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A Downer Film That Was Going To Lose Money

May 22nd, 2009 · 5 Comments

Children of Men (2006)
Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Produced by Hit & Run Productions/ Strike Entertainment/ Universal Pictures
Running time: 109 minutes

Children of Men, 2006, poster Children of Men, DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?
On the 16th of November 2027, London wakes to the following news: “The world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet.” For 18 years, women have been infertile, and no one has been able to explain why. In the absence of all hope, anarchy has overwhelmed most of the world, but Britain “soldiers on” by banning all immigration, rounding up and deporting any asylum seekers. A group calling themselves the Fishes have organized an anti-government insurgency in support of immigrant rights, and are blamed for a bombing that almost kills Theo Faron (Clive Owen) as he’s ordering his morning coffee.

Theo was a political activist in his youth, but following the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage has become a low-level bureaucrat. He remains largely apathetic about the future of the planet. The only thing Theo looks forward to are visits to the Bexhill area – which in addition to housing a refugee camp – is home to his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a retired, ganga smoking cartoonist who cares for his wife (Philippa Urquhart), a photojournalist who experienced something so horrific, possibly in New York, or possibly at the hands of British intelligence, that she remains in a catatonic state. Returning to London, Theo is abducted by the Fishes, who he discovers are led by his fugitive ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore).

Children of Men, 2006, Clive Owen

Julian implores her ex-husband to help them smuggle a girl past security checkpoints and to the coast. Theo’s cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) has government financing for a project called Ark of the Arts – spiriting the masterpieces of the art world and relocating them to London – and it’s believed he can help. Theo is offered £5,000 for his services, but the only travel permit his cousin can obtain stipulates that the girl remain under Theo’s supervision. With the aid of an insurgent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a nursemaid, Theo realizes that the girl he’s transporting, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) is carrying a child. Julian hopes to deliver her to the Human Project, a think tank who as legend would have it, is working on mankind’s cure for infertility.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?

Published in 1993, The Children of Men was a change of pace for mystery writer P.D. James. She imagined a world of the year 2021, where global infertility has brought civilization to its knees. James had come across a newspaper article that mentioned human fertility in the west had declined in the last 20 years. Not long after, she encountered another article, which stated that most of the life forms that have existed on earth have since died out. The author recalled, “And I thought – suppose it happened to human beings, suddenly, all in one year? What kind of world would it be? What would it mean for the way people lived, their motivation? It is almost unimaginable, what it might do to human beings.” She added, “I suppose it is a sort of moral fable; I don’t like to describe it as science fiction.”

Children of Men, 2006, Clive Owen, Julianne Moore

Talent agent Hilary Shor read The Children of Men two months after delivering her first child. With her partner in the newly formed Hit & Run Productions – Tony Smith – Shor brought the project to producer Marc Abraham of Beacon Communications (later Strike Entertainment). Due to the detailed requests of P.D. James – her book be developed only as a feature, the story had to be set in England – it took a year, but Beacon finally negotiated the film rights. After a pass by Paul Chart, Shor hired Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby to adapt a screenplay. Fergus recalled, “We had done A Scanner Darkly for our first writing assignment – not the Richard Linklater one that ultimately got made. We were hired by Jersey Films to try to crack that book, and I think we had a lot of success with that adaptation so they said, ‘Hey give these guys a shot at Children of Men because it seems to be one that’s not going anywhere.’ We just read it, and we said, ‘Oh my God! This is Casablanca!’ It’s the perfect love triangle. It fit that mold and that’s when they got excited and thought, ‘Wow this could actually be a film.’”

After two years of writing, Fergus & Otsby had a draft that was good enough to be sent to Alfonso Cuarón, a Mexican director of two widely praised but little seen Hollywood films: A Little Princess and Great Expectations. A low budget Spanish language feature he’d shot in his native country – Y Tu Mamá También – had yet to be released. Cuarón recalled, “The truth of the matter is I didn’t respond to the material. I was not interested in doing a science fiction film and also the book takes place in a very posh universe. I respect, I love P.D. James. I enjoy the book, but I couldn’t see myself making that movie. And, nevertheless, the premise of infertility kept on haunting me for weeks and weeks and weeks.” Cuarón was committed to shooting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but promised the producers he’d tackle The Children of Men next.

