In short, I did not like Children of Men. Its technical aspects – music, cinematography, editing, etc. – were generally well-done, but I found myself unable to engage with either the story or the characters. Whereas Slavoj Zizek sees the film as a work of genius, I see it as an hour and forty-nine minutes of unrelenting violence devoid of much character development.
Although it’s true that many of what I consider the film’s “message” moments – the explosion in the first scene, the scene when people throw things at the train, the immigrants in the cages – are physically in the background, I do not agree with Zizek that there is where they needed to be in order to be appreciated. Nothing in the film is oblique as long as it is in the frame. It’s not like I didn’t see the explosion just because Theo was standing in front of it! Furthermore, in the scene when Jasper talks to Kee and Miriam about Dylan, it doesn’t matter that the camera is focused on Theo to the left of the screen. Even though Jasper and his company are blurrier images, the viewer’s eye immediately goes to their side. It’s not just because Jasper is talking but because what he says is crucial to the plot.
I smiled, perhaps a bit sadly, at the inclusion of Picasso’s Guernica in the scene with Theo and his cousin. My heart leapt not merely because I love art history, but because Guernica is such a powerful statement about war. Either way, the fact that the tapestry distracted me from the dialogue regarding the transfer papers proves that details are just as important as the main action or (no pun intended) big picture.
This brings me to the acting. I’ve spent the greater part of my life as a fan of Michael Caine, so I’m predisposed to enjoy his performances. Still, it was a treat to see him play someone other than a butler in the twilight of his career. Julianne Moore played a basic “strong woman” role well, even if it were deceptive for her to have had such high billing for what was really a glorified cameo. As for Clive Owen, I’ll give him credit for being more lifelike than usual; judging by the roles I've seen him in, his presence is often reminiscent of a human-shaped block of wood. In spite of his decent acting, however, the character of Theo is not an easily likeable one. Why should the viewer support Theo’s decisions at any point in the film? A) He went from being an activist to having a cushy office job; B) his main reasoning for helping Julian and Kee is because of money; C) after Julian and Jasper die in the space of one day, I couldn’t see what Theo's motivation would be to continue. I would be more inclined to relate to him if he had lost hope and stopped running. Theo did not seem to be the kind of character who would form attachments easily, so I found it hard to believe that he would have enough affection for Kee to keep plugging along on their journey.
There is a moment near the end of the film when blood splashes onto the camera lens. It was incredibly off-putting. Part of what makes a film plausible is the suspension of disbelief; by admitting that the camera is present, that sense of movies-as-magic disappears. I find it hilarious that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki asked Alfonso Cuarón to keep the blood-spattered shots in the film. Had I been the director, I never would have allowed such a gaffe.
As a writer, I took note of some of the characters’ names. Many years of watching adaptations of P.D. James’ novels on Masterpiece Mystery has taught me that she is deeply influenced by the Anglican Church. The use of the name "Theo," therefore, is an allusion to theology. The masculinity of the name Julian was odd; sure, she’s tough, but I wouldn’t have perceived the character any differently if the name had been a typical woman's name. Finally, since Kee is not actually in the original novel, I can’t blame the source material for such a blatantly obvious use of symbolism. I get it; Kee is the “key” to saving the human race. I was reminded of a teacher of mine who told me that all great writers choose names deliberately. I understand why, but is it ALWAYS necessary? Can’t a character’s actions be what makes the real impact?
At least Children of Men did not paint the future as a world full of aliens and hovercrafts. Despite my disdain for many of the film’s other features, I appreciated the judgment of those involved with art direction and set decoration for creating a stark landscape. Even in a sea of death, a drop of beauty is possible.