March 12, 2007

Son of a bigger gun.

I saw Children of Men this weekend. To the people who told me it was an amazing movie, I say a heartfelt: huh?

Spoilers are going to abound here.

My basic problem is this: I was vaguely underwhelmed by the book. It relied too much on ineffable mystery and deus ex machina, and it managed to end on a note that was both too pat and too inconclusive. Mankind's hope is stolen for no particular reason and the ramifications are endlessly expounded, boy meets girl, mankind's hope is returned for no particular reason and the glorious future is hailed in an incredibly uncritical way. Wheee.

That is not, actually, the basic problem. The basic problem is that after having had that response to the book, I went and saw the movie and still thought it failed to live up to the book. I'm serious here, this is where you'll want to stop reading if you don't want whole damn book and movie ruined.

One of the saving graces of the book is that, aside from the glaring exception of the divinely mysterious Omega affliction, its characters actually own the things going on in their lives. The mother of the first child since Omega isn't a scared, naive refugee girl, she's a self-assured woman who knows precisely what she wants both as an individual and as, well, a terrorist. The great tragedy in the life of our protagonist, the death of his only child, wasn't the random strike of illness -- he hit his infant daughter with his car. It was an accident, it was something he could have prevented, and that knowledge has been looming in the back of every decision he's made since it happened. All kinds of little opportunities for people to do things, for better or for worse, fall out of the story on its way to becoming a movie. Jasper's invalid wife? In the movie, sits passively while her loving husband gives her a euthanasia shot. In the book, resists being forced to join a mass suicide and gets clubbed to death by a policeman. Theo's cousin? In the movie, some oblivious arts patron. In the book, the fearmongering, repressive executive of the intolerable British government, whose actions actually fucking affect what's going on in the story, damnit.

I don't know; I suppose I'm just attached to the book more because I read it first. But I see it a bit like the difference between Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: to make the book into a movie someone had to choose which of several stories to extract and tell, and they didn't pick well. In this case, it's Hero Protagonist (Male) Heroically Protects All-Important Fetus (Incidentally Contained In Helpless Female), Against Overwhelming Odds, Until The Ship Of Tomorrow Comes Along To Save Mankind. Whereas it could have been Take A Good Long Look At What This Seemingly Incidental Change Has Done To Human Lives And Politics, And Now Watch The People Who Believe They Have The Potential To Change It, And How They Will Fight, Not To Sail Away To A Glorious Future Like The Fucking Elves Here, Just To Maintain Their Own Privacy And Dignity Because That Is An Integral Part Of The Change That They Want To See In The World. Not that the book necessarily told the latter story as well as it could have been told, but it tried a damn sight harder than the movie.

Grump grump grump. I suppose the world clamors for more stories about heroic defense and lots of fight scenes, and if they're at least stylish and gritty we have to congratulate them for making some kind of effort. And it is a stylish and gritty movie, and it does snap out of its guns-a-blazing drama now and then to introduce some worthwhile moral complexity. Sid the policeman, who doesn't exist in the book, is a horribly unsettling storyline all by himself and I'm delighted that he was invented. Actually, his "let's see your fugee face" line could probably buy my forgiveness for at least ten minutes of unnecessary firefight.

Still? THE FUCKING SHIP OF TOMORROW, GUYS. Are you kidding me?

Posted by dianna at March 12, 2007 11:35 AM

I'm with you on the ship of tomorrow. I felt pretty let down by the fact that it ACTUALLY showed up. I mean, that's a classic Godot moment if ever there was one and they let us down. At the very least, there should have been more ambivalence surrounding the boat, like maybe it's not the boat to the future everyone thinks it is.

But I liked when the lady's arm was blown off. That was gross.

Posted by: jason at March 12, 2007 11:03 AM

Ha! Yes. You are now the second person with whom I will agree that the ending would have felt much better if they never showed the ship coming.

Wait, which lady? How did I manage to miss this?

Posted by: Dianna at March 12, 2007 11:23 AM

I think I'm a minority of one, but I'm going to go ahead and call time of death on the idea that movies can ever do justice to a complex moral issue. I love films, but without internal monologues, the ability to go 600 pages over your intended length, the ability to have multiple protagonists, story lines, short, without being a book, I don't see how a movie can be complex enough to satisfy my thinking brain. But I like the flashy fun times.

