I finally watched the science fiction movie Children of Men. The critical acclaim for the film made me suspicious. What I heard of the plot—Cynical Man transports Divine Child to safety—didn’t sound like much. Now that I’ve seen it, I think the movie was an overrated and over hyped, undeveloped bore.
To expand on the premise a bit, the entire world for whatever reason has stopped having babies. The world population is growing older but no new children are being born. This is a good foundation for a sound premise. Unfortunately, after the movie establishes this world, there’s no further exploration of the characters that inhabit it.
The movie takes place in a future Great Britain that looks a lot like now. There’s this dude, this generic streetwise everyman who walks in every circle (rich, poor, military, subversive, you name it he’s in touch with everybody), who finds himself the escort of a woman who is miraculously pregnant. His job is to deliver (get it? humor ahr ahr!) the woman to some nebulous science team on a ship somewhere off the coast, presumably so they can solve the infertility problem. Meanwhile, a generic evuhl terrorist group is trying to get their hands on her, to use her for their own political purposes.
I admit I’m biased against the atmosphere of this movie. Dark realism has run it’s course, and nothing new is being done to expand on the possibilities of this outlook. I’m also inclined to thumb down at chase movies that rely on false tension to generate urgency. The compelling idea (world dying off because the kids aren’t all right) is just a front to manipulate emotions.
Problem #1: If Having Babies Is A Good Thing, Prove It By Addressing Premise
The movie never explores the idea behind the world it creates. It immediately plays on the popular assumption that population decline equals social chaos, and that population growth equals progress. A more mature and developed movie would present a representative view and let the viewer decide for themselves.
For example, the riots and hysteria in the world are one possibility. But what about resignation and acceptance? It doesn’t follow that if the entire world is out of kid points, everyone is going to descend into anarchy. There’s a scene where everyone is crying over the death of the youngest person in the world (the last known person to be born), and I’m like—dude, you people have had twenty years to come to terms with reality. Why are you even interested? This didn’t happen overnight.
There are a lot of compelling arguments for how living standards increase as population declines. Where are the scenes of nature reclaiming depopulated centers? The decline in pollution? The movie shows the world through muddy filters of heightened gloom and doom, but I don’t buy it.
And you can’t tell me there wouldn’t be a tremendous increase in naughty activity, just to plumb the depths of whether this infertility thing is real or not. As the population of people under 30 slowly disappears, wouldn’t those who have failed to accept the situation be trying desperate measures (like mass love-ins, but no, can’t show anything that might make hippies look good)—anything to try and compensate for their psychological denial?
Nowhere in the movie was it ever mentioned that everyone’s libido had vanished, along with their fertility. There should have been some serious signs of overcompensation here, people.
The huge amounts of soldiers fighting insurgents (what are these insurgents fighting for?) strikes me as fake. Dude, every person you kill is NOT being replaced. Warfare, if it can even still be waged at this point, would have had to have changed in ways we can hardly imagine. Wars fought over access to resources and markets—dude resources are becoming LESS scarce. Your market base is evaporating.
I could go on. The best part of the movie is the first ten minutes where we just watch what the world is like, and the things that go on. Once the plot gets under way, the movie is effectively over.
In other words, if the loss of fertility is a bad thing, test that premise. Show us ways in which this miracle of life, so central to who we are, changes us when it is taken away. This world didn’t look any different than today, so there’s no impact. Dude, take a moral stance—”we have to deserve to survive by self-sacrifice”, “we take beautiful things for granted because of our corruption.” Or just take a disinterested one—”life on this planet can end on a dime and just as quickly come back.”
Throw us a bone here. Because otherwise the chase means nothing.
Problem #2: The Chase Doesn’t Mean Anything Without Stakes
Since we have no sense of what the world is really like other than “bad news” (hey, kinda like…now!), the urgency of keeping the plot-coupon…I mean, the objectified baby carrier safe is unclear. There’s nothing positive about the dark world of the movie. The characters that occupy it are all cynical, desperate, jaded or disconnected. The most upbeat character is a bitter hippy played by Michael Caine. Yes! Yet another failed idealist archetype to remind us, the public, that the sixties were a failure and hope is dead. Go back to sleep.
I don’t see how the mysterious ship of scientists are anything to get excited about. We know nothing about them other than a vague hope that they might be working on a way to return fertility to humanity. Because you know, no matter how bleak things get, faith in technology and the scientists who create it will always pull us through. For all I know, the mysterious scientists are the ones who created this world crisis, and the protagonist has just delivered to them the last test subject they need to make the crisis irrevocable.
Or maybe they just need to regularly get their hands on subjects who have developed immunity so they can reconfigure the cause of the infertility. Kind of like the flu vaccine every year. There certainly is no shortage of people who think they have to destroy the world in order to save it. Drax from Moonraker comes immediately to mind, with his “improved upon sterility” globes.
