Friday, January 12, 2007

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men is one of the best dystopian environments ever realized on film. What's more, the portrayal of that environment so thoroughly seeps into your bones as to make the movie it contains that much better. By the time the movie reaches its climactic passages, it becomes an almost emotionally overwhelming experience, a bleak ode to taking action against unbearable policies and ideas.

In his review of the film, my House Next Door editor and colleague Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Children of Men is all technical exercise, no statement on the universe conveyed through that technical exercise (I paraphrase, of course; go read his excellent review for a mixed positive take on the film). In his piece, Seitz says friend (and fellow HND colleague) Keith Uhlich said the film's extended use of long, single-shot takes that follow Clive Owen's hero, Theo, from just behind and over-the-shoulder reminded him of a video game. While I think Seitz and Uhlich are viewing this as a bad thing, I think it's part of the key to understanding what Cuaron is up to in the film.

But to get to that, we have to talk a little about video game narrative and how it involves the audience (or doesn't involve them).

The gaming experience is different from almost any other artistic experience in how it forces the audience to identify with the narrative. In most artistic experiences, the audience is held at arm's length -- we may identify with the main character (or read ourselves into the work somehow), but we have to remain spectators. There's no way we can break through and, say, BECOME Elizabeth Bennett or Tony Soprano or the third skeleton from the right in Bosch's Triumph of Death.

But video games flip that paradigm on its head. Obviously, since you're watching a video game and not immersed in it completely, you remain a spectator. But you're also a participant in the action. The sprite that you're observing -- even in something as simple as Pong -- becomes, in a real way, YOU. There's still a level of remove from the experience itself, but you're in charge. The question becomes, what are YOU going to do next? Here comes the ball/enemy/power pellet. What are you gonna do?

Video games are becoming more and more immersive, too (though the leaps and bounds made from Pong to Pac-Man to Super Mario Bros. and so on are slowing, naturally coming to a stopping point dictated by the uncanny valley). The original perspective was from the top, looking down on the characters at a bit of a skewed angle. Gradually, that changed so we were looking at the characters from the side. Then, as 3D became more popular, we were right up next to the characters or even inside their heads. The level of identification became more and more pronounced.

I think the reason Children of Men has been so popular with younger critics (especially ones on the Internet) isn't because of a fully realized world that's tucked away in the edges of the frames (though there is that) but because it uses this video game-styled imagery to advocate for political activism. This is not to say that those outside of the "Nintendo generation" "just don't get it" or anything so diminutive as that; it's just to say that for a generation that has just sort of accepted gaming as a part of its life, this stuff is buried so deep in our subconscious that we know it backwards and forwards.

(Note: Some have commented that the footage of Theo wandering through his world and getting trapped in increasingly harrowing situations seems like embedded journalism from the front in Iraq. I won't argue with that, but I've long thought that THAT footage resembled a video game too.)

One of the complaints of critics of Children of Men is that it tosses in a laundry list of traditional lefty complaints, dropping in broad imagery that extends from whiffs of Guantanamo to fears of illegal immigrants, but never really does anything with those complaints, using them, instead, to tweak the audience, attempt to galvanize it emotionally by using potent political imagery without preparing to comment on it or discuss it in any real way (even within the film's dystopic universe where all women are infertile). But the imagery DOES comment on those issues just by using the gaming aesthetics.

In some ways, the use of the frustratingly limited perspective -- stuck on Theo -- resembles the limited range of concerns Theo has when the film starts -- he's mostly interested in self-preservation and drinking. As the film goes on, Theo's world becomes wider as he tries to protect the first pregnant woman in 18 years from leftist terrorists and a brutally fascist government. The baby, he feels, should be above politicizing. But the camera remains frustratingly closed in on Theo, stuck right over his shoulder. His worldview has broadened; ours hasn't.

And that's the genius of Cuaron's work here. By forcing us into the video game perspective, he rather makes the camera man (and by proxy, us) a character in the movie. We want to see more as the film goes on, not only to protect Theo, but also because we want to know what's going to happen to those hooded prisoners or to the various illegal immigrants -- we want our worst fears confirmed so we can have an emotional reaction like Theo is having. But the film doesn't allow us that emotional reaction. It wants to prompt us, rather, to have a similar sociopolitical reaction to our OWN culture.

All of the visual quotes Cuaron does of our current political scene are there to galvanize us into preventing the dystopia the film warns about. Obviously women aren't going to stop having babies anytime soon, but is it really so far off the mark that a brutal crackdown on illegal immigrants could leave them in refugee camps? Cuaron is saying that we, all of us right-thinking, politically inactive people, are like Theo -- concerned mostly with self-preservation. By using a perspective we're used to from art that draws us into it, he's asking what we're going to do about the things around the edges. The things we try to ignore.

All of this theorizing about narrative devices and video gaming shouldn't prevent you from seeing this movie. It's a fine piece of science fiction, and its action scenes are among the best of the decade. The acting is top notch across the board (particularly from Michael Caine and Owen), and the denouement is as draining as it is hopeful.

But the real reason to see it is to get rid of your own limited range of vision. Look at all this crap out there in the world, Cuaron is saying. Somebody needs to do something about it.

So you. What are you gonna do?

(Coming soon: Letters from Iwo Jima and Pan's Labyrinth. And check out this blog, which may be the oddest thing I've ever seen on the Internet, featuring a collective of commentors who gather together every day to play out the back stories of For Better or for Worse comic strips with bizarre and hilarious results.)

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