Feel free to now provide a hundred examples to the contrary; I freely admit I don't know what I'm talking about,

Posted by: didofoot at March 12, 2007 01:15 PM

at the very beginning when he's getting coffee, the coffee shop explodes right after he leaves it and the smoke clears a little to show a woman with her arm blown off HOLDING THE ARM IN HER OTHER HAND come out of the coffee shop, screaming. that was one of jason's (and mine's) favorite parts. i liked it for the suddenness of the violence. and the severed arm holding.

Posted by: michele at March 12, 2007 01:19 PM

you know, mine was an arbitrary comment and I am taking it back. in fact, I flame myself.

OMG ur so stoop dont you even watch anything. there r lots of movies totaly good so shut up.

Okay, I do.

Posted by: didofoot at March 12, 2007 01:23 PM

Hah, I'm glad that the fact that I went and spoiled the ending for you when you were down here wasn't what made you dislike this movie. I'm going to say something nice first, to prove that I can: I liked the shots in the Ark of Arts where you saw the pig balloon floating around outside the window.

OK, but for reals. I was on board with this film until the last 5 minutes or so, and my major problem with it is essentially the huge disconnect between the story and the narrative. Story: this is a realistically morally ambiguous world, if only because we're really not told a lot about what's been happening, what the exact nature of these politics are, what the different factions actually WANT (besides power/voice), what's really at stake in these fights since we're all about to die off anyway, whether the girl and her baby are even genetically viable, and so forth. The left-wingers, as cute as they are, can't even hold to a coherent set of principles and ultimately just want to use this woman/kid as a tool for kicking off their program, whatever it is. Even the putative good guys we hang out with are murky; by extension, we sure as hell don't know anything about who these Human Project people are, if they even exist, what their political affiliations are, and whether they can be "trusted" either. And we have no idea whether one woman and her kid constitute another genetic dead-end, or, against everything I learned in biology class, a reasonable hope for repopulating a planet based on one set of genes.

Narrative: Clive Owens rises to the occasion, he gets shot but manfully refrains from dying until he's done his bit to make Kee safe; Kee gets shot at but never hit; the baby's a girl & therefore, probably, also a breeder; Clive Owen dies right at the moment when the prow of the ship bearing the word TOMORROW slides into view to scoop up Kee and the little messiah and save us all; fade to black and wrap it up with a nice little stupid bow. All of the work that the story does to preserve interesting loose ends, ambiguities, and uncertainties about the future, gets totally ruined by the structure of the end of the film and its insistence on providing, in this incredibly pat way, a suggestion of narrative closure. And at the same time, that closure doesn't fucking work because it violates everything that we've been trained, over the last two hours, to understand about how the logic of this story simply doesn't resolve that easily.

To make the shit sandwich complete, I liked the bit where Clive Owen had to push-start the car and jump in, mostly because it made me feel like I was watching Little Miss Sunshine instead of this movie.

Posted by: katie at March 12, 2007 05:04 PM

I'm going to play the uninformed outsider here (not to be confused with the uniformed outsider, which sounds vaguely gestapo) and say that I actually really enjoyed the movie. Maybe it was because I never read the book, or maybe it was because I went into it looking for some action and some fucked-up dystopian shit, but I came out quite satisfied.

Posted by: Erik at March 12, 2007 07:04 PM

I read the book after the film and felt that both were fascinating in their own right. The "nativity scene" at the end of the book was a bit disappointing, to be sure, and it wouldn't surprise me if the boat's arrival at the end of the film was only added after test audiences insisted upon it. I didn't think that Julian in the book was a helpless baby-box at at all, but I did kind of think Kee was.
Dido, I think films like Ch-o'-Men are sort of just supposed to get the ball rolling for people. It moved me to read the book, after all.

Posted by: robyn at March 12, 2007 08:47 PM

Oh yeah, I forgot about the car-that-needs-to-be-pushed-to-create-cheap-suspense.

I agree with you, Katie--there was a real disconnect between the world the movie creates (interesting) and the story it creates to showcase the world and appeal to a mass audience (sometimes interesting but way too tidy). And, yeah, would it really have been that hard to come up with some reasoning behind the baby's existence and viability as a solution to the crisis? If so, then that in itself could have been an interesting turn for the movie (Why a baby all of a sudden? Is the govt. responsible somehow? Is it a sophisticated Trojan horse baby-bomb intended to rid the world of The Human Project? Anything to combat the vagueness.)

I did like this movie, by the way.

