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May 2007
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Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
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by Kathi Maio

Waiting on a Ship Called Tomorrow

NO MATTER what their literary orientation, fiction writers of all stripes often turn their hands to Science Fiction at least once. Sometimes they are just "slumming" in popular formulas. (A disastrous proposition, that, since it disrespects not only their potential audience, but even their own work.) Sometimes the themes they want to explore are just better suited to the speculative realm. And sometimes they have a hankering to send a wake-up call by relating a cautionary tale of the near or distant future.

When Margaret Atwood, the well-known poet and "literary" novelist of Canada, published The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, it was quite obviously a fictional warning. (And her novel about a fundamentalist Christian totalitarian state being established in the U.S. seems even more timely now than it was twenty years ago.) At a time when toxic contamination has left much of the (white, elite) population sterile, women capable of reproduction are labeled "handmaids" and are relegated to breeding servitude in the households of the owning class.

Atwood's narrative, as told in the voice of a handmaid called Offred, is compelling, and her message clear. Sadly, when it came time to try to translate her story to the screen, much of the power of the novel was lost. The 1990 film, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, is earnest enough, but oddly uninvolving, despite a screenplay by Harold Pinter and performances by the likes of Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, and Faye Dunaway.

The opposite is the case with mystery novelist P. D. James's experiment in the speculative, The Children of Men (1993). James (aka Baroness James of Holland Park) is renowned as a detective novelist—and rightly so. But she seems quite ill at ease dabbling in a science fiction plot. Like Atwood's earlier novel, the themes of The Children of Men involve widespread infertility, totalitarian regimes, and class/cultural domination. But James's viewpoint about these issues is harder to fathom.

The year is 2021. When a religious (Christian) and political dissident named Julian is the first woman to become pregnant after more than twenty years of global infertility, it is up to an emotionally withdrawn Oxford don named Theo Faron, who just happens to be the cousin of Britain's semi-benign dictator, the Warden of England, to protect her.

The voice of James's novel is strangely outdated. Phrases like "crenellated heart" and "lugubrious cook" appear on the same page. Unbelievable for 2021, perhaps. (Looking forward now, I suspect that the move toward abbreviated text-messaging lingo will be so complete in fifteen years that no "word" over six letters long will even exist.) Still, since the novel's hero is a fifty-year-old scholar of Victorian history and literature, the language he uses seems odd yet appropriate.

James has other touches in her narrative that seem creepily right, too. The genteel childless developing an unhealthy fascination for artificial doll babies and household pets is one example. Broken porcelain dolls are buried in consecrated ground, and bonneted kittens must endure christenings. And then there is the Quietus, a ceremony of mass suicide—or is it murder?—designed for sickly elderly that an aging population can no longer support.

Despite the many evocative plot bits and narrative touches, The Children of Men, never really comes together as a novel, however. Part of the problem is that the characters never interact in ways that seem credible—so that by the time a blatantly away-in-the-manger birth occurs, with Theo and Julian murmuring "Oh, my darling" at one another, it is hard not to guffaw.

One wonders, too, whether James doesn't have an unconscious admiration for some of the very things (like an anti-immigrant uber-Thatcherite dictatorial government) that she seems to be criticizing. Certainly, an almost fundamentalist Church of England religiosity seems to be cited as the cure for infertility as well as general futuristic malaise.

In the end, The Children of Men, as a novel, fails to satisfy. And with the almost certain decreasing returns audiences of Science Fiction endure when a novel or story is adapted to the screen, how could one expect anything but disaster from a cinematic retelling of James's novel? Well, they say keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed. But in this case, you could set your expectations as high as you like, and you will likely still be underestimating the movie of The Children of Men.

Point one (two and three) in its favor is that the film of The Children of Men is directed by the exceedingly gifted Mexican filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón. Among the art house set, Cuarón is previously best known for his road movie, Y Tu Mamá También (2001), while sf fans will remember Cuarón as the helmer behind the best of the Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). And I personally became a fan when I experienced the magic realism of his adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett kiddie-classic A Little Princess in 1995.

Clearly, this is a filmmaker capable of turning his talents to just about any text or genre. And he was a brilliant choice to bring a little hard-nosed hopefulness and breathtaking action to P. D. James's dreary and pious novel.

When Cuarón took on the project, the first thing he did was toss the half dozen or so screenplays that had been written since the James novel was optioned. With HBO telepic veteran Timothy J. Sexton, Cuarón then fashioned (with additional writing credits going to David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby) a screenplay that launched from the basic locale and plot root of the James novel. That is, humans have been incapable of reproduction for almost twenty years, and this loss of a societal future has only exacerbated global devolvement into chaos and racial/class conflict, even in Jolly Olde England. But then Cuarón and Sexton take that story in a much different and totally riveting direction.

