Cuarón’s Hard Pill to Swallow: Dystopic Future Without Babies

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, from a screenplay by Mr. Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, from a screenplay by Mr. Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, is based on the futuristic sci-fi novel by P.D. James. If I had seen it before I compiled my “Movies Other People Liked and I Didn’t” list for 2006, it would have been a strong contender. I just don’t get it—which is to say that many reviewers took it very seriously as a commentary on our times, to say nothing of our dismal future, whereas by the time it was over, I felt that I could approach it only as pure farce. The world created by Mr. Cuarón and his collaborators—dystopia, schmystopia, as I like to say—is so laughably unbelievable, even as sci-fi fantasy, that I find it hard to write about with a straight face. Yet what I find particularly irksome about it is its pseudo-humanism and its calculating political correctness.

The year is 2027. England, of all places, has become the last refuge of a devastated and debilitated world, and by all the hyper-expressionistic evidence, it’s not proving to be much of a refuge for the polyglot masses swarming into it. Immigrants are being pursued and persecuted from one corner of the realm to the other, but one never sees any signs of normal existence, much less architectural manifestations of wealth and power. The big news in the Big Brother–ish electronic media is that humanity is slowly withering away because all the women have become barren. Exactly why the female of the species cannot give birth was never made entirely clear, at least to me—yet by the inexorable laws of the genre, a succession of enormous human follies was obviously responsible, beginning no doubt with Iraq.

Theo (Clive Owen), the strangely passive protagonist, is a one-time political activist who, when his girlfriend (Julianne Moore) walks out on him with no explanation, loses interest in the movement. This mini-biography is parceled out to us in dribs and drabs over the course of an endless (and endlessly scenic) excursion into the ruins of a dying civilization. Actually, we first see Theo going to work in his soul-destroying bureaucratic job, albeit with civil-service benefits. Everywhere he walks, there are enormous posters proclaiming the existence of something called “The Human Project,” a nonsensical government program under the circumstances.

Clearly, compelling characterization isn’t going to be one of the film’s priorities, despite no less than five writing credits. Mr. Owen, for example, has never had a part as colorless and as hapless as he has here. The emphasis throughout is on mise-en-scène over narrative. In this respect, Emmanuel Lubezki’s virtuoso single-take cinema-tography dazzles the eye but demeans the actors as it thrusts them into one grotesquely angular composition after another, just to demonstrate how completely shattered the cityscape has become.

After a while, one stops caring what the characters are saying—once they can stop dodging bullets long enough to engage in conversation. In this always-perilous atmosphere, when a seeming pack of hoodlums kidnaps Theo on his way to work and hustles him into a van, we have been conditioned to expect at least a good beating waiting for him at the end of the van’s journey. But no such luck for action-movie freaks: When Theo’s blindfold is removed, he discovers that he is in the hands of old associates in the resistance movement—led by an old comrade (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Theo’s old girlfriend—who want him to use his government contacts to secure some exit papers for a piece of precious human cargo. When Theo discovers that this precious cargo is an amazingly (under the circumstances) pregnant young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey), he is emotionally energized to the point of becoming obsessed with getting this young Madonna out of the country safely. But he is beset by indiscriminate violence—wielded not only by the relentless government security forces, but by the undisciplined underground fighters as well.

About the only characters with whom Theo can speak freely are his old girlfriend and an old fellow hippie (Michael Caine), and he loses them both fairly early on in his messianic travels and travails. The chases, such as they are, are grotesquely abstract. At one point, Theo is trying to escape from his pursuers by pushing a car—the motor of which he cannot start—down a small hill and then running after it like the hilarious characters in Little Miss Sunshine. And the film ends up drowning in its tortured symbolism, with two of the characters occupying a small rowboat in what seems like a small lake. Many people found this ending spiritually inspiring; I found it depressingly pretentious. I was particularly disappointed because I greatly admired Mr. Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001). Alas, different genre, different results.

A Bit Much

Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl, from her own screenplay, may have bitten off more than it can chew with its convoluted narrative structure: multiple discrete episodes involving several women who are linked only by the corpse of a dead girl. Toni Collette’s Arden discovers the body in a field in Southern California. Arden is the morbidly repressed daughter of a shrewishly cackling invalid mother (Piper Laurie). After discovering the body and notifying the police, Arden becomes a minor celebrity in the town, much to the disgust of her mother. When Arden agrees to go out on a date with a sexually aggressive grocery worker, she perversely proposes that he tie her up and rape her. When he hesitates, she resignedly agrees to a round of old-fashioned consensual sex, after which she decides to run off with him and abandon her mother to the tender mercies of the authorities.

Leah (Rose Byrne) works in the county morgue, and she hopes against hope that the dead girl is her long-lost missing sister, whose discovery—even in this ghoulish context—would enable Leah to get on with her own life. This she does anyway, after a fashion, with a lab co-worker from the morgue, with whom she participates in a graphically lurid one-night stand.

The most startling characterization is that of Mary Beth Hurt’s Ruth as the neglected but still grouchily dutiful wife of the serial killer responsible for the dead girl’s murder. Discovering the dead girl’s underwear, along with that of his other victims, in one of her husband’s storage bins, Ruth burns the piled-up garments in a huge bonfire, which becomes almost surreal in its significance after she throws her own clothes into the purifying flames, leaving herself luminously naked.

Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) is the dead girl’s mother, who ends up befriending her late daughter’s roommate, a prostitute named Rosetta (Kerry Washington)—who, in turn, enables Melora to discover her own previously unsuspected granddaughter in a seedy day-care center and take her home. Finally, the dead girl herself—Brittany Murphy’s Krista, a carefree, hard-bitten prostitute—comes to belated life in a flashback involving Rosetta’s pimp, whom she beats up after he abuses her roommate. Krista brings the film’s gloom-and-doom-laden narrative full circle when she later hitches a ride with Ruth’s well-mannered husband, the serial killer.

Mary Steenburgen, the mother of another missing daughter, rounds out Ms. Moncrieff’s female cast of immensely talented actresses of a certain age that currently finds more favor in French movies than in the mostly male-oriented Hollywood product (not to mention its carefully targeted teenage spectators). The connecting male presences in the troubled lives of Ms. Moncrieff’s female protagonists are expertly provided by Giovanni Ribisi, James Franco, Bruce Davison, Nick Searcy, Josh Brolin, Christopher Allen Nelson and Dennis Keifer.

It is perhaps no accident that the dead girl, a prostitute, is provocatively named Krista: Like the black Madonna in Children of Men, she partakes of a humanistic form of Jesus freakdom.

Nonetheless, Ms. Moncrieff’s ambitious second film is a bit of a disappointment after the promise shown in her more tightly structured debut effort, Blue Car (2002), with Agnes Bruckner as a sensitive adolescent who sublimates the pain of her father’s abandonment by writing poetry for her English teacher (David Strathairn), an initially platonic father-figure who eventually—and guiltily—crosses the line that separates teacher and (underage) student, yet without destroying either the budding poet or the still-resilient adolescent.

These days, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, one can fairly easily revisit Ms. Moncrieff’s Blue Car and Mr. Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También to see where both of these talented directors went wrong in 2006.

Not Their Best

Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, from a screenplay by Mr. Zhang, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong, has been freely adapted from a popular and critically acclaimed 1930’s play, Thunder Storm by Cao Yu, in which the disintegration of an industrial tycoon’s family is depicted as the inevitable outgrowth of his failed marriage. Thus, Curse of the Golden Flower is an operatic period piece with more than its share of martial-arts wizardry uneasily combined with the dangling, expansive narrative strands of a 1930’s-style family drama. To put a point to it, the lavish period costumes, operatic mise-en-scène and ceremonial grandeur of Curse of the Golden Flower clashes fatally with the nuanced nastiness of modern marital discord, as fueled by the rivalries and hatreds raging among jealous and envious children and stepchildren traumatized by the chasm widening between their homicidally inclined parents.

The setting and period is China during the later Tang Dynasty of the 10th century. Golden flowers festoon the halls and courtyards of the Imperial Palace for the Chong Yang Festival—celebrated to this day in China every year on the ninth day of the ninth month, September. With Rockettes-like precision, Busby Berkeley–style choreographed platoons of courtiers, maids and eunuchs sweep and swarm through the palace, endlessly cleaning up the place to prepare it for the Chong Yang Festival, which is being staged this year ostensibly to celebrate the reunion of the Imperial Family after a long separation. The actual truth concealed behind all of the pomp and ceremony, beneath all the blossoming golden chrysanthemums, is a spider web of intra-family conspiracy.

Inside the palace, the Empress (Gong Li), her youngest son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), and her stepson, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), await the return of the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and Prince Jai (Jay Chou), the middle of three princes. Battle-hardened Jai has been serving his father by leading an army to secure the Empire’s northern borders, and, after joining their two armies, the Emperor and Jai will march together to the Imperial Palace for the increasingly ominous Chong Yang Festival.

To say that all is not well within the palace is a gross understatement. The Empress is fully aware that the Emperor is slowly poisoning her via her prescribed herbal medicine. She knows also that she cannot refuse to drink this strong black liquid without her disobedience being reported back to him.

The Empress has other problems as well. She is disturbed to learn that Prince Wan, the son of the Emperor and his supposedly deceased first wife, plans to depart from the Imperial Palace for a new post in a provincial capital. Unbeknownst to the Emperor, Wan has been the Empress’ secret lover for three years. As the Empress ritualistically continues her seemingly endless embroideries of golden chrysanthemums, she closely observes her two sons and her stepson as they maneuver for the succession to the Imperial throne, at times murderously.

When the Emperor confers with his chief herbalists, the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) and the doctor’s daughter and apprentice, Chan (Li Man), we learn that he has recently ordered, as an addition to his wife’s herbal remedy, a black mushroom that will certainly poison her. The plot thickens and darkens like the loathsome herbal liquid the Empress must drink every day. First, a mysterious figure in black brings the black mushroom to the Empress to prove that she is being poisoned. When this mysterious figure is apprehended by Prince Wan as a possible assassin, she is revealed to be not only the wife of the Emperor’s physician, but also the Emperor’s first wife, whom he has ruthlessly discarded in order to satisfy his dynastic ambitions with his current wife.

Meanwhile, the Empress hasn’t been idle; indeed, she has planned a coup d’état against the Emperor with her warrior son. Much blood will be shed before the Emperor can finally preside at the Chong Yang Festival—he momentarily triumphant, the Empress eternally defiant, and all the debris of the bloody carnage carefully swept away by the ever-efficient army of courtiers, maids and eunuchs. Gong Li and Zhang Yimou have done much better work before, both together and separately, in careers that began jointly almost 20 years ago with Red Sorghum (1987). As for the immensely talented Chow Yun Fat as the Emperor, I felt that he played his part with too much sympathy-inducing authority to convey all the corrupt ambition at work in this chaotic period in Chinese history. Cuarón’s Hard Pill to Swallow:  Dystopic Future Without Babies