Wouldn’t that be a great revelation at the end of the film? “Thanks mister. Now we can ensure that humanity is destroyed/kept under control. Muah ha ha ha!” But that would mean taking a stand, like “don’t trust scientists.” Can’t do that!
The woman carrying the child doesn’t have any agency of her own. I never get any idea of what kind of person she is. She’s there to be moved around and act scared while the protagonist overcomes obstacles.
The protagonist doesn’t have any personality either. Other than a noncommittal everyman with street smarts, one wonders why he is risking his life at all. There’s no dark secret he has to overcome by accomplishing this task. He has no character trait of fundamental decency that comes out when the chips are down. He acts dispassionately no matter what the situation is. When he dies at the end, after having accomplished his mission, you have no idea who he is or why he did what he did.
The evuhl terrorist group makes no sense to me. Their plan to leverage the pregnant woman into political power strikes me as absolutely bizarre. I’m not even sure I understand what the evuhl terrorists stand for. What motivates them to promote their self-interest over that of the community? They’re just super-violent and crazy. Okay, no stereotypes there!
The government is completely a side show here, by the way. A large, powerful organization with all kinds of reasons to want to control the situation—no they don’t have any surveillance on the evuhl terrorists even though a declining population should make the job easier. The authorities are too busy being punked by bushwhacking or sending in the marines to blow up neighborhoods to be a participant.
What this all boils down to is nothing to base the stakes on. Yes, if the pregnant woman is captured “bad stuff” happens. I get that. But what does the protagonist stand to lose or gain? The evuhl terrorists? How am I supposed to care what happens to this world and its characters when I don’t know who they are?
The film overcomes this through the now tried-and-true method of false urgency. “Here come enemies! Run!” Must get plot coupon from point A to point B or bad stuff will happen. Because bad stuff must not happen! Even though bad stuff happening in world now!
Time to watch Attack of the Giant Crabs again, with it’s flimsy pseudo-science and stock victim characters. At least I know what’s at stake.
05-07-09 ETA: I’ve had a chance to get a sense of how the film differs from the book. Suffice to say the book does more to explore the possibilities of the world that is presented, some of which I find compelling. There are the Omega gangs, bands of last-generation youths burning themselves out in reckless violence. Despotism arises as a requirement to keep the apathetic population organized enough to continue running society. Nature is overrunning large areas of the countryside as it grows back with a vengeance.
None of these interesting ideas appear in the film at all.
I did some short-attention span searching for the director’s intent. This interview proved very telling to me. The infertility isn’t a premise at all—it’s a metaphor for a fading sense of hope. The film isn’t about the future at all! It’s a call for transformative action. In other words, a polemic (that’s art lingo for trying to impart a message through persuasion).
My favorite quote is when the director says “Cinema is a hostage of narrative.” I cracked up when I read that, especially since he claims to dislike exposition. Well, what are you left with if you can neither tell (exposition) or show (narrative) a story?!
This explains why the marketing for the film was way off base. I remember the angle that was promoted—a science fiction movie where the world has become infertile. The infertility was sold as a “shock” (that’s science fiction lingo for the futuristic thing that makes that world what it is—for example, the shock for Blade Runner would be androids). As if that shock were meant to be taken as a literal truth in the world of the film.
If we filter out the disappointment as a result of being falsely marketed to, I still think this movie blows. Playing with metaphors instead of “as if” to render fun through a polemic means you are more dependent on storytelling to make your point. And our director has already abandoned storytelling as a technique! This really screams at me to be played off as a fictional documentary, as This Is Spinal Tap was done (which is played “as if” it’s a real documentary). But that requires you to take the material seriously “as if”, which isn’t done. This is a metaphor, remember? The baby is a torch, not the baby is like a torch.
I was going to go on about how the film would have benefited by fixing the characters and the setting to equal situation, but since the director didn’t want to tell a story that’s not useful. We are to watch this film and then take action to make this world a better place.
First of all, I really dislike the common belief that places guilt for the state of the world on the shoulders of the apathetic masses. It’s casting blame without acknowledging one’s own responsibility. And I mean responsibility for those things one truly is responsible for. For example, there’s a reason why people are apathetic—huge sums of money are paid to keep people that way. Through propaganda in the more civilized countries and at the end of a heavy club in the less civilized countries.
Another reason people are apathetic is because the world is in the grip of psychological processes that are not wholly understood and may not be controllable to any significant degree. Attempts to direct the collective impulse against natural tendencies often turn inhuman. History is full of examples of political vanguards who turned popular movements into destructive eruptions of madness for their own gain. Like it or not, apathy is a part of the human condition and it pays to face that.
