Children of Men is a towering achievement within the science-fiction genre that uses every element of its production to create world that feels both foreign and familiar. And it’s critical to the film’s success that neither of these qualities dominates the other because relying on floating cities and AT-ATs to tell the story of London 2027 would mute Children of Men’s allegorical power.
Most film fans associate director Alfonso Cuarón with spectacular long takes, and I’m no different, but it took a revisit of this film—my first in a while—to recognize how functional this style choice is to the success of the film. Yes, they’re technically impressive, but unlike some other recent long takes [including some entire films that are or appear to be long takes], Children of Men’s are as functional as they are jaw-dropping.
The Coffee Shop
The first long take actually occurs within the film’s first scene. Cuarón relies on a fake newscast to establish the defining characteristic of his world—that humankind has become inexplicably infertile. From these television anchors, we learn of the death of 18-year-old “Baby Diego,” the youngest human in the world, but via the looks on the faces of the men and women in a London coffee shop, we learn what a monumental global tragedy this is. Unlike most everyone else, however, our hero Theo [Clive Owen] couldn’t care less. He pushes his way through throngs of people to get his cup of joe before exiting without a second thought.
Once outside, he walks halfway down the block before stopping to put some alcohol in his drink. The camera moves around him about 180 degrees, and we see the coffee shop he was in just seconds ago blow up.
This is arguably the showiest camera movement in the film. There’s certainly more complicated choreography later on, but what differentiates this long take from others is the artificiality of the movement. We don’t naturally perceive things the way this particular scene would suggest.
Still, despite my small reservations about this particular artistic choice, I think the scene still works wonderfully on two levels. First, it allows us to learn something about Theo via both his face and his actions. Secondly, it gives us a chance to better understand and take in some of the scenery of London 2027—a bleak, miserable, constantly dangerous place.
A little bit later, we reach our next notable long take. This one begins very innocently with Theo riding in the car with Kee [Clare-Hope Ashitey], Miriam [Pam Ferris], Julian [Julianne Moore], and Luke [Chiwitel Ejiofor]. We hear stories of Theo and Julian’s relationship, which appears to still be playful and pleasant, despite their past hardships and conflicting perspectives on advocacy. We watch them perform a pretty incredible trick with a ping-pong ball [which is all the more impressive considering they’re driving], but shortly after this, all hell breaks loose.
Attackers come screaming out of the woods, and Luke shifts the car into reverse. They speed backward, but a man approaches on a motorcycle and shoots Julian in the neck. While she bleeds out, Theo knocks him off his bike using the car door.
This scene feels like the most impossible of the three—that this car can’t possible accommodate five actors and a camera that gives them space. It opens with a third-person perspective, in which we can see all five together before shifting to more of a first-person POV wherein we sort of become a passenger turning our head to see Luke freak out, Miriam comfort Kee, and Theo [unsuccessfully] try to stop Julian’s bleeding.
The final long take is the most memorable. For my money, it’s one of the most impressive single takes I’ve ever seen.
While Theo and Kee are in the refugee camp, war breaks out around them, and she and her baby are taken by Luke. Theo barrels through the camp, chasing after them while the camera chases after him. We see bullets flying, buildings exploding, and at one point, some blood gets on the lens when Theo runs through a bus of refugees hiding from the chaos around them.
It’s by far the longest of these three sequences—almost seven full minutes—and it continues all the way though a final confrontation with Luke inside a building that’s being shelled with tanks. A second, shorter take begins with Luke’s death and continues as Theo, Kee, and the baby walk out of the building and the fighting ceases for a transcendent, life-affirming second.
This sequence moves seamlessly and with haste between first- and third-person perspectives, but it never feels artificial. Credit Clive Owen’s mostly silent acting in this scene, but we’re wrapped up in his seemingly impossible quest and the almost crippling fear he pushes through as various factions reign terror around him. There’s almost nothing like this scene in all of cinematic history, and it single-handedly elevates Children of Men to another plane of excellence.