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There is no shortage of dystopian futures wrecked by nuclear fallout or zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) as every year studios churn out end-of-the-world films as if they were on a deadline. To do something different though is to take a step away from the clichés and risk breaking expectations, of which the standards have been growing steadily lower thanks to some spectacularly off-base big budget blockbusters such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow to name only a few.
Some though do take up the reigns per se and offer up something unique, and while themes persist, themselves trappings of the genre, they nonetheless break from the norm and actually challenge their audiences. Children of Men is one such film, based on the P. D. James 1992 novel of the same name, giving perhaps the most intriguing reason yet for how civilization potentially comes to an end. And there’s not a single alien in it. At least from outer space.
Directed by Academy Award-winner Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Children of Men is a startlingly grim and authentic film that follows a man named Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a former activist living in the United Kingdom. It is the year 2027, eighteen years since global infertility has brought the world to its knees, with war and strife (and yes, even nuclear fallout, though no zombies). England has become a police state, and in panic, is rounding up and holding (basically imprisoning) immigrants.
Theo’s eventually kidnapped by a radical group of activists led by Theo’s estranged wife, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), with whom he had a son named Dylan, though not for long. These are not good times. Theo is offered a large sum of money to get special transit papers for a young refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who Theo eventually learns is particularly special, and once he acquires the papers discovers she must travel only with a companion through the ravaged and conflict-heavy streets of the city. Guess who gets that job?
Meanwhile, we meet through Theo a man named Jasper (Michael Caine), his pot dealer and good friend who lives like a hermit with his ill wife. This is where Theo can hideaway from it all and we become familiar with Jasper, a former political cartoonist who is also a bit of a conspiracy theorist, believing in UFOs and a thing called the ‘Human Project’, a supposed group of top thinkers and scientists working in the Azores for a cure to infertility. Few believe him. It is with this character – one of the best supporting roles in Caine’s long career – where the film earns its greatest moment, despite two incredible action scenes that have come to be the movie’s calling card.
So about those two action sequences. Yes, they are truly incredible, visually-stunning and crucial to the story, one being a remarkable moment in a car that is attacked on a lonely stretch of back country road that became the director’s signature for years after, and another moment in the middle of a battle that is, well, something you have to see to believe. It’s stunning. Either way, these moments are sensational and remain with the viewer long after the often distressing film is over.
That said, a moment with Jasper deserves closer inspection and is in many ways more important than any other in the movie. As mentioned, Jasper lives in an isolated compound of sorts, all access heavily-fenced and extremely well-hidden. He is security conscious and distrustful of most. Except Theo. When Theo, now traveling with Kee and Kee’s protector Miriam (Pam Ferris), are on the run, they head to Jasper to try and lay low.
While there, Jasper takes good care of them and offers them assistance in making it to their destination, but before long, his property is discovered by the people chasing Theo and Kee. It’s a moment of crushing truth. This little Eden is now spoiled and they are soon to be caught. With no options, Theo, Kee and Miriam race to the car, expecting Jasper and his wife to follow suit, but when that time comes, Jasper declines and says the two are staying behind. Theo reels.
A short debate is quelled by the urgency of the situation and Jasper’s fierce determination to stay, something we don’t understand at first. With great regret, Theo and the women hastily speed up and out of the hollow where the house is hidden and take a position atop a high road where Theo pops out to see what happens at the house. What he sees confirms much about what he has slowly come to believe is true.
What we see and Theo doesn’t though is a choice Jasper makes inside the house with his wife just before the thugs arrive, one that is the most poignant and emotionally damaging in a film already heavy with so much wreckage it aches to watch. What Theo does see though is Jasper’s fate, watching from the trees far above the house and it motivates him like nothing before, even that of Kee. This is a turning point and it comes together in truly magnificent ways.
First, Caine. Here’s a guy who has been at the job since the 1950s and in these last few decades has proven himself one of the great elder statesmen in the business, earning legions of fans for his work in Christopher Nolan films and more. Here, he is practically unrecognizable in hippie long grey hair and beard, his clothes a far cry from the neatly-pressed suits of his many other famous roles. He is Jasper and he charms and smiles and talks his way into one of the best reasons to watch the movie.
Naturally, if you know anything about Cuarón, there’s a lot to take in, visually. When you watch this scene, look closely at the small movements and what is in frame as things unfold. The camera is nearly organic and Cuarón uses it to allow dialogue to continue while we learn more just by looking. Notice a brilliant shot that watches Theo drive away while we look from inside the house, the camera tracking left to right and with it ending on Jasper’s wife, with a very important box in the foreground that says everything we need to know about what is happening.
This is all about Jasper, a man well old enough to know the world before the infertility crisis, who once had a strong voice against the establishment but now hides in the forest escaping it. Jasper is a crucial character, a figure who is both wise and wary, realizing that while there is chaos in all corners, there is no end to the fight for humanity and dignity. In a world gone mad, dreary and grey, its population clothed in shades of a closing abyss, he is like a beacon, his white wizard-like hair a signal of hope, even if there seems none. And that is why this moment is so important. With Jasper’s actions, he demonstrate all aspects of these traits, allowing and contributing to the struggle to save humankind while giving grace and dignity to those who can’t move on. Jasper staying behind is beautiful image and a great cinematic moment.