Children of Men
Clive Owen Julianne Moore
4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Humanity is at a cross roads and it’s about to get run over by extinction. There hasn’t been a baby born on the planet in 18 years, London is a Fascist refugee camp and a person has a better chance of being blown to bits or stoned by a mob than encountering someone who says, “Have a nice day.”
“Children of Men” is compelling, alarming, and a visual watershed for eye-popping special effects. In short, it’s a rare thinking man’s movie – with explosions!
Set in 2027, “Children of Men” centers on the world’s global infertility, the resulting collapse of society, and the environment -- and a miracle that gives hope for the future. The main character, Theo (a superbly numbed Clive Owen), a former political activist, is now a dumbed down nine to fiver, so indifferent to the world’s self-destruction, he’s unfazed when he sees the news story that “Baby Diego.” the youngest person on Earth, has been murdered. The rest of London mourns the 18 year-old, but Theo’s only interest now is his drinking. He remains oblivious to the chaos around him, even after the café he left only seconds before explodes. The attack is blamed on “The Fishes” a radical group that kidnaps him, and delivers him to their leader, a woman he hasn’t seen in 20 years – his wife Julian (a radically effective Julianne Moore). Julian has a proposal for Theo – get a travel permit for a refugee and you’ll be paid handsomely. Theo gets the permit from his cousin, a government official, who’s also collected works of art such as Michelangelo’s David – and the giant pig dirigible from Pink Floyd’s touring days, in order to keep them out of the hands of the “Fugees” (the refugees, not the rap group) and the other rabble that run amuck in the streets of London. Theo’s transit papers have one hitch – he has to escort the fugee, Kee, to her destination. (Claire-Hope Ashitey plays Kee, and her performance is, well, Ashitey. And change that name, girl!)
Theo hops in a car with Kee, Julian, number two Fishey Luke (the always capable Chiwtel Ejiofor, who could also use a name change), and therapist/guru Miriam (a cosmic Pam Ferris). The group is ambushed, and Theo shows he hasn’t lost his survival skills, turning a car door into a weapon. The group pays a harsh price, but escapes.
At the Fishes safe house Kee reveals to Theo the reason for her trip – she’s pregnant. Julian was taking her to meet up with the members of The Human Project, a group of scientists working to save the world (apparently everyone else has given up). Luke wants The Fishes to get the credit for saving the world and wants to keep Kee with his group. Theo almost agrees, until he accidentally overhears Luke’s treacherous plans. Theo escapes with Kee and Miriam, setting in motion some creative and alternately heartbreaking action scenes.
Theo first seeks refuge with burnt out hippie Jasper (Michael Caine, literally having a gas in the type of comic relief role he seldom gets to play). Jasper sets the trio up with Syd, a corrupt Homeland Security cop (working-class tough Peter Mullan), who’s agreed to pass them off as detainees at Bexhill Refugee Camp in order to get them to a boat they can use to rendezvous with the mythical Human Project. Everything is contingent on Syd remaining honest long enough to fulfill his end of the bargain, and once he finds out the once-pregnant Kee is a mom with a healthy baby, Syd’s internal cash register takes over. Syd plans to turn Kee and her baby in for the bounty, but is thwarted by black market boat dealer Marichka (a wonderfully off the wall take by Oana Pellea). Free again, Theo and Kee head to the boat, but are set upon by Luke and his men, who haul Kee and her miracle child off to an abandoned building. To complicate matters, the fugee camp has exploded in riots and violence, filling the streets with gun toting prisoners spoiling for a fight with the army. Leo is faced with finding a way to rescue Kee, Luke is determined to keep her, and the army is determined to restore peace, even if they have to kill everyone in the building. The climactic scene is a nail-biter, with you-are-there special effects, and there’s a twist at the end involving one of the characters that a director who was only interested in making a buck wouldn’t have filmed.
Although “Children of Men” has an apocalyptic outlook, there are moments of levity that remind the characters (and us) that there’s still hope, such as when Kee tells Leo the name she’s picked out for her baby:
Kee: I want to name my baby Froley.
Theo: It’s the first baby in eighteen years. You can’t call it Froley.
If there’s a flaw in “Children of Men” its Luke’s dogged pursuit of Kee and Leo. No matter how elaborate their escape, Luke and his Fish heads pop up like all knowing bad-ass bogeymen. How did Luke figure out where Jasper lives, and how does he know about Leo’s connection to him? And how does Luke find Kee and Leo amidst the rubble of fugee town long after they’ve left the camp? And if The Fishies have such a great intelligence system, why not just wait for the pair of runaways at the boat instead slugging it out with the army? Just another mystery of life in the future, I suppose. And why didn’t somebody tell Julianne Moore to wipe that grin off her before they filmed her last scene? And while you’re at it, you might ponder why the future is always depicted as being so grimy.
