Future-dystopia flicks are my sci-fi bread and butter. Nothing stirs my imagination more than a darkly-conceived cautionary tale that focuses on the traps mankind can set for itself. Because I expect so much out of these sorts of films, I tend to be an absolute hardliner when it comes to evaluating them. Having said that, I'm happy to report that 'Children of Men' easily passed the test, placing itself in the upper pantheon of my most beloved subgenre. 'Children of Men' also happens to be my favorite film of 2006.
Director Alfonso Cuaron's vision is set in the year 2027. Women have been unable to have children for nineteen years, and humanity itself (robbed of its hope of a future) has become a dangerous creature. Theo (Clive Owen) is an apathetic soul who's never recovered from the death of his toddler son. But while helping his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) transport a mysterious woman across the country, Theo discovers that the woman is miraculously pregnant, despite the planet's plague of infertility. With the help of an eccentric old man named Jasper (Michael Caine) and an assortment of selfish fugitives, a re-invigored Theo must get the mother-to-be to a boat owned by The Human Project -- an organization working to save mankind.
First and foremost, moviegoers looking for answers in their films should steer clear of 'Children of Men.' Why has humanity become infertile? There's no clever backstory. How is this woman suddenly pregnant? It doesn't really matter. The genius of this sci-fi masterpiece is that it never concerns itself with answers to such burning questions. Theo has no answers and the audience is intertwined with him as much as Cuaron's camera. Viewers will need to turn off their scientific curiosity -- 'Children of Men' has a singular focus -- it is a character study examininng a self-destructive society forced to exist without hope.
What follows is an exploration of the human spirit and its ability to devolve or evolve based on the interaction of free will and uncontrollable circumstances. Excellent performances keep these thematic elements from weighing down the proceedings and flesh out a group of characters that feel like actual human beings. Owen is perfectly cast as the morose Theo and lends a naturalistic stagger to his personality. He cowers at bullets, flinches at violence, and would rather run from (instead of throwing himself into) a fight. He crafts Theo into an everyman hero -- a man resorting to heroics in spite of his fear. Caine is quirky but haunted -- his portrayal of Jasper borders on a delusional acceptance of fate that masks suicidal tendencies. Chiwetel Ejiofer (whom sci-fi fans will recognize as the villain from 'Serenity') turns in a startlingly deep portrayal of a rebel leader whose desire to save mankind has compromised his humanity. I could go on and on -- the other members of the supporting cast are wonderful and the script lends itself to placing ordinary folks into extraordinary situations. Some viewers have been put off by the odd character beats in the film, but I find them revelatory.
Even more substantially impressive is the world of 2027 that Cuaron has so masterfully fashioned. There's a lot of familiarity in this future world, even though so much is inherently different. Long, complex takes (sometimes lasting up to ten minutes) ground the characters in their environments and elevate the entire film to the point where it begins to feel like some sort of prophetic documentary. The shaky camera work and harsh cinematography are equal parts 'Saving Private Ryan' and '12 Monkeys,' but create a world all their own. Even the CG elements have a realism that make it difficult to tell which are practical effects and which were created on a computer. Everything about the production has an earthiness to it that keeps me from feeling as if I'm watching a movie. I couldn't ask for a more immersive experience.
'Children of Men' is a rich tapestry of woe that's been intricately woven into a future dystopia flick. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the film, and found myself feeling genuine sympathy for this fragile version of the human race. Even more impressive, every time I watch 'Children of Men' I find myself contemplating hope and love, our role as humans, and our contribution to society at large.
Presented in 1080p utilizing the VC-1 codec, 'Children of Men' is a beautiful transfer in spite of its washed out palette and dreary aesthetic. Colors pop vibrantly when they appear amidst the grays, skintones are dead on, black levels are deep, and the contrast levels are excellent. A moderate amount of grain allows the picture to retain a filmic feel and fine object detail is well rendered and sharp. Clothing texture, skin, stubble, and natural elements like leaves on the road are crisp and realistic. Shadow delineation is revealing, cityscapes look authentic, and the film's background CG elements are no less convincing in high-def than they were in the theater.
For a tour of this disc's visual highs, be sure to make a stop at quiet moments like Theo's first visit to Jasper's home. Notice the detail in the plants, the colors of the blankets, the rich yellow lighting, the tiny patterns on Jasper's vest, and the clarity of the chess pieces on his table. Smoke drifts through the air, a warm orange fire glows in the corner, and pausing will allow you to read some of the book titles in the background. Next, skip to the scene where Theo visits Nigel's stark white and black apartment. This scene's contrast is the perfect framework for vibrant red wine, complex sweater textures, and the smallest details on the mural in the dining room.
When I looked closely at more explosive moments, the transfer held up just as well. The long take of the car ambush opens with brilliant flames inside a rolling car, a bright green forest, and warm sunlight tucked behind the trees. By the time it ends, there are harsh crimson stains, detailed shattered glass, and a textured grime to the muddy car. Last but not least, the final long take of Theo's run through a battle-torn city is littered with crisp rocks, debris, and clutter in the streets. Sparks fly from bullets ricocheting, and splintered wood is hurled through the air from explosions. If I wanted to, I could've sat and counted the individual bricks on a building being attacked by a tank in the distance. Even inside the crumbling building, shadow delineation and black levels expertly retained the scene's depth and dimension.
As I mentioned, this film's overall aesthetic is drab to say the least, and isn't likely the kind of demo material that will turn the heads of anyone while shopping at the local Best Buy. Taste will definitely factor in to anyone's enjoyment of the film's visuals, but the technical prowess of the transfer pushes this HD DVD leaps and bounds beyond the heavily artifacted standard DVD (be sure to flip this combo disc over just to see how muddy and murky the film looks in low-def).
