In 2006 Alfonso Cuarón’s stock was on the rise.
In 1998 he tried his hardest to make something out of a modernisation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, starring the dual powerhouses of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, but we can all agree that is a terrible idea. By all accounts it’s not so bad, but I’m not about to try and find out. In any case it was his following movie, a less commercial effort, which better introduced the world to his artistic sense and style.
Y Tu Mamá También is a coming of age road movie set against the backdrop of the economic and political realities of contemporary Mexico. In it two teenagers set off on a road trip with an older woman, who joins them when it comes to light that her partner has been cheating on her. It was written by Alfonso and his brother, Carlos, and quickly became a critical darling.
After returning from a Hollywood excursion to pour your heart into a passion project about your homeland, what is the natural thing to do next?
You direct a Harry Potter movie, of course.
The story goes that Cuarón had no interest in the franchise until his friend and compatriot Guillermo Del Toro convinced him he’d be a fool to turn down the chance and, interested or not, he did an exemplary job with Prisoner of Azkaban, creating the most idiosyncratic and thoughtful movie of the franchise to date.
With that he was all prepped to once again knock out a project closer to his heart, but this time with studio support, and consequently studded with Hollywood star power.
So, we find ourselves back in 2006. Cuarón gathered Clive Owen, Michael Caine, and Julianne Moore, and set out to create Children of Men.
And he killed the biggest star of them all in the first act.
I was only eleven when this film was in cinemas, so when I got around to watching it I was long spoiled on one of the most unexpected death scenes in movie history thanks to a hard-to-quit habit of YouTube explainer videos, but it is a testament to the enduring quality of the picture that my knowledge of what was to come did not lessen its impact on me. Children of Men is one of the most effecting movies that I have seen all year. It has aged beautifully, but this is horrifying to say. Its vision of the future is bleak and paper close to the reality in which we live. The central sci-fi conceit, an infertility plague which threatens the future of mankind, is (as of yet) not something which is dominating the global consciousness, but the way in which this plague shifts the course of mankind draws in close, too close, to the current zeitgeist.
In Cuarón’s vision Britain is home to one of the last functioning governments in the world. A strange sense of national pride is reinforced through anti-immigration propaganda which plays on televisions in people’s homes, billboards on the streets, and on screens on the bus. There is pride in Britain’s supposed survival in the face of the apocalypse, but this apparent success has ensured that the island has become a goal for the refugees who roam the Earth’s crumbling surface. The government however has decided it doesn’t want the sick masses, it has decided it cannot survive under their weight, and that there is no room for compassion in the game of survival that they now play. Anti-immigration laws are enforced harshly. ‘Fugees’ are rounded up into camps and treated like dirt by power-drunk immigration officers packed in behind body armour, carrying automatic weapons.
A civil war is also brewing. The ‘Fishes’ are a militia group, led by Julianne Moore’s Julian, they stand up for migrants and, as Clive Owen’s Theo discovers, they also harbour a great secret: a pregnant woman, perhaps the only one left in the world. But the Fishes have their own plan and assassinate Julianne Moore as to use Kee for their own political gain, to use as their symbol to spark a mass uprising. To protect Kee, Theo takes her away from the Fishes, and a desperate journey across the country to the coast to find the almost mythical Human Project, and their medical expertise, begins.
It is a haunting journey. Cuarón uses long takes and a meandering camera to take focus away from the limited view of its central characters, who are so wrapped up in their mission they often fail to see the world around them.
According to Cuaron, his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (aka Chivo) said:
“We cannot allow one single frame of this film to go without a comment on the state of things.”
And this is exactly what happens. Every frame shows a grim possibility of a likely future. The entire world is gripped by nihilism, life means nothing. The future is naught. Desperate refugees are not to be helped, or even pitied, they are a menace, a new plague to be exterminated. Classical art is reduced to the décor of the rich. The surviving artists cover the streets in graffiti in a desperate attempt at expression. The populace numbs itself with alcohol, drugs, and when it all gets too much the government offers Quietus – prescribed suicide in a box. Throughout the film the lingering camera shows us all this, although the central cast can barely see it for themselves. They are so battered by desperation that they cannot expand their field of vision beyond the narrow cone in front of their eyes.
