Children of Children of Men

In 2006, Alfonso Cuarón took the prestige he had earned off of his breakout hit Y Tú Mama Tambien and his work on the Harry Potter franchise to make a risky, ambitious project: an adaptation of P. D. James’ sci-fi novel The Children of Men. While the film still stands out for a number of reasons — the prescient dystopian setting, Clive Owen’s exasperated performance, the desperate tone punctuated by black humor — it was one key element that ended up garnering significant attention and acclaim. Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki opted to shoot most of the film’s big setpieces not in the then-popular hypercut, “shaky-cam” style but rather using long takes where the cameraman becomes all but a participant in the action. While Cuarón was hardly the first to utilize ultra-long takes for action — Johnnie To had utilized one for Breaking News just two years earlier, and Hard Boiled used a mammoth one as far back as 1992 — Cuarón and Lubezki’s persistent usage combined with the elaborate on-screen choreography made Children of Men feel like a watershed moment for this particular aesthetic. The film was acclaimed, and while it fared poorly at the box office, its reputation has arguably only improved in the years since: the BBC placed it in sixteenth place on their best-of-the-century-so-far list in 2016.

There’s one catch, though: Children of Men became influential.

That might not sound like a problem on the surface (and it probably doesn’t keep Cuarón up at night) but influence does have a long-term effect on a film’s reputation. Sometimes, we get a Psycho or 2001, where the film receives mixed reviews but has such an immediate, recognizable influence on cinema that a reevaluation wave comes around. But there’s also an awful lot of Pulp Fictions and The Matrixes, where — especially in the worlds of independent cinema, digital video, and the internet — the influence becomes oversaturation. How many people do you know who dislike Tarantino? If the answer is none, please get some different friends, but if the answer is “a lot,” how many of them don’t dislike his movies but his influence? Influence not just on the minds of insufferable college students, but on the endless stream of movies, television, and video games that try to ape his mix of digressive conversation and brutal violence but lack his wit, obsessive cinephilia, and especially his talent? This isn’t to suggest that one can’t have any genuine issues with his work (or any influential film for that matter) but there’s no denying that a wave of imitation — especially bad imitation — can hurt the legacy of a work of art.

Case in point, Children of Men. There has been a growing counter-consensus in the past few years regarding the film’s long takes; at the time, the film’s olympic “oners” were genuinely novel to most viewers; fourteen years later (and with an assist from improving CGI) there’s no shortage of impressive tracking shots. La La Land had one. Atomic Blonde had one. 1917 and Birdman (the latter also lensed by Lubezki) used trickery to look like they (primarily) unfolded in one take. Victoria actually did unfold in one — not the first, as Russian Ark got there thirteen years earlier — but running an hour longer, it’s still an impressive achievement. Even television got in on it — Game of Thrones, Daredevil, and most famously True Detective all featured some very accomplished long takes. But most of them (in addition to being largely terrible) felt less like artistic, aesthetic decisions and more stunts.

I’m not the first to make this complaint — the tides have been shifting for a while, with 1917 serving as something of a culmination of the building backlash (it helps that the film is not that good). But those shifting tides have also pushed back Children of Men. “I would struggle to think of films this century not featuring superheroes that had a demonstrably worse impact on the medium,” my friend Esther Rosenfield told me in a recent discussion regarding the film, and I’ve noticed the film appearing less and less on twenty-first century retrospectives (it was absent from the New York Times list from 2017). In 2009, Mike D’Angelo’s article (which echoed many of the points outlined here) was one of the most controversial in the history of the A.V. Club; if released today, it’s hard to imagine it causing nearly as much of a stir. Perhaps this is just the bubble I’m in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in twenty years, the most-beloved film of 2006 is Miami Vice, at least partially because of an onslaught of bad filmmaking in Children’s wake.

Which finally brings us to the key question: is holding this film’s negative influence against it fair? Phrased as-is, obviously not. The cinematic canon is filled with films that have had a corrosive effect on not just filmmaking but the larger world: one can trace a straight line from eternal classic Jaws to your least favorite superhero film, and several academics — including Jonathan Rosenbaum — have made the case that Star Wars not only made filmmaking but American culture as a whole more impersonal and detached from human suffering. And both of those films are, to my eyes, still sublime adventures that are thirteen parsecs ahead of the awful movies they spawned. Just as it’s hardly the fault of GoodFellas that it became the template for some of the lamest biopics and mob movie runoff of the past thirty years (does anyone else remember War Dogs?) it’s hardly fair to dock points for Children of Men for the sins of True Detective. Genuine innovation will always be corrupted, and on some level any reasonable critic needs to accept this.

…on the other hand, if holding the film’s influence against it isn’t entirely fair, it’s still understandable. Or at least excusable. Films can’t be entirely divorced from metatext and context — the films of Lars Von Trier, for example, practically demand you look them as an extension of himself and a conversation with his previous works (this isn’t even a case of separating the art from the artist, it’s plainly baked into the text of The House That Jack Built). Even Cuarón’s own Roma featured references to his previous films as an act of self-mythologizing, and it’s hard not to factor your opinion of his career overall into your assessment of that film. Returning to Star Wars, I’d be lying if my knowledge of the prequels, sequels, and the general corrosive effect it would have on cinema as a whole doesn’t color my opinion of it somewhat, even if I still do ultimately love it. This all may be unfair or unbecoming of a critic, but at some point it’s hard not to do.

Though resentment is hard to avoid, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I revisited Children of Men two years ago and still found it to be one of the finest films of the twenty-first century; I won’t get into why here (as it’s worthy of a column of its own), but I should note that the long takes distract only during the ambush sequence — I think it’s more of an issue of the camera placement, awkwardly swiveling around in the car — and it’s otherwise a justified aesthetic choice that’s integrated into the film’s style. Even if I did find my love of the film waning, however, I’d still stand by my assessment that distancing and historical contextualization is necessary for any proper evaluation of a movie. Resentment towards an Influential Film, however understandable, can easily spiral into obnoxious metatextual posturing, where the highest criterion for judging a film is if it is “reddit” or “basic” rather than if it is well, good. Films don’t become “basic” for no reason, and often that reason is just that it’s really good. Just like Children of Men.

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