Unfortunately, everything's not perfect. This recent transfer is largely free of source noise, but the print is peppered with white flecks (particuarly during the opening scene in the coffee shop). There are also a handful of instances of mild color banding evident in scenes flushed with brightness (watch the windshield of the car when Jasper picks up Theo, as well as the foggy sky during the final boat ride). Finally, a screen door effect randomly pops up in some of the leaves and forestry around Jasper's hideaway. Thankfully, these minor issues are infrequent and only occasionally detract from an otherwise very solid transfer.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track on this HD DVD is also impressive. The top tier sound design doesn't hurt of course, but this mix is technically powerful, as well. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, bass tones are resonant, and the entire soundfield is packed with ambiance. Crowd noise and television/radio chatter is present in the background and across the soundscape in every speaker. This effect is immersive and really lends itself to crafting the illusion of a real world in your home theater.
Quiet moments bring softer music from radios, humming and murmuring in masses of people, and banter that appears and disappears as quickly as Theo passes it. Gunfire and explosions rumble through the subwoofer and provide a strong and organic auditory impact. Crumbling stone, crunching gravel, and hesitant footsteps are all handled with care. Finally, for an aural treat beyond description, be sure to listen for the roller coaster silences and booms of the final battle scene between the resistance and the military.
The only technical downside is the slightly stocky channel movement on the track during the third act of the film. Explosions tend to erupt from all directions, rather than using a convincing sound pan to identify the source's positioning in the soundfield. For the most part, it's not a problem -- but there are a few instances during the final battle where the soundscape is so crowded that each speaker seems too busy to handle subtle movement across channels.
Sadly, all of the supplemental material is presented in standard definition and looks exactly like the extras on the standard-def side of the disc. Encoded with the MPEG-2 codec, nothing has been done to enhance the look of this content, and it simply seems lazy on the part of the studio. There's a reason we're paying more for this edition -- I wish that value extended to the extras on the disc.
Anyway, first up are a collection of three Deleted Scenes that are so unfinished that a cameraman's shadow is visible on screen. The scenes were wisely cut -- one answers any lingering questions you may have had about the future of dentistry, one is a strange moment where Theo doesn't have rent money for his landlord, and one is a repetitive chat with Nigel. Skip these and move on.
"The Possibility of Hope" is a 25 minute doc directed by Cuaron himself and gathers a collection of philosophers together to discuss the themes behind 'Children of Men' -- reality, humanity, and depravity. While it tends to get a bit heady at times, it's engaging and different from the usual self-promoting fluff found on most releases today. Some of the participants are too full of their own theories for their own good, but most of them offer up an intriguing analysis of the outcome of a society's apathy and arrogance. While I felt like it was worth my time, people who hate the first five minutes are advised to move on -- this peice only gets more complicated as it goes on. "Comments by Slavoj Zizek" is a 4 minute interview with the philosopher that should have just been edited into "The Possibility of Hope." It seemed repetitive, even though it focused directly on the film, and I personally found my teeth grating as I listened to Zizek's incredibly bizarre voice.
"Under Attack" is a featurette that examines the long takes in the film. While it occasionally drifts into promotional territory, it's mostly comprised of a nice collection of interviews with the crew. Breaking the long shots down, piece by piece, it's fascinating to see the amount of hard work and know-how it took to get the timing of five to ten minute visual beats on camera. There's a lack of self-congratulatory banter and I only wish I could have a closer look at more scenes and the way they were put together. Cuaron himself revealed in a recent interview that his cinematographer -- Emmanuel Lubezki -- specifically asked that he not reveal how most of the shots were accomplished. His loyalty is commendable, but this is a huge missed opportunity on this disc, as these shots are simply that fascinating.
"Theo and Julia" is a 4 minute character featurette that examines the idea of actors as co-writers. Quick interviews with Cuaron, Moore, and Owen touch the surface of what performers bring to a script with an open-minded director, but this featurette is over before it manages to build any momentum. "Futuristic Design," on the other hand, is a more rounded look at the production design for the film. It's still short at 8 minutes, but it would probably get dry and repetitive if it ran much longer. I do wish it more thoroughly examined the pop art, posters, and advertisements in the background of some scenes, but the exclusive HD DVD "U-Control" feature (see below) covers some of this material.
Saving the best for last, "Visual Effects - Creating the Baby" is an amazing featurette that covers the creation of a CG child. There are no interviews, but the well-edited video shows the progression of the shot from practical footage through its CG additions and clean up cycles. On-screen titles reference what happens at each stage and the entire visual experience provided me with a greater comprehension of the process than an hour's worth of technical chat would've conveyed. Even at a short three minutes, this was hands down one of the best supplements I've ever seen on the way a special effects shot is conceived and implemented. I watched this one three times in a row and would recommend it to all.
Overall, there aren't many extras on this release and a commentary or lengthier "Making Of" documentary would've been great. However, a few of the extras are worthwhile so fans of the film should still be quite pleased.
Simply put, I adore 'Children of Men,' Alfonso Cuaron's bleak vision of mankind's self-destructive nature and the absolute necessity of hope. I tend to be harsher when evaluating the video and audio packages of films I enjoy, so I was excited to find a great visual transfer and an impressive sound mix. The supplements could've used more meat, but the extras provided are entertaining for the most part, and we even get an HD exclusive "U-Control" track. As a fan of this film, I'd pick it up in a heart beat. For everyone else, it's certainly worth a try -- just don't expect answers to all of your questions.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.