Posted by: jason at March 13, 2007 10:26 AM

I liked that they never said "This baby will save us all!" (At least I don't think they said it.) It seemed like they were just excited about it because it was a baby, and humans like babies, and they hadn't seen one for awhile. Obviously they wanted to study it and the mother, but all the reverence for it seemed like it was just the way grandparents get. A world of grandparents.

Posted by: didofoot at March 13, 2007 11:17 AM

To be fair to the movie, it inherited its shitty unexplained deus-ex-machina straight from the book. But I agree that while they were taking liberties with the book they could have taken a few more to invent some good reasoning or at least meaning behind the sudden existence of the OMG BABY. It would have been a positive step, I think.

Robyn: I really like the phrase "helpless baby-box". And I wholly agree: book-Julian was not one. Kee pretty much was. That very Hollywood scene in the barn -- girl takes off dress and stands naked and pregnant in front of older man, looking at him with imploring eyes and whispering, "I'm scared," -- I mean, hi, patriarchal bullshit, how YOU doin'? Sigh. And the fact that she's this commodity that other people (first the Fishes and then Theo) spend the whole movie shlepping around depresses me.

Oh my god too many comments. I kind of think Kris might be right, though. It definitely seems to be easier for books to get their thinky points across than movies. Maybe it's partly that the cost of creating and distributing a movie is so much greater than for a book that the economic incentive to appeal to The Way People Like Their Narratives To Go has a kind of overwhelming influence on the final product? And the fact that you can blather on for 600 pages if you find you need to, although C.O.M. is actually not a very long book.

Katie, I like your dueling synopses. The murkiness is good, and the movie actually introduces some new, beneficial murk. And then, as you say, turns around and tries to wrap it up with a heartwarming happy ending that doesn't in fact make any fucking sense.

I just wonder about the brainstorming sessions where they decided to change things. "Hey, guys, I don't think it raises any interesting points to have the biological father of the OMG BABY killed because his companions don't realize there's any reason to consider protecting him as well as the mother. Let's just not have a father, that's easier." "Yeah, that sounds good. And while we're at it, let's make our protagonist an old-hand activist instead of some complacent dude who has to find his social conscience for the first time as he gets caught up in this confused would-be revolution." "Dude, that's brilliant. And maybe we can pare down the comprehensive but naive vision of the revolutionaries to just one political demand and, you know, make sure there isn't really any conceivable objection to it."

I mean, Jacob had it right when he told me it was a depressing movie, but I think I'm finding it depressing for kind of different reasons.

Posted by: Dianna at March 13, 2007 11:31 AM

Whoops. I was talking about Kris' first comment up there, rather than the one she sneakily posted while I was busy pontificating.

Posted by: Dianna at March 13, 2007 11:35 AM

I can't wait to buy the DVD, which will no doubt feature the *real* ending as a bonus feature. If it does not, I will maim Cuaron.

Despite its flaws, I stand by C o' M. The ending was atrocious and my eyes rolled like bowling balls during scenes that others have already mentioned. But there were other times where I wanted to shake the hand of everyone involved. I'd say more, but I'm in the middle of a conference.

Posted by: Jacob at March 13, 2007 01:07 PM

I hope you'll eventually say more, because I want to hear which things made you want to stand up and shake the hands responsible. I'm sure that there are good elements that I've glossed over in my ranting here. And what do you mean, real ending?

Posted by: Dianna at March 13, 2007 01:43 PM

Because Jacob is too busy to speak for himself, I will take the opportunity to speak for him. What he meant by things that made him want to shake the hands of those responsible was clearly: the floating pig.

I actually, for all that I'm still pissed at the ending and am not sick of attacking it yet, didn't strictly dislike this movie either. It was, as I think I've said to someone or other before, the most grainily daylit futuristic dystopia I've seen in a long time -- kind of a nice change from dark rain-slicked streets and neon and shit. And all the Fishes sweetly reminded me of my little trust fund anarchist students from Santa Cruz, plus a few years.

Jason: I am totally with you on the government-engineered Human Project-destroying Trojan Horse baby bomb. Or maybe the aliens who introduced the Omega disease to this planet made the baby for Phase II of their planet-colonizing human extermination project: the baby's made of plutonium, and as all the remaining people pass the Messiah Baby around and venerate it, they'll die.

Posted by: katie at March 13, 2007 08:50 PM

Okay, okay. Floating pig: damned great. Grainy daylight and drearily mundane buildings and trash: not too shabby. Or rather, all the better for being shabby. I can't argue with either of these points.

Posted by: Dianna at March 13, 2007 11:25 PM