In Cuarón's London, which proclaims itself the last outpost of civilization, it is 2027 (six years later than James's date). Our anti-hero, Theo Faron (Clive Owen), is a soul-dead bureaucrat living in a garbage-strewn city where thugs attack commuter trains, immigrants of all nationalities and types are rounded up and shipped to detention camps at will, and coffee shops are bombed on a regular basis. The world is gray and hopeless. However, the rich, as always, reap what spoils exist—whether it is saving priceless artworks for their personal enjoyment, or parading exotic (and I mean really exotic) pets through the last green parks.

For most people, there is no art that hasn't been graffitied over, and only the bleakest future. Pandemics and strife deplete the remaining population. The last baby born on earth, a young man of eighteen from Buenos Aires, has just been murdered in a brawl outside a bar. That death has only deepened the collective despair. Is it any wonder then that the oft-advertised suicide kit, Quietus, is a bestseller?

Once upon a time, Theo would have agitated for social justice in the remaining days. Now, he just comforts himself with booze and cigarettes, until an old lover, Julian (Julianne Moore) has him kidnapped for a chat. A revolutionary leading a pro-immigrant group called the Fishes, Julian challenges Theo to get transit papers from his cousin (Danny Huston), the Minister of Arts, to help the group transport a woman to the coast.

Theo is reluctantly willing to call in the familial favor for money. But he becomes drawn into the plot on a very personal level only when both government forces and traitorous revolutionaries express their intention to kill him.

Guess our hero wants to live, after all. Especially when he meets the young woman needing transport. She is a young black woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who is large with child. Unsure who the father is, this new Eve is certain of one thing: She wants to give her baby a fighting chance at a future. To do this, she hopes to rendezvous with a ship called Tomorrow, sent to the coast of Britain to meet her by The Human Project, a group of great scientists and philosophers who still work to save humanity.

Is The Human Project real, or simply a myth suitable only as a punch line to bad jokes? Theo isn't sure. But Kee herself is a miracle he wouldn't have believed, so he devotes himself to getting her where she needs to go.

Kee and Theo's hegira is a harrowing journey, to be sure. And director Cuarón makes sure his audience is completely immersed in the action and the violence. To this end, he worked with long-time cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a very hardworking handheld camera operator named George Richmond, to shoot much of the movie in amazingly intricate wide-lens extended shots that go on forever through bombardments and gunfire, leaving the audience (as well, no doubt, as the actors) breathless and exhausted.

This is what an "adventure" movie is supposed to do, folks. Not just assault your senses with sights and sounds, but actually pull you into the plot on the most visceral level possible. This is action that is more than a spectacle. It is an emotional experience. And I truly cannot remember a film that has ever done it so well.

The Children of Men is a wild ride of a very serious movie. Because of the pace, some of the motivations and subplots are never explicated in the clearest way possible. But since we are experiencing the plot pretty much in real time with Theo, the sometimes confusing story shorthanding wasn't just forgivable. It was actually right.

Cuarón's 2027 is, of course, a commentary on society today: on the willing suspension of civil liberty in the face of terror; on our growing distrust of the "other"; on the poisoning of our planet to the point where it can no longer sustain us and our children. All pretty bleak stuff. But somehow, amidst all the decay and violence, Cuarón never really abandons hope. And he encourages us to feel the same.

The character of Theo is essential to this transformative journey from comfortable despair to courageous struggle. Fortunately, Clive Owen is up to the task. The supporting cast also does fine work, including Michael Caine, as (once again) the most likable character in the movie—an aged hippie pot farmer named Jasper, who has a good heart and a talent for farting on cue. Caine provides much of the comic relief in the film, but the movie includes many other surprisingly funny moments, like the frightening scene in which Theo tries to make his getaway in a car that won't start, pushing it through a muddy, rutted farm path, with murderous thugs in hot pursuit. The scene is both heart-pounding and hilarious.

Dear Reader, what can I say? You do not want to miss this movie. If at all possible, see it in a movie house, on a large screen, with surround-sound. The photography is desolate but gorgeous, and the action is as exciting as you are ever likely to witness. Experiencing it in all its big, full-frame glory is definitely the way to go. Still, if you have no opportunity to see The Children of Men in a theater, do not despair. (Alfonso Cuarón is, after all, the enemy of hopeless negativity). This is one movie that will have a lasting impact even if you are forced to watch it on a ten-inch black and white Zenith.

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