Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Strawberry Cough Amidst The Screams

It took long enough, but I finally got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” last Friday and I’m glad I did. What a fine piece of storytelling.
The movie is set in the not-too-distant future (please, no singing the theme song of MST3K) where for some reason human beings aren’t having babies anymore. Anarchy runs amok because the world has lost hope. The madness of the species is so ramped-up that it’s inconceivable there will even be a last human being at the burnt out candle end of humanity’s life (to paraphrase Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree”) dying of old age because this degree of chaos will leave no-one alive to reach old age. In fact, the government even encourages extinction by distributing euthanasia drugs for free and crushing political or social opposition with wanton slaughter. As the movie lurches on, the picture painted is of a world is so full of violence and despair it could only be more bleak if Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” had been included in the soundtrack. In the middle of all this, the protagonist, Theo Faron (played with great control and feeling by Clive Owen) is roped into helping his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) smuggle a girl out of a totalitarian Britain. What makes the girl special is that she’s the first woman in years to a) get pregnant; and b) successfully carry the child to term.
Now, there are those who took potshots at Cuaron early on for altering the story or reconceptualizing that laid out in the original novel by P.D. James. But I don’t think that’s fair. Admittedly, I haven’t read James’ book yet. But I’ve never subscribed to the theory that a movie that’s based on a novel has to be exactly the same as its forebear. I think deviation is perfectly acceptable as long as the movie’s storytelling can stand strongly on its own. Take Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” (the Director’s Cut, naturally). Quite a few deviations from Philip K. Dick’s original “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, but a truly brilliant story in its own right. Same with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While Jackson tried to stay close to Tolkien’s masterpiece, he did do some tinkering and it did work. In fact, I’d argue that there are some cases where the film is actually better than the text that inspired it. Case in point (you might want to look away if you’re a slave to the canon): John Harrison’s Sci-Fi Channel production “Frank Herbert’s Dune”. While I enjoyed reading Herbert’s “Dune”, and have done so several times, Harrison’s tribute is more fluid with characters who are more believable. To be fair, many movie adaptations flop – like David Lynch’s take on “Dune” – but Cuaron’s film isn’t one of them.
Getting back to “Children of Men”, one thing I noticed was that it resembles Don McKeller’s quieter, much lower budget, but non-the-less high-quality “Last Night”. Both films take an orgy of violence as a given for the backdrop for the fall of humanity caused by some force of nature we’re seemingly powerless to stop. And yet, in the midst of it all, both films are about hope and redemption.
In the final six hours left to McKellar’s world, society is but a memory as mobs party in the middle of highways, youth kill because they can, suicide pacts are made, the incompetent take centre stage, families turn their backs on their fellow man and hipsters dive head-first into every hedonistic whim they can conceive of – all because there’s no point in self control when the end has arrived. And yet there are still moments of humanity - “music in the dark” as Sheridan and Kosh would say on “Babylon 5”. Sandra Oh’s character is willing to walk the length of the city to try to reunite with her husband. McKellar’s widower gives in to his better nature and puts his self-indulgent moping aside to help her, reconnecting with humanity and compassion and rediscovering purpose. A power company employee stays behind at the office to make sure the lights stay on right up until the end – or at least, until the prospect of one last passionate connection comes up moments before the final flash. The ubiquitous radio station DJ stays at his post too. And in the end, Oh and McKellar’s odyssey brings them together in a kind of determined love.
Similarly in “Children of Men”, Clive Owen’s character is literally yanked out of his alcoholic slump of depression over the loss of his long-dead son when he’s kidnapped at the behest of his ex-wife who needs his help to smuggle the girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) out from under the government’s nose to the safety of the scientists of “the Human Project” aboard their ship where she can have her baby. For all intents and purposes, Theo Faron goes from being dead to resurrected. In some ways, the “Strawberry Cough” strain of marijuana bred by Faron’s hippy father (played wonderfully by Michael Caine) is a metaphor for what happens to the protagonist – while the initial reaction to the experience is a harsh cough, it surprises him with a forgotten sweetness that makes him sit up and take notice. Amidst the deafening explosions, loss of his old life and loved ones and the constant terror of being hunted on all sides, Owen’s character is forced to truly live – to think quickly and protect and care for people other than himself. This film is not so much about the deathknells of a species or the birthpangs of a new hope for civilization as it is about a man’s rediscovery of himself and reconnection to other people.
Some critics have argued that both the film and the book suffer because their founding premise, that human beings are not having babies, is inconsistent with current trends in biotechnology and computer science which will likely offer a number of solutions to this kind of problem in the very near future. These could come in the form of cloning, genetic engineering, consciousness uploads into individual computers or entire consensual software realities, cybernetic replacements, life prolongment (perhaps indefinitely) through drug or retrovirus cocktails or nanotechnology, or a host of other possibilities.Fine. The story doesn’t take good old-fashioned human ingenuity in the face of extinction into account. So what? What’s important though is that despite a flimsy premise, the film tells a good story about human drama. And when there are so many stories out there based on rock-solid premises, but which suffer from boring or one-dimensional characters interacting with their world and each other in uninteresting, unbelievable or unsatisfying ways, personally, I’ll take the good yarn with the shaky starting supposition.
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