Children of Men, 2006, Clvie Owen

Ignoring the Fergus & Ostby draft – as well as one by David Arata, which Cuarón referred to as “a generic action movie” – the director co-wrote a script with Timothy Sexton, who was tasked with adapting the novel, while Cuarón sketched his own ideas for what he wanted in the movie. “When I started working on the film I met with the art department and they undusted all the old rejections from science fiction movies they had done, they were so excited to do this movie that took place in the future. They started showing me all these amazing things. Supersonic cars, buildings, gadgets and stuff and I was like, ‘You guys this is brilliant, but this is not the movie we’re doing. The movie we are doing is this,’ and I brought in my files. It was about Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Chernobyl and I said this is the movie we are doing. The rule I set is this movie is not about imagination, it is about reference.”

Referencing The Battle of Algiers and the lead actor in a movie they liked called Croupier, Cuarón & Sexton finished their adaptation and sent it to Clive Owen, who recalled, “He was very high on my ‘directors I would love to work with’ list and even some of his films that were not as commercially successful I think are very special. When he first sent me the script I wasn’t sure about the part, I didn’t quite know why he wanted me to do it. It’s a highly unusual lead part, you look at that character and there are very unusual traits that he’s got. It’s not the kind of part where you can do your thing as an actor, it’s about sacrificing yourself to Alfonso’s vision and not getting in the way of it, which seemed more important than doing any sort of acting.” Cuarón added, “I’m thankful that this movie didn’t happen before Harry Potter. For two years I was working on Harry Potter in London – which is very different from being a tourist. Suddenly, you’re inside and witnessing the social dynamic. I can’t claim to understand the Brits, but at least I witnessed the class system, for instance, and other subtle things.”

Children of Men, 2006, Michael Caine

With Cuarón’s freshly minted prestige and Julianne Moore, Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor joining the cast, Universal rolled the dice on Children of Men and its $72 million budget. Shooting commenced November 2005 in London. Cuarón recalled, “All the time we were shooting, we kept saying, ‘Let’s make it more Mexican’. In other words, we’d look at a location and then say: yes, but in Mexico there would be this and this. It was about making the place look rundown. It was about poverty.” Children of Men premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2006 before opening in the U.K. and Spain that same month. Universal bumped its release in the U.S. back to Christmas Day, supposedly so the picture could vie in awards contention.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Biz Blog wrote that the studio was in fact orphaning Children of Men. “While many critics were impressed by the film’s virtuosity and bravado, the industry types were seeing a downer film that was going to lose money. The movie is a brilliant exercise in style, but it’s another grim dystopian look at our future – like Blade Runner or Fahrenheit 451 – that simply cost too much money (between $72 and as much as $90 million, I’ve heard) to make a profit.” Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo said at the time. “These pictures tend to be box-office disappointments. A lot of them develop an audience later on television or DVD. They grow in esteem over time.”

Children of Men, 2006, Clive Owen

Critics wasted no time lavishing the film with acclaim. Manohla Dargis, the New York Times:Children of Men may be something of a bummer, but it’s the kind of glorious bummer that lifts you to the rafters, transporting you with the greatness of its filmmaking.” Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: “It’s a work of art that deserves a space cleared for its angry, nervous beauty.” Derek Elley, Variety: “Picture more than delivers on the action front – not in bang-for-your-buck spectacle but in the kind of gritty, doculike sequences that haul viewers out of their seats and alongside the main protags.” However, the overwhelmingly positive ink was not spun into box office gold.

Nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezi) and Best Film Editing (Alfonso Cuarón, Alex Rodriguez) – Children of Men was ignored on its release, grossing $35.5 million in the U.S. and $34 million overseas. Responding to an interviewer who mused that the film was too dark, Cuarón stated, “It pretty much depends on your own sense of hope. What we wanted to do at the end was to give a little glimpse of a possibility of hope. A very small glimpse. So you invest your own sense of hope in the story. After you go through this journey of what I consider to be the state of things, outside our green zones, then at the end is the question: Do we have a possibility of hope? I personally believe yes. Hopefully people believe that the movie is a very hopeful movie.”

Children of Men, 2006, Clare Hope Ashitey

Should I Care?
With bursts of documentary-like photorealism, Children of Men depicts one of the most subliminally disturbing visions of the future ever rendered to film. The only thing that doesn’t provoke a visceral reaction may be the pedestrian title, which P.D. James may have resorted to because Apocalypse Now was taken. “That movie really stayed with me” can be used to sum up any of the great films of a decade, but where Children of Men is most pronounced is in its verisimilitude. In this depiction of Things To Come, the future is not flying cars or robots. It’s Cuba. Fashion and technology have been frozen for 20 years. Infrastructure is in decay. Solders stand on every corner. Trash bags and stray dogs line the streets. Billboards advertise euthanasia kits under the brand name Quietus (“You decide where”) and remind citizens “Suspicious? Report all illegal immigrants”.

