Top 10 Movies: #1 – Children of Men

Today, most people know director Alfonso Cuarón as the first Latino to win the Oscar for Best Director (for 2013’s space thriller, Gravity).  Others may remember him for 2001’s bawdy road movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien.  In my opinion, however, the best work in his strong portfolio is 2006’s dystopian drama Children of Men.

As with Y Tu Mama, Cuarón takes what seems like a shopworn premise (in that case, a buddy-comedy sex-farce, in this case, a post-apocalyptic chase-thriller) and not only adds some unexpected twists at the surface level, but also a wealth of depth at the very edge of consciousness. The film is a feast of visual details and allusions, many of which flicker only briefly across the screen without calling notice to themselves.

The first sign that we are not dealing with a standard-issue science-fiction potboiler comes in the very opening scenes of the movie.  This is a setting in which the end of the world as we know it has come not with a bang, but a whimper.  The nature of the disaster is buried in the news story playing as the movie begins: The death of the world’s youngest person in a bar fight.  It takes a moment for the implications to sink in.  A world where the world’s youngest person is old enough to go to a bar is a world where no new children have been born in a very long time.  As we enter into the film, we begin to catch glimpses of a larger world where the suspicion of being the last human generation has caused most of humanity to gradually sink into apathy and despair, and the remainder to enter a vicious cycle of increasing violence and oppression.

What makes the world of Cuarón’s imagination seem so real is not only that there’s very little futuristic about it, but also that all the elements are merely amplifications of things that are already happening. The central trope of Britain maintaining itself as an island of stability at the cost of fascism and brutal anti-immigrationism has echoes of Europe’s real-life declining fertility and ambivalence about sustaining population growth through immigration, as well as the ongoing immigration debate in the United States (with reference to Cuarón’s native Mexico). Later, disturbing scenes of a refugee camp deliberately reference not only the Holocaust, but those notorious sites of United States sponsored torture, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

In the end, what I found most striking about this often grim but profoundly humanist film was how many of the major and minor characters within it were not only willing, but eager to risk or even lose their lives merely to help a stranger and her unborn child survive. In a world with no other hopes for a future, the chance to support even so uncertain a tomorrow was seen as an opportunity rather than an imposition.

To summarize: Not only a good film, a humane film and a compassionate film, but also an important film; a experience not only of visual depth, but also of emotional and intellectual depth as well.

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