Thursday, 1 May 2008

The Excellent Final Draft - B.W.S Reppin

“Cuarón has created the thinking person's action movie.”[1]
Is Children Of Men a typical science-fiction film?

According to Neale’s work, the word ‘typical’ in this instance represents the ‘repertoire of elements’[2], recurring themes which can be found in an individual genre. Since the early 1900’s at the dawn of cinema, genres have continuously borrowed elements from one another, something which has now come to be defined as ‘hybridity’. Maltby suggests, ‘genres are flexible…[and]…subject to a constant process of change and adaptation.’[3], and in doing so provides an explanation to the consistent variation in their ‘syntactic cores’[4]. This suggests genre is not fixed; rather it is a reflection of external factors such as the zeitgeist. In turn, looking at the typicality of Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006, USA) as a science-fiction film becomes far more complex and requires an analysis of genre as a concept first.

Regardless of their professions and personal views, theorists, critics and film scholars alike all seem to agree on one thing: genre is not fixed. Neale highlights ‘difference is absolutely essential to the economy of genre’[5]. Variation, as is consistently evident in the ‘syntax’ of different genres, is needed to continue attracting audiences. This is an aspect of Altman’s ‘before and after’[6] view of categorising films in which he suggests a process involving producers identifying what from the repertoire of elements to repeat and what to differentiate. By doing this, excessive repetition is avoided whilst audiences are still able to categorise films under an individual genre.

Audiences are likely to identify a genre through what Neale defines as ‘the semantic and syntactic cores’[7] of different genres. The semantic elements represent distinct features of certain media language, more notably in the forms of settings, props and even actors. The syntax represents certain ideologies and narratives. In a ‘Western’ for example, the semantics would include guns, horses, deserts and cowboys whilst the syntax will usually involve a Levi Strauss type binary opposition conflict between cowboys and ‘Red Indians’.

Altman’s theory of the ‘before and after’ combined with the ever changing syntax provides reasons for the ‘hybridity’ genre has arguably always experienced. Altman highlights this by stating ‘semantics simply hijack an existing syntactic framework from another genre.’[8] Since as early as 1910, science-fiction films (with Children Of Men being no different) have been a prime example of this and are regularly used as case studies by theorists and critics to prove genre indeed is not fixed.

Defining science-fiction is as complex as defining genre and to date there is no universally accepted definition. Hodgens suggests ‘science fiction involves extrapolated or fictitious science, or fictitious use of scientific possibilities, or…[simply]…fiction that takes place in the future or introduces some radical assumption about the present or past.’[9] Here Hodgens highlights the conventional themes audiences use to categorise a film under science-fiction, ignoring the fact that other genres incorporate these features too.

Jules Verne and H.G Wells are authors considered by many to have pioneered the science-fiction genre during the 19th century, although the term did not become fully established until the late 1920s. Their vogue ‘coincided with a second industrial revolution, a new machine age…a cult of and for scientific invention…an acceleration of colonial expansion…[that]…had already fuelled stories of territorial conquest…[and finally]…the invention of film.’[10] The bond between ‘science fiction, special effects technology and set design’[11] which exists to this date in sci-fi films was first established through films such as The X-Ray Mirror (1899) and Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), both of which were based on novels by Verne and H.G Wells respectively.

The notion of hybridity arguably first came to rise in Frankenstein (1910), a film which merged the science-fiction genre with horror. Different decades seemed to have adopted different inter-generic influences, with sci-fi going on to merge with ‘action and adventure, Terror Island (1920); noir, Blade Runner (1981) and countless others.’[12] This again would suggest genre, or in this instance science-fiction is indeed a reflection of the zeitgeist as its syntax seemingly continues to evolve to both satisfy the audience and correspond with the societal issues of the time. Regardless of the constant variation in its syntax, the semantic elements of the genre had been well established as early as 1920. Pringle divided these semantics into ‘templates’ of which only ‘future cities…[and]…disasters’[13] are relevant to the text being studied.