While the conceit that Theo would go on the run with Kee rather than hand her over to the authorities constitutes what is known as a plot hole, instead of being badgered by gaps in the narrative, I was absorbed by the reality of the environment being portrayed. The randomness of terrorist atrocities, suppression of human rights, impunity of death squads and dwindling flicker of hope bleed into a sort of nightmare you know you can wake up from, even though it seems a little too similar to the world we’re living in now. Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates not only technical virtuosity, but maintains a strong moral conscience in the story. Along with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and the art department, Children of Men may replace Blade Runner as the dystopia that other filmmakers rip off for the next 20 years.

© Joe Valdez

Children of Men, 2006

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Mistress of Morality Tales”
By Jan Dalley. The Independent, 20 September 1992

Children of Men Feature” Time Out London, 21 September 2006

“Alfonso Cuaron Discusses Children of Men
By Rebecca Murray., 20 December 2006

“Alfonso Cuaron on Children of Men By Brad Brevet. Rope of Silicon, 22 December 2006

“Tribeca Film Festival conversation with Mark Fergus”
11 February 2007

Tags: Alternate universe · Based on novel · Crooked officer · Cult favorite · End of the world · Interrogation · Shootout

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Nov 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

    This is one movie that really assaulted my senses on many levels. I’m so glad that they didn’t go with a more science fiction look. I felt that the look of the film made it seem much more real & plausible. The scene at the abandoned school between the nursemaid and Theo was both chilling and heart-wrenching. This film especially hit home for us because my only child (my daughter), had had chemo a few years before and the doctors told her it would probably destroy her ovaries. Fortunately, they were wrong and she is now expecting my first grandchild. Sadly, I know too many young women who have multiple miscarriages, who have hysterectomies early in life, or who find out they are infertile when they are young, so I can’t help but believe that this scenario may well be possible. But like the director said, “It pretty much depends on your own sense of hope.” I really want to hold onto that hope.

  • 2 Daniel // Dec 17, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    What a brilliant recollection of this movie – one that I haven’t seen since the theater. I had hoped you might make mention of the cinematic techniques they used, but the backstory of the production is really fascinating. I’d like to see this again soon, especially in light of the influence you astutely predict it will have.

  • 3 kelsy // May 22, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    I think this movie is just great. I’ve seen it twice, but seeing it in the theatre the first time was a very visceral experience for me. The combination of long takes and relatable sets, like Mrs. Thuro’s Mom said, gives it sense of reality that most futuristic movies don’t go for. This is also one of the few films I’ve seen that has made me cry in the theatre. For me, it’s a very moving and very hopeful film.

  • 4 Chuck // May 29, 2009 at 7:48 am

    “I like to think of This Distracted Globe as an Introduction to Contemporary Film class, so I don’t get into visual composition or Director As God all that much. ”

    That m.o. shows, and that’s why your site is a sweet relief from most ego-rampant movie sites.
    I don’t share the majority opinion of “Children of Men”, I think its a moderately involving chase movie with all the other stuff as window dressing. (Genre speaks deeper when it isn’t so obviously huffing and puffing for profundity.) But I agree that this might be the new sci-fi apocalypse template, no easy feat.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // May 29, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: Thanks for reminding me about the scene in the abandoned school. What sticks in my mind are the scenes with the death squad shooting people at will. In America we have to go see a movie for a scene like that, whereas Cuaron was obviously influenced by the huntas that operate in places like Africa or Central America with impunity.

    Daniel: Thanks for commenting. I like to think of This Distracted Globe as an Introduction to Contemporary Film class, so I don’t get into visual composition or Director As God all that much. I am always happy to suggest a great movie to add to your queue though and would enjoy reading about it on Getafilm.

    Kelsy: I don’t know whether I can say this movie is hopeful. I think it shows mankind devolving to our lowest levels maybe too effectively, but think do think it’s a great film for that reason. Thanks for commenting!

    Chuck: Thanks for that terrific compliment and reminding me that not everyone who visits this site is looking for pics of Phoebe Cates. As for Children of Men, I could almost agree with your assessment, but I do think the film moves so fast and strikes with such guerilla stealth that it never feels like the filmmakers are stopping to make a big message. I haven’t felt compelled to watch this movie ten times, but I think that’s because it’s so draining as opposed to coming across as profound.

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