In Retrospect – Children Of Men (2006)

If the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7 are the defining moments of this young century, then Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men could arguably be cinema’s most defining response.

Although in essence about a society falling apart due to the fact no children have been born for 18 years, Cuarón’s loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel is more a parable on the fear of the ‘other’ that has spread since those dreadful events of September 2001.

A truly astounding cinematic experience, Alfonso Cuarón's Children Of Men is profound filmmaking that will shock and awe in equal measure

A truly astounding cinematic experience, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men is profound filmmaking that will shock and awe in equal measure

Refugees, "hunted down like cockroaches" in Children Of Men

Refugees, “hunted down like cockroaches” in Children Of Men

It is also a story of hope and thinly veiled spirituality that sees former activist turned cynical salaryman Theo Faron (Clive Owen) embarking on a perilous journey of redemption to help save the human race from its own destruction.

Set in 2027 Britain, Theo is offered money by his estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) – leader of a radical group fighting to protect immigrants’ rights called the Fishes – to escort refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to the coast. Theo discovers just how important she is to the future of humanity, but must evade both government forces and terrorists if they are to survive.

Julian (Julianne Moore) spells it out to estranged husband Theo (Clive Owen) in Children Of Men

Julian (Julianne Moore) spells it out to estranged husband Theo (Clive Owen) in Children Of Men

Children Of Men is unlike any science fiction film you’ve seen before. While most sci-fi wallows in high concept special effects and extravagant production design, Cuarón adopts an immersive vérité style to show a London on the verge of collapse. The pre-credits scene sets up the film perfectly. As customers in a packed cafe watch TV with despair at the news of the death ‘Baby’ Diego, the world’s youngest person, Theo absent-mindedly buys his coffee and walks out onto a busy London street dominated by piled-up rubbish, run-down public transport and rickshaws. His apathy towards Baby Diego’s death saves his life, however, as seconds later the shop is torn apart by an explosion triggered by the Fishes.

Ageing hippie Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), no relation to Harry Palmer, in Children Of Men

Ageing hippie Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), no relation to Harry Palmer, in Children Of Men

The UK, as we learn from government propaganda proudly stating “only Britain soldiers on”, is one of the few countries that hasn’t tipped over into outright anarchy. Society nevertheless seems on the brink of collapse. Refugees desperate to flee the chaos that has gripped much of the world have landed on British shores, only to be met by a police state that “hunts them down like cockroaches”, according to Theo’s friend, ageing anti-establishment hippie Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine).

Theo (Clive Owen) fights for survival in Children Of Men

Theo (Clive Owen) fights for survival in Children Of Men

The masses are told to remain suspicious of immigrants (bringing to mind Cold War East Germany) and walk around in a ghostly daze seemingly resigned to humanity’s gradual extinction. This is nicely observed when Theo goes to see his government minister cousin Nigel who, when asked why he still ‘rescues’ works of art when no-one will be around to appreciate them, responds: “I just don’t think about it.”

Senior rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Children Of Men

Senior rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Children Of Men

Cuarón pointedly evokes the holocaust in such provocative and chilling images as refugees staring hopelessly out of caged buses heading for the nightmarish concentration camp located in the former seaside town of Bexhill. In addition, piles of burning cattle bring to mind the apocalyptic scenes seen in Britain during the foot and mouth outbreak.

The use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound is masterfully handled by Cuarón. The sound of attack dogs seems to echo in every frame, while John Taverner’s elegiac, passionately spiritual Fragments of a Prayer is introduced at key moments in the film.

Children Of Men isn’t devoid of humour, however. While society falls apart, ceremonial traditions such as the Royal Horse Guard’s trot down The Mall are still observed. Theo also wears a faded London 2012 top, which is given a blackly ironic twist as it would have been the first Olympics to take place after babies stopped being born. The film isn’t afraid to throw in a few fart gags too.

Theo (Clive Owen) leads Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety in Children Of Men

Theo (Clive Owen) leads Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety in Children Of Men

Owen has never been better as Theo, a reluctant hero who steps up to become Joseph to Kee’s Mary almost in spite of himself. The stellar supporting cast elevate the film, including the always-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor as Julian’s right-hand man Luke, Ashley’s confused and frightened Kee and Pam Ferris as Fishes member Miriam, a former midwife who gets one of the movie’s most eloquent lines when she observes “very odd what happens in a world without children’s voices”.