This is not to suggest that one is blameless. None of us stands outside the collective shadow. If free will exists, it must be extremely small and therefore all the more imperative that we use it where applicable. We do share in the guilt for this mixed up chicken world. It’s just that suggesting we the viewers are responsible for the lack of hope in the world is a simplistic and largely unconscious view.
I mean, funk dat! Hopelessness is a natural reaction when things are bad, and make no mistake it’s a nightmare wasteland here on planet earth. Yeah, sacrifice of one’s life for the new life is what pays the bills at the end of the day. But who the hell in their right mind wants to do that? We have a world of children in the bodies of adults, how are you going to help them grow up? Because there are a lot of bad eggs among those children. Darth Vader is REAL. There are real BAD GUYS out there who will jack you, and you ain’t got no extra lives or saved games to fall back on in this life. Depression and fear are a human experience.
So, how do I make this movie better. This director wants some metaphors, then let’s dial it up to eleven mutha-scratcher!
I think the first thing we need is what this whole planet needs a lot more of: Compassion. That means “to suffer with”, and it’s the lesson of the savior that we seem not to have learned even when it was the focus of the now-passed Age of Pisces. This whole movie reeks of unsympathetic people who are unsympathetic to one another. Yeah, it’s a mystery how hope survives and its beautiful when a person who appears out for himself suddenly shows a side of humanity. That’s why we cheer for Han Solo when he rescues Luke in the Death Star Trench.
Make the character Theo compassionate. Make him elicit our compassion. When Baby Diego’s death is announced, don’t have him stoically walk out the door—have him break down in tears while the crowd look on blankly (the crowd is apathetic, see?! But not him!). Then, when the place he was just in blows up, have him break down and collapse on the pavement (his compassion is what saved him, get it!?).
When he bleeds out on the boat, don’t have him sit there and mumble to Kee. Have him confess all his sins and fears to her. “I hope I did the right thing. Maybe these scientists are going to treat you like a lab rat. Maybe this was all for nothing and we’ll die out anyway. I did a lot of selfish things in my life. But at least I know what love is now, what I’d do for other people. I didn’t know that before. Good luck kid, and if you make it out alive, say a prayer for me, ’cause I don’t know nothing.” In the world of the metaphor “this is a good way for a man to die” is keeping it real, hard core.
The second thing we need is an affirmation of the human spirit. In a world obsessed with blame and sin, we forget original innocence. Human beings are naturally good. It’s a fundamental hardware requirement. Yes, in the western view we’re expelled from paradise and thus apart from nature. This is a useful wisdom to know, but let’s not exaggerate our share of the truth. People are good and want good things. To truly call them apathetic and hopeless you have to also call them decent people. That’s the pain of being alive.
So yeah, you can have bad guys doing bad doo-doo. But have Kee change people around her just by virtue of who she is. If she’s a metaphor then damn it Jim, treat her like one! Xtine is right, to call her worthy, because she is! Just by virtue of what she has become.
When the Fishes are discussing their plans to murder Kee’s midwife and her protector Theo, have at least one strong, capable Fish refuse outright. Either by vocally opposing the plan and walking out (maybe starting a gunfight which allows Theo a more believable escape) or abandoning the Fishes without a word and joining Theo later—sacrificing their lives if need be to allow Theo to get out of a jam.
Or maybe even living (gasp! that’s so not dark realism!). Most everyone in the film dies a violent death. What if the people who try to harm Kee all die violent deaths, but the people who protect her either live, or die heroically both knowing that they are serving something greater than themselves.
The fixer who tries to take the baby in the immigrant camp. What if when he sees the mother and it becomes real to him, he instead says “No, anyone else I’d take advantage of. Not this. I’ll help you guys.” Unexpected help from what look like cynical or desperate people, exploiters turning human because Kee is “the torch that will light a new world fire and bring us light and warmth.” How awesome is that?
Then, all of a sudden, you see how people are connected and can act against the dark dreary world of the film. Their acts stand out MORE because of the sad colors and gritty realism. In fact if you establish all throughout the movie that Kee’s existence galvanizes people into a movement for hope, it makes the crazy scene near the end with the crying baby more believable. This world is so messed up, that something so primal and elemental as a mother with child becomes a carrier for for all the projected hopes of the world. That’s raw fuel for the metaphor, man!
And this I think is the director’s fatal flaw. A lack of compassion and optimism for humanity in his own psyche. There’s a cynic (and you can’t be a cynic without having once been a romantic) in the film crying out for someone to save him. Sorry dude, the viewer can’t carry that cross for you. You have to find sympathy for others and hope for the future in your own heart. Until you find that you won’t be able to share with us how it’s done. You do the work by going inside and taking care of your own soul first, which always, always through miracles and magic, ends up being for us all.