The movie is not about their perspective, but ours. This is our world, what do we see? What can we recognise?
Too much, it would seem.
The film tanked at the box office despite positive critical feedback and Cuarón disappeared from the scene until 2013 when he delivered the Academy Award winning Gravity. So, what the hell happened? It’s not as if in 2006 people weren’t concerned with migration, but from Cuarón’s perspective, we simply couldn’t see the wood for the trees. What was to come, what we are experiencing now, from either end of the political spectrum, was being diagnosed as early as 2001, when the concept for Children of Men, a fairly straight adaptation of P.D James’ novel of the same name, was slid Cuarón’s way during his promotion of Y Tu Mamá También.
In an interview with Vulture, made during what we now know was his shoot for the then untitled Roma, he said of the writers he was studying at the time:
“They are just stating the diagnostics of the situation, the state of how things are. One thing they started talking about, because of the environment, was [geographer] Fabrizio Eva. He’s talking about the natural thing that happens with that, which is migration. The natural thing was to explore migration. You go and you start talking with people or researching about the effects. This is stuff that they’ve been setting up for a long time. Now we’re in shock because the paradigm suddenly seems to be changing. It’s not. It’s just the natural evolution of what has been happening the last few years”
In recent years Children of Men has risen in status. Not only is Cuarón now one of the most critically decorated individuals working in the industry, the themes and subject matter of his movie have redrawn attention to it, in light of the election of Donald Trump, and the British Leave vote concerning Brexit. Both votes were inexorably tied to the issue of migration, and Children of Men is unquestionably a film about that matter.
The late appreciation of the film is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another bleak examination of the future which was not well regarded at the box office. The future noir tanked in comparison to the far more gleeful E.T. which came out in the same year. It could certainly be argued that the film was just too dour for audiences to connect with, or want to connect with, but like Children of Men Scott’s masterpiece has continued to rise in esteem as the years have passed, culminating in an overdue sequel in 2017.
The difference between the initially under-appreciated classics, however, is hope.
Although both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 end reasonably hopefully, or at least, they end vaguely enough that we can imagine hope in their futures, the state of the world seems to have been long cemented in place. The way that world has developed has made it almost unrecognisable from our own, the skyline of future Los Angeles a hellish symbol of the overblown commercialism which has poisoned that Earth and drowned it in smog. Children of Men was never designed to create such alienation, in fact, Cuarón is noted to have mentioned he wanted his movie to be the anti-Blade Runner. He wanted to create a world which, although enhanced by future technology, was widely recognisable. The London we see in the opening act of the movie is very much the London of 2019, minus a few futuristic embellishments. As such Kee represents hope not just within the bounds of the movie, but for the viewers of the movie as well, as what they see is very much their world.
Kee’s pregnancy is divisive, as each faction has different ideas about how it should be dealt with and, cynically speaking, used. But in the closing act of the film we see the power of her character, the power of hope. As the government lays siege to a huge refugee camp within which the uprising is being sparked by the Fishes and angry ‘fugee’ extremists, a brief ceasefire takes place as each side hears the cries of Kee’s new-born. In a beautiful scene Kee, Theo, and the baby, make their way out of the bullet-strewn block down onto the street, soldiers and civilians alike standing aside for them, struck silent and awed by pure hope.
And then the shooting starts again.
It is a moment which sums up Cuarón’s grim but hopeful vision. No matter how bad it gets, there are still things that unite us all.
It’s just a shame only a few could see that when he first delivered the message.
Children of Men is a powerful piece of cinema which has got better with age, and was criminally under-looked on release. It one of the finest movies of the 21st century and should be sought out immediately by anyone with even a passing interest in the artform if they have not already had the pleasure.