Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Film Review: Children of Men

I was so unpleasantly astonished at the high production values and comparatively poor thought value behind Alfonso Cuaron's putatively-critical 2006 film, Children of Men, that I decided to write a quick review:

We all know that concerned, critical-minded people the world over want to see film better portray the problems of our world. And many of us know that the Hollywood film industry functions, for the most part, as a form of indirect propaganda (as opposed to the direct form of propaganda with which most are familiar) that reaffirms many of the establishment's viewpoints and ideological underpinnings. Those dissidents among us eagerly wait to see the gem of critical thought and subversion that slips through here and there. Hollywood sees that segment of the population (particularly after wildly successful response to films like "The Matrix"), and, as always, attempts to capture our "demographic's" collective hearts and minds with more recent films that have some of the characteristics, and some of the grittier content, of subversive art, but none of the subversive conclusions and implications.

In other words, Hollywood has been quickly seeking to do to the burgeoning independent film industry what it did with the 1960s-70s counterculture (and what the establishment naturally seeks to do to all culture); capture its flavor, distill it of undesirable political content, and commoditize it into profitable form that crowds out content by the less-ideologically-reliable independent film scene.

Children of Men is a highly, highly overrated piece that is indeed ideologically-reliable, and joins the chorus of voices in the establishment-approved film set encouraging us to adopt a deep, individualistic, to-hell-with-everyone cynicism, all the while stroking the egos of the burnt-out 60s-generation dropouts.

In terms of its storytelling and vision, it's hard to describe exactly how it falls flat. Beyond its very loaded message (more on that below), it is technically superb, with a cinéma vérité-ish feel, but it seems the filmmakers were, well, trying too hard. Trying too hard to fit in everything they could, with plenty of contemporary references stretched to the point of incredulity. Trying too hard to clone every intense scene taken by war photographers from Vietnam to the U.S.'s most recent imperial adventure in Iraq. Trying so hard to make it disjointed and senselessly random, which of course is how war really plays out, but in such a way as to bring it to the point of looking artlessly (as opposed to artfully) disjointed, and, well, rushed. Indeed, the whole film felt altogether rushed, with every possible shortcut taken to establish a depth that can only be false depth.

Politically and socially, it really seems to seek to appeal to burnt-out, cynical and (again) to-hell-with-it-all baby boomers, and is in places almost fawningly flattering to their self-view. Yes, here we have it: escapist baby boomers save the world, or humanity or whatever. After all, we're shown what we are encouraged to interpret as the foolishness and futility of political organization and action, and that, in the end, those resisting tyranny (the Left, of course) will always be just as bad as those they fight, and thus that just getting away from all those messed up people to some far away place (or, again, dropping out) is the solution.

Indeed, overall, the vision behind Children of Men seems to highly support a very denunciatory view of humanity, like those old hysterical nuclear war films that portray people descending on others and themselves in riotous, crazed frenzy, because, well, you-know-how-people-are. When disaster strikes, people's real nature comes out and they show their self-interested true selves.  The film's message is rather traditionally conservative in that regard.

Films like this "doth" protest too much. They are supportive of the old, self-serving conservative view of human nature. After all, if humankind tends toward whatever we define as evil, then social justice is silly and we should just accept injustice, firm social control, and a militaristic and exploitative social order as "necessary." But if humankind is more complex than that, and is not how the worst of us like to portray all of us, then such an order becomes a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a point to be considered with more political maturity than that shown in this film.

And if you felt more cynical and defeated, with a more dismal view of mankind's prospects for some better form of social existence, after watching the film, rest assured that such is no doubt the filmmakers' intent. It is, in the end, a political argument, and one that, as expected in any film that strives for mainstream legitimacy, attacks those who organize and resist the evils depicted in the film with as much disdain as it attacks those who perpetuate it.