiose statements can create immediate skepticism in some readers and viewers. And even though the millennium is only six years old, and Stevens defends her remark by adding that it is the movie of our time because it is about our time – your skepticism is still warranted and instructive. Because it's precisely the sentiment of doubt you have - the mentality behind that cautious look you give her proclamation - that is both nourished and questioned in Cuaron's elegiac opus.
I say opus, because Children of Men is indeed a delicate composition, with even the smallest instrument illuminating the depth of the themes in this 109-minute movement. But far from just a fluffy metaphor, the actual use of music is among the most prominent clues to the full power of Cuaron's vision. If Sigur Ros's "Hoppipolla” in the preview didn't clue you in (another gorgeous trailer that gives away far too much), there are a number of prominent moments during the film in which songs are vibrant details in the thrust of the narrative.
As Theodore Faron (the smashing Clive Owen) and his friend Jasper (Michael Caine) discuss the state of their world, Radiohead's "Life In A Glasshouse," from 2001’s Amnesiac, plays softly in the background. It's a time in the near future, 2027, where women have become mysteriously infertile and hope was been vanquished in the smoke of constant war. Jasper is a pot dealer (once a great cartoonist), and so the reference to his own "glasshouse" (the equivalent of a "greenhouse" in America) is a cheeky joke - but it's also relevant to their discussion.
In Thom Yorke's lyrics he has no time to sit around and "chew the fat," he advises, "don't talk politics and don't throw stones" and to "think of all the starving millions." Faron is a man whose given up on politics, and one who insists that the complete lack of childbirth in his society doesn't matter since the human race was already dying anyway. He's a dejected and cynical man, one who doesn't bat an eye when the rest of the land mourns the death of the world's youngest person, “baby Diego”. Its Yorke's last point though, the millions, that will eventually transform Faron - once he witnesses the hope and light in people’s eyes upon seeing the girl.
The "girl" is Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant women in over 18 years that Faron must succesfully transport across borders to safety with "the human project" - the world's greatest minds dedicated to building a new society. Faron is weary about the existence or relevancy of this group, but Kee's other guardian Miriam (Pam Ferris) is far more optimistic. There's a lot of talk about the merits of faith versus chance, especially during a candid conversation between Jasper and Miriam while the two are high on strawberry weed. Jasper compares the constant imposition of the two on their lives to the ying and yang, to Faron and his wife Jilian (Julianne Moore) and then to Lennon and McCartney. Caine almost looks like John Lennon with his long hair and peace, love and understanding motto. He doesn't imply that there are any reasons behind everything that happens, as Miriam believes, but rather he struggles with keeping hope when one is constantly at the mercy of chance. But it's the double nature of that chance, which can bring together or separate two people, that keeps one going.
Ironically it's the questioning Faron who ends up lifting the spirits of the religious Miriam during a sullen moment when she realizes the void of hope in a "world without children's voices." These scenes are backed by the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," with Jagger singing "catch your dreams before they slip away." Because as much as we need the keen inquiring eye of a man like Faron to do the practical things to save humanity, without his internal revolution towards light we would be unable to succeed. There are constant images of the initially skeptic Faron backed by piercingly bright sunlight to underline this dilemma.
Lennon's "Bring on the Lucie," with it's "free the people anthem" also plays over the end credits, and in a sense the world in Cuaron's film is a direct counterpart to the one painted in "Imagine." In Children of Men there are still countries, things to kill for and religions; and nobody is “living life in peace.” As Faron travels the road with Kee, the DJ on the radio nostalgically recalls the music of 2003, a time when artists still believed in the ability of humankind to change for the better. The panning shot over Jasper’s former career further emphasizes the loss of palpable artistic cultural criticism.
Cuaron also includes Jarvis Cocker's 2006 single "Running the World," which shows us that we are still currently in that period of ability - but setting the film so near in the future reminds us of how perilously close we are to the edge. The cinematography is shockingly real with long takes and sparse editing. One chase sequence, almost 10 minutes long, finds Faron narrowly avoiding bullets while the camera is splattered with the blood of those around him. Yet these scenes take place in a city that still looks a lot like our own, or at least like the ones we see on the news. And we recognize London, the passing rickshaws even show a slight regression in technology, and the floating computers and televisions aren't that unfamiliar.
Cocker sings in his song, "Well did you hear there's a natural order?/ those most deserving will end up with the most/ that the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top/ well I say, shit floats." There's a lot of politics involved in the movie, (Homeland Security is blatantly criticized, and institutional racism abounds) but the aim of the attack is more general in nature. Even shit doesn't float if there is no water, and like in T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland," Faron's society is almost completely overtaken with rock.
One can't help but notice the influx of these high-concept "end of days" stories in the popular culture of 2006. Apart from Cuaron's work there was Mel Gibson's Apocolypto, Cormac McCarthy's critically acclaimed novel The Road and one that wasn't directly on the topic but implied it anyway - Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (Cuaron's film references environmental destruction quite often as well). This awareness isn't simply a result of the war in Iraq or the increased visibility of worldwide terrorism - fear of destruction has always been palpable in our society (P.D. James wrote the novel Children of Men, which forms the basis for the movie, more than 14 years ago). What has changed recently, something we must recognize, is the prominence of these voices in our collective popular conscious. It's not only the few elite, those ghosts in the "human project," who are working to solve things - but these mainstream artists who can penetrate every movie theater, bookstore or record shop in the country.
During an early scene in the film, Faron visits his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) in order to secure safe passage across for Kee. Nigel happens to be a serious art connoisseur, one who owns the originals of Michelangelo's "David" and Picasso's "Guernica." Faron asks Nigel why he spends his time collecting these relics of the past when the present is in chaos and it seems clear the future is doomed. Nigel replies that he just "doesn't think about it," preferring to ignore the present situation. Ironically he looks out at the bleak skyline as he says this, rather than backwards at Picasso's unparalleled dystopian vision sprawled across his wall. This is Cuaron's wake-up call to his fellow artists; the realization that now is the moment when "voices" can and must emerge on a grand scale to re-inspire the millions.
Children of Men takes us to a place that isn't just devoid of children's voices, but it lacks the voice of music as well – there are no artists at all, no faith in humanity. But the child that is born is named Dylan. The film not only serves as a caution, but it also raises hope that the times are indeed capable of changing for the better - if only we had the guts to protect what really matters.