Monday, May 28, 2007

Children of Men (Cuaron)

Don't you hate it when somebody else beats you to a good idea? See, me and Alfonso Cuaron, we've got some business to settle between us. I know he just adapted somebody else's book, but I don't care. It's not really fair because he already had a bunch of actual movies under his belt, an actual movie career and, presumably, an actual finished screenplay. But I'll pick a fight with the bastard anyway.

See, a few months ago, I had this idea for a screenplay. Yoggoth and I were planning on writing it together. ** cue the laughter ** My idea was that we would do a science fiction film, but make it very, very plausible. It would take place about twenty years into the future. Since I personally don't believe that the immediate future of the Western world looks very promising, I supposed this fictional future of ours would be rather dystopian, but not quite 1984 dystopian. Many science fiction films have a vision of the future that's incredibly amazing and exotic, but in reality the future will probably be rather mundane. Remember how in the 50s everybody assumed that the future would be like the Jetsons and we would all be flying around in little airplane cars and have robot maids and eat pills for a meal? Didn't happen. People still drive cars and wear jeans and cook hamburgers. Our lives have changed, but in subtler, sneakier ways. Certain parts of the earth could be in for a big change, but for most of us, my bet is that daily life will not be noticeably different, at least not in a Jetsons sort of way. Some nukes will most likely go off, but T.S. Eliot probably hit it right on the nose with that whole "not with a bang but with a whimper" thing. If humanity's in for extinction, it's in it for the long haul. Finally, this conception of the future is quite convenient from a filmmaker's perspective because it requires virtually no budget.

The reason why I felt this was a subject with much potential was because, the way I see it, many middle-class Americans at the moment are currently in a bit of a state of denial regarding the ease with which our mostly prosperous and orderly society could slip into some sort of third-world disaster zone. The problem isn't so much the slip, if you ask me, as it is the denial. A great work of fiction at this time could close the gap between people's ignorance of the future and the reality of that future. This was the motivation for our screenplay. Sadly, the screenplay came to a quick impasse due to Yoggoth's possible lack of enthusiasm for the project (?) and our unease with the creation of a female protagonist.

Suddenly, a few months later, I heard of the impending release of a new film called Children of Men. I read an early review and...hmm. "Dystopian future"? "About twenty years from now"? "Most of civilization destroyed by nukes"? Sounded like somebody had beaten us to it. Naturally I was a little concerned, wondering if this new film would render our idea obsolete. On the other hand, I saw the situation as one of possible relief; if this film covered all the ground our film had hoped to cover, then maybe we wouldn't need to make our film at all and we could work on something else. Either way, I was highly curious.

I became more curious when the film received some ecstatically orgasmic reviews. Slate called it "the movie of the millenium" or something impressively hyperbolic of that nature. The Rotten Tomatoes message boards were practically hemorrhaging with awe over the film. Some users with pretty respectable taste were already adding the movie to their top ten lists of all time. "No film could be that good," I thought. Then again I never thought Adaptation. would be that good, and Adaptation. made it into my top ten, so who knows? Still, I was skeptical because I knew that over the past few years or so there have been plenty of movies that have been called flaming masterpieces that really were not. Masterpieces are hard to make. They don't happen with ease. Certain films with many strong elements going for them are not necessarily "masterpieces." A masterpiece has to have a little of that intangible something extra. It has to have a kind of magic about it. Reading about Children of Men, it didn't really seem like that kind of movie. But of course I had to go see it anyway.

So I saw it, and now five months later, what do I think? I think it's almost impossible for me to have an unbiased opinion, is what I think. I can see why people were impressed. I can see why certain viewers and critics thought it was the best film of the year. Because it was very ambitious and very plausible and it's been a long time since a science fiction film has been more than basically just an action film in disguise. But most of the people who went to see Children of Men hadn't already been thinking about a work of fiction along similar lines. It's a bit preposterous for me to say that I view Alfonso Cuaron as competition, but yeah, he's competition, the fucker. So while I could understand why the film would have been impressive to others, to me it was...something of a disappointment. Many of the elements were superlative, I grant you that. But overall I didn't really feel that the film had explored the potential of its premise to the fullest.

First of all, the film was simultaneously ambitious and yet...not ambitious enough. It was more like a short story than a novel. By confining the action to only a few characters and to only a few days, Cuaron took the easy way out. It meant that he didn't have to address any of the really thornier questions that a science fiction has to deal with, like how the world got the way it did, or what happened to the rest of the population. The limited scope meant that while the film never did anything awkward or silly, it also meant that it never really went anywhere profound or thought-provoking either - at least not as profound and thought-provoking as the subject matter could have allowed.

What was the film trying to say? That humanity's ability to give birth to children is essential for its own happiness? Is that really humanity's biggest problem right now? I would say that a more pressing problem is the opposite: that humanity is giving birth to too many children. Sure, I guess the disappearance of childbirth is one thing that could happen to humanity in the next few years or so. But it's hardly the most likely thing. More likely is that people will keep giving birth to children who will die violently at a young age. This is the more pressing issue: the prevalence of death that seems outrageous now but will probably become the norm. The denial gap needs to close. And Children of Men didn't really help close the denial gap.

Yes, the film was gripping and thoughtful and well-made. But a "masterpiece" would need to not only be gripping and thoughtful and well-made, but also rejuvenate the viewer and fill him with the intangible beauty of life. That's how I felt about one of Alfonso's earlier films, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Now that was a fucking masterpiece. It was a masterpiece because it kept surprising me around every turn with a twist I didn't see coming but thought I should have, or a quiet observation that changed my perception of the characters in an instant. It was detailed and funny and shocking and weird and joyous. Children of Men, by comparison, was more like a good idea than a movie. The characters barely even showed up. I didn't feel like I knew these people, and if I didn't know them then I didn't really care what happened to them. Y Tu Mama Tambien was like an undertow because the characters were so vivid.

But hey, I liked Children of Men a lot. If it hadn't been instantly drooled over as "the movie of the decade" or whatever, then I'd be probably be defending it a lot harder. We need more movies like it, certainly. But it's kind of annoying to hear everybody praise a movie when you're sitting there thinking about how your movie would have been even better! Of course, the game is still young.

Maybe there's hope for our hopeless dystopian future yet.

1 comment:

Herr Zrbo said...

It's been a few months since I've seen the movie so I don't have the greatest recollection of it, but I think I know what you mean. I'm not sure the movie knew where to go with its idea. I could say more but I'd have to think about it for a while.

I do remember liking the cinematography, especially that uber-long shot of the main character running through the streets in the middle of a warzone - I know it was actually several scenes spliced together, but I found the continuity of that scene quite impressive - the story, not so much.