Are critics allowed to admit error? Just as political pundits are rarely called to account for their predictions, critics are not often required to defend their judgments long after they are first published. Yet critics, honest critics anyway, are not great mountains of immovable opinion. That’s not to say they’re as shifty as the tides, either. A certain amount of stability is generally necessary; so perhaps the nature metaphor of choice here is the glacier, slowly, almost imperceptibly changing shape, but nonetheless transforming from one form to another as time progresses.
All this to say that I no longer consider Children of Men to be nearly as poor a film as when I first saw it.
It’s a strange thing for a critic to change his mind. Confidence is our opinions is usually not something we lack. Nonetheless, after dismissing the movie, I felt that weird nagging sensation that crops up every so often that maybe I was too harsh, too quick, too biased by some outside force.
In this case, I think it’s the last part that’s most important, and that outside force was clearly the book on which the movie was (sort of) based. I say “sort of” because Cuarón has indicated that he purposely didn’t read the book in advance, and that’s obvious from watching even just a few minutes of the movie. The characters and story are only superficially similar to the source material, taking and a handful of names and situations, as well as the basic humanity-goes-childless premise and then completely reimagining everything else.
Coming out of the film, my first thought wasn’t just that Cuarón didn’t get the book right, but that he seemed contemptuous of it. Who knows if that’s true – though I doubt it. (How could he be contemptuous of something he hadn’t read? More likely he was intrigued by the setup and wanted to simply work from there on his own.) More than that, I found the film superficial and haphazard, a jagged mish-mash of jarring setpieces and flamboyant direction.
I don’t now think that that’s necessarily inaccurate, but I’m far less convinced that those concerns matter. Shallow as it might be in terms of showcasing its half-formed socio-political notions, it’s a remarkably confident display of technical ability. From a pure cinematic craftsman’s perspective, Cuarón’s long, intricately choreographed tracking shots are breathtaking. And the overall look of the film, even with its relatively small budget, is gloriously dismal, a grueling gloom-and-doom prophesy of grey skies and urban decay.
What’s more important, though, is that I’ve come to believe that Cuarón’s stylistic bravado and confidence are not just impressive enough to be self-justifying. I’ve also become convinced that the film’s formal properties actually work together with and reinforce the film’s narrative and thematic elements, creating a far stronger, more satisfying experience than I initially thought.
The reliance on very long shots mirrors the overall structure of the film, and the cloudy mood – as if perpetually in the moments before a terrible storm – sets the tone. The entire picture is a chase, basically, a race to get the mother and the child to safety; the plot, thin and underdeveloped, is merely a machine that keeps the conveyor belt moving toward that final goal. So the film is shot with a sort of hyper-charged, hyper-focused determination, always moving forward, no matter what distractions appear. Indeed, this reflects the shape of human society as a whole in the film, a great, chaotic mass moving toward a single point – extinction – and flailing wildly as they do so.
This helps to explain the lack of cohesiveness in the film’s political subtext. The smattering of political references – harsh immigration policies, allusions to the war in Iraq, police brutality, and authoritarian state – they don’t really fit together. But then, with society dying, why would they? There’s a moment early on in the film in which Clive Owen sits on a train, looking out the protected windows. A gang of unruly thugs approaches and hurls objects at the car as it passes by; behind them, someone has scrawled graffiti over a government billboard: “Last one to die, remember to turn out the lights.” This is the shape of the entire film—the train moving forward past the decayed and dilapidated signs of human existence, frenzy, anger and chaos all around – not much to do besides look out the window and maybe give a grim chuckle at how it all turned out.