Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why bother?

Sci-fi’s a cruel addiction, unforgiving on its saps. There are those of us hooked on the good stuff while still ignoring school. But after the delicious thrill of seeing Harrison Ford snogging a Replicant or being plunged into carbon freeze, the good stuff is all soon used up.

I cannot begin to list the sci-fi I’ve hoped would not be shitty. Films, books and television shows that all promised to amaze us and then turned out a bit dim. But you keep looking. You keep hoping. You don’t let the bad shit get you down.

It was this sort of thought lolling through my brain as we dared Children of Men last night. That and the frustration of dealing with First ScotRail and rain.

Every now and then, a whisper ploughs through the bandy-legged sci-fi community with the excitement and real horror of a wolf. It dares portend that some new endeavour might well be the next good thing. And I can’t put in words the joyous relief on finding the whispers are true.

Children of Men is gripping, engaging and relevant, and manages to tick all the myriad nerd boxes while appealing to a far broader audience. The Dr was entirely caught up in it, and had to have a quiet moment afterwards.

It is – and this should not be underestimated – a film that might even impress my parents. (That it’s based on a book by PD James obviously helps. The only time I’ve got them to see something they weren’t going to anyway was when I said "Crouching Monkey, Jumping Cheesecake" was a love story by the bloke as did "Sense and Senility"… I am sly.)

It’s 2027 and the last human baby was born 18 years ago. London is miserable and surly, violence barely concealed from the street, and yet the rest of the world fares much worse. With nothing for humanity to hold out for, Theo (Clive Owen) is barely keeping it together. And then his ex-wife and mother of his long-dead child comes to find him. Her revolutionary friends need his help…

As a thriller, it’s plotty and well-paced and keeps the shocks and thrills cummynatcha. It’s a busy and hand-held movie, the violence abrupt and sudden. Characters are killed off in an instant and there’s no time to reel from the shock.

The cast are all excellent, even in brief cameo (hello there, my friend Mr Barnaby). Sir Michael Caine ensures Jasper’s the right side of annoying and Peter Mullan is dead scary as Syd. And, as he did in Serenity, the great Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a clear-sighted and charismatic villain, with motives that make terrifying sense.

That said, I felt the conspiracy thing with him turning out to have killed [spoiler] the only wrong-footed element. It would feel much better were events unconnected, Theo leading Kee through jarring and random brutality to the faint promise of hope on the far side. This felt a bit too conveniently plotted…

But that is a very minor gripe.

To nerdily enthuse on the consummate world-building, it’s also packed to the gills with detail. Billboards for the Evening Standard digitally flick between headlines; the trains and cars are all suitably different while remaining recognisably the same; there’s an awful, brief hint as to why Caine’s wife remains silent.

The cities are restless and dirty, while the countryside seems plush and overgrown – if you’ll forgive the massed heaps of burning cow. The film taps into all sorts of current sensibilities: foot and mouth, immigration, even biologically sustainable fuels.

The Dr was a bit surprised by how much about ‘now’ it is. As if this is something revolutionary in the genre of sci-fi and not an inherent component.

Pig at BatterseaFor all it’s an unrelentingly brutal dystopia, there’s some deftly handled gags: the art collection held in Battersea Power Station looks out on an inflatable pig; and there’s a car chase in cars that won’t start. For all the depravity and despair, it’s a richly drawn and realised world.

With humanity to be extinct in a century, there’s a lot on the struggle to remain meaningfully alive. Without it ever being explicit, there’s a lot on hope versus despair. For all it underplays the messianic thing, it does leave us with several huge questions. Is the [spoiler] at the end all that has been promised, and can the new [spoiler] heal a sick world? Is Kee alone or are there others who can [spoiler]?

I suspect it's a personal thing. The Dr was bothered and teary as the credits rolled, but I was strangely elated. A good and proper sci-fi movie. There's hope for humanity yet...


Liadnan said...

I want to see it even though the book made me shrug a bit. (To be fair that may have been an impression somewhat tarnished by PDJ on the usual "it's not SF" jag at the time)

Rob Stradling said...

Nice write-up, but I have to declare a prejudice. I'm deeply uneasy about this whole "nothing to live for" message. No point in living without kids? So what do the kids have to live for - their kids? Ad infinitum? Follow that through and you've got a fairly dismal world-picture. Sure, global sterility and impending extinction would be pretty bloody traumatic, and quite possibly civilised society couldn't survive - but I can't personally empathise with there being no point in going on. We've still got all the ones we love, we just can't make new ones. That might be some people's idea of an endgame, but it ain't mine.

Oh; ivfudfrd, an' all...