Children Of Men‘s most indelible moments come during several bravura one-take shots. An ingeniously filmed chase sequence shot entirely within a car containing Theo, Julian, Luke, Miriam and Kee is chaotic, shocking and astonishing, while a tracking shot of Bexhill being turned into ground zero in the fight between government forces and the rebels is nothing short of extraordinary. You’ll be shaking your head at how Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pull it off.

Cuarón wisely avoids delving too directly into the causes of the mass sterility, although the theological subtext of the film (the struggle to ensure a child is born to save humanity from itself) suggests divine intervention. A truly astounding cinematic experience, Children Of Men is profound filmmaking that will shock and awe in equal measure.

Review – Oblivion

The argument that original ideas in Hollywood are a rare beast is pretty difficult to refute if Tom Cruise’s slick, but highly derivative new slice of dystopian sci-fi is anything to go by.

However visually dazzling and ambitious Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion is, it ultimately gets lost in a void of its own making

However visually dazzling and ambitious Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is, it ultimately gets lost in a void of its own making

Director Joseph Kosinski has followed up the visually resplendent Tron: Legacy with another sumptuous spectacle that uses smoke and mirrors to deft effect to disguise its shortcomings.

Kosinski has openly admitted the stream of serious, pre-Star Wars sci-fi films made in the first half of the 1970s – in particular Silent Running, The Omega Man and Soylent Green – were a major influence on the look and feel he wanted for Oblivion.

"I know you don't I?" Julia (Olga Kurylenko) is questioned by Jack (Tom Cruise) in Oblivion

“I know you don’t I?” Julia (Olga Kurylenko) is questioned by Jack (Tom Cruise) in Oblivion

However, there are also glaring nods to Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Total Recall and, more recently Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon and the Pixar classic Wall-E.

Set in 2077, Cruise plays Jack Harper, who we learn in a long opening voiceover is part of “the mop-up crew” alongside partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) for an Earth half-destroyed by an invading alien force 60 years previously. The war against the aliens, we are told, was won, but the planet was ravaged beyond saving and Jack and Victoria are preparing to rejoin what remains of humanity on Saturn’s largest moon Titan.

Their only contact with home is through a glitchy feed to Mission Control (Melissa Leo), who seeks regular assurances they remain “an effective team”. Jack is tasked with maintaining gun-wielding drones (a cross between Robocop‘s ED-209 and the robots from the classic Commodore 64 computer game Paradroid) which hunt down alien “scavengers”, but is haunted by a nagging memory that threatens to undermine everything he believes.

One of the many stunning shots in Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion

One of the many stunning shots in Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion

There’s no doubt Kosinski (previously attached to a remake of another 1970s sci-fi classic Logan’s Run) has an eye for a memorable shot. Indeed, there are times when what you’re looking at takes your breath away, most indelibly when Jack is sat atop a mountain looking out onto a beautifully ravaged landscape (in reality Iceland). His ambitions have been given life thanks to the remarkable work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who won an Oscar for Life of Pi, and Darren Gilford’s incredible production design.

Victoria (Andrea Risedborough), one half of an effective team in Oblivion

Victoria (Andrea Risedborough), one half of an effective team in Oblivion

Kosinski also has a cool ear, having secured French dance pioneers Daft Punk to score Tron: Legacy and fellow electro-inclined Frenchies M83 to provide a Vangelis/Hans Zimmer-esque epic sci-fi soundtrack here.

A charge levelled at science fiction of this ilk is that it can come across as cold and aloof to the viewer and, unfortunately, Oblivion fails to avoid that trap. Stunning visuals do not a great film make and somewhere along the line an engaging and logical narrative got lost amid the search for the next jaw-dropping shot.

Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), Kara (Zoë Bell) and Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in Oblivion

Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), Kara (Zoë Bell) and Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in Oblivion

No stranger to dystopian sci-fi following Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and criminally underrated War of the Worlds, Cruise does his best to find a fully rounded human being in Jack Harper but is let down by a disappointing script co-written by Kosinski.

Olga Kurylenko is given little to do as the enigmatic Julia, while Morgan Freeman and Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are entirely wasted as leading figures in the film’s dubious and confused second half. The real standout is Riseborough, who injects empathy and humanity into what could easily have been a cardboard cut-out role in lesser hands.

Serious, cerebral moviemaking on a sizeable budget is something of a rarity these days, but however visually dazzling and ambitious Oblivion is, it ultimately gets lost in a void of its own making.