The soundtrack to the film is immensely cool. Nice to know that twenty years from now they’ll still be playing Deep Purple’s “Hush” or King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” The music is appropriately dramatic, but the special effects and camera work are Oscar worthy. The terrorist bombing of the café works so well because like Leo, you’re sucked into a false sense of security. The ambush is harrowing because everyone – even ice-water in his veins Luke – is caught of guard and their chaotic escape seems just a matter of luck. One of the best scenes in the film is the army’s siege of the apartment building where The Fishes are holding Kee. The hand held camera work gives the scene the look of a WW II documentary about the battle for Leningrad. Rockets wreck tanks, innocent bystanders fall like ten pins and combatants are obliterated in clouds of rubble and dust. And check out the blood on the camera lens; now that’s realism.
The actors immerse themselves in their roles. No matter how long the actors are on screen, almost all of them leave an indelible mark. Because of the laconic, zombie-like existence of his character in the early part of the film, Clive Owen comes across as a waste of flesh. He develops a sense of purpose when he takes on the impossible task of getting Kee to The Human Project. He’s just a man, an anti-hero, not a superhero. Leo trips over rocks, is inept at starting the car as they attempt to escape, and is not too handy with his fists. At one point Leo roots through Jasper’s shoes hoping to find a pair that fits. The only foot wear that fits his oversized canal boats are a pair of flip flops. “What kind of hero wears flip flops?” he laments. Add a few years to the equation and Leo could very well be you or me, and Owen conveys that possibility superbly.
Playing the role of a home-bound unkempt hippie, Michael Caine seems at ease in an unusual and challenging role. Caine claims to have based his portrayal of Jasper on his friend John Lennon, but with his shoulder length, scraggly hair and stoned-out lifestyle, he more closely resembles an English Jerry Garcia. Caine can play a stuffy sophisticate with the brilliance of Laurence Olivier and does well in the mentor/bloke roles (check out his superb performance as manager/teacher in the five star mystery “The Prestige”). Asking Caine to play a burnt-out hippie is a stretch, and listening to him call Leo “amigo” or tease the other characters with “Pull my finger” is disconcerting but rewarding. Claire-Hope Ashitey plays the not-so-virgin Kee with wonderment and fear, but is little more than a prop for the first half of the movie. She does say “wicked” with a certain degree of conviction. When her character births her baby, Ashitey occasionally displays the protective skills of a mama lion. It’s not a huge acting challenge, but Ashitey shows she can do something other than fake labor pains. Julianne Moore’s stint as the head Fish energizes the script. Moore employs a wide-range of emotions in a short spurt – calculating coolness in front of her cohorts as she lays out her plan; anger at Leo’s abandonment after the loss of their son; and forgiveness and playful elation with Leo just before the group is ambushed. Moore nails her portrayal of the spunky, determined chick who gives you goose bumps when you meet her and is the type of woman you’ll never forget when you lose her.
Chiwtel Ejiofor is no stranger to play well-intentioned but ruthless bad guys, having dominated the movie version of the TV series “Firefly.” Ejiofor has to be heroic, loyal, commanding, fearless, dynamic and treacherous – all in the space of twenty minutes. Lesser actors would just be confused. Three other supporting actors deserve recognition for creating memorable characters despite very limited screen time. Peter Mullan, who plays the opportunistic Syd, speaks of himself in the third person, as if he’s the Queen Elizabeth of Fugee security. “Syd doesn’t know why you want to get in, Sid doesn’t care.” He’s a funny, slimy character who then becomes a treacherous adversary, and Mullan’s cockney working stiff portrayal chews up the screen. Romanian actress Oana Pellea, who plays the jabbering gypsy Marichka, has one of the more difficult roles. Not only does she have to make the role of a well connected but whacked gypsy believable, she has to do it without uttering a word of English, like some sci-fi version of Latka Gravis.
Extra “Children”Let’s hope that twenty years from now, we can look at “Children of Men” as a fantasy rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the meantime, enjoy the feel-um.
“Children of Men” is packed with extras, including deleted scenes, and “The Possibility of Hope” feature, which shows how the themes in the film relate to today’s headlines. There’s also “Under Attack” with comments from producer Eric Newman, Owen and camera tech Frank Buono, who reveals how the inventive and dangerous battles scenes were filmed; and a visual effects feature on how Key’s baby was created. “Theo and Julian” features comments from Curacon, Owen, and Moore and reveals that Owen had a hand in writing his character’s back story. “He’s a veteran of hopelessness,” Owen comments about Theo. Curacon concurs. “He doesn’t care, he’s lost touch, he’s cynical, depressed. But by the end of the movie he’s got faith.” Costume designer Jany Temme, production designer Jim Clay and producer Hilary Shor are interviewed for “Futuristic Design,” and we get an explanation for the film’s tired, grimy look. The most unusual and scholarly bonus comes from philosopher and culture critic Slavoj Zitek, who in addition to having a heavy accent, has a distracting lisp that makes him sound like a character from a Saturday Night live skit. As long as authoritarian figures like Zitek exist we’ll still have a need for books and the internet because he makes for unintentionally hilarious interview. Try keeping a straight face after Zitek refers to the film as “feel-um.” Lack of love from the camera aside, Ziteck does offer some worthwhile insights about heroes, immigration and sex.