Telotte describes contemporary science-fiction as going through a trend of ‘[rendering] the artificial as ever more human.’[14] The critical and commercial success of Steven Spielberg’s A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001) and I, Robot (2004) amongst other titles certainly warrants the comment as accurate. Children Of Men, however, very much takes on a different approach. Set in a future dystopian 2027 England, the film neglects to focus on technological advances or as Pringle would better describe it, ‘alien intrusions’[15]. Cuarón states that he ‘…didn’t want to be distracted by the future…[and that he]…didn’t want to transport the audience into another reality.’[16] In his review of the film, Calhoun makes reference to this strikingly realistic setting by stating ‘[it is the film’s] creepy familiarity, not any wild vision on the future…[that makes]…it so involving.’[17]

‘Many critics argue science fiction…uses its tales of alien invasion, science and technology gone wrong, and visions of the future worlds to explore the issues of contemporary significance.’[18] This notion first came to light during the 1950s, a decade described as the ‘golden age’ of science-fiction by many film scholars. Films such as The Thing (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) were read as a reflection of the fear generated by the Cold War which American people had at the time, indirectly playing on the fear of communism. Similarly, Children Of Men ‘[focuses] on migrancy…[in Britain]… and terrorism…[internationally]…’[19], two contemporary issues that have been highly publicised in the media globally and have given much cause for thought to the public, often evolving into fear. Film critic Guerrasio describes this focus as ‘a complex meditation on the politics of today.’[20] It is perhaps these features of the film that provoked Bradshaw to label the film as ‘a thinking person’s action movie’. It is important to remember, however, that the main theme of the film, infertility, is being ignored here, although perhaps this functions as the ‘Macguffin’ (a recurring feature of Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career), that which drives the plot forward but which ultimately is of no consequence.

Cuarón makes it clear early on in the film that governments across the world have collapsed – with only Britain ‘soldiering’ on. To a British audience, this would seem vaguely representative of the days when the British Empire was at its peak. Due to its survival, England has become a target for many refugees fleeing from other disaster-stricken countries. The audience is shown the extent of the immigration issue through the various refugee camps where migrants have been ‘hunted down like cockroaches’[21] and detained. Cuarón uses this to make contemporary references. The camps in the film ‘intentionally evoke the Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay detainment camp and The Maze’[22] whilst critic Chris Smith observes ‘symbolic overtones and images of the Holocaust’[23] through the manner in which the refugees are treated. Most scenes where such interpretations can be made are filmed in a way in which the audience are positioned to see things from a point of view shot, often sitting in a vehicle as they pass the mayhem by. By only showing glimpses, Cuarón does enough to provoke the audience into realising that even a democratic country with liberal values can easily employ fascist-like ideologies and policies in the face of an issue growing out of control. In his political review, Blake makes reference to this by stating, ‘it shows what people can become when the government orchestrates their fears for its own advantage.’[24]

When looked at in more detail, the film’s focus on politics becomes far deeper and more obvious to the evidence. Speaking about the breakdown of democracy in the film, Fabrizio Eva controversially suggests that ‘inequality brings richness’[25]. When put into context, it becomes evident that Cuarón’s cinematography is filmed in a way that places emphasis on this concept of inequality. The long shots used when concentrating on the different settings are regularly juxtaposed with close up shots of the refugees who are presented as strikingly poor through their costumes. In his interview, Eva attempts to provide a reason for why these groups of people are treated in such a harsh manner, stating; ‘in the capitalist system, inequality is acceptable…it’s the engine of production.’[26] If the economy is healthy and production is steady, it would seem that the condition of the people is of no interest to the government, and Cuarón seems to highlight this in its extremist form through the chaotic manner in how places such as the suburbs are presented.

Like many other successful science-fiction films, ethical questions are inevitably raised. Here, Cuarón challenges the audience to question the morals behind the acts of terrorism which take place in the film. The first encounter with a terrorist attack comes during the beginning of the film as a café Theo was in is bombed immediately after he leaves. The unexpected timing and shock reflects both the September 11th attacks in America and the July 7th bombings in London. In his review of the film, Bradshaw describes the scene as ‘a punch in the solar plexus’[27], reinforcing the element of surprise. However, as the film progresses the audience learn that the terrorist group behind the various attacks are known as the ‘Fishes’, a group in reality fighting for immigrant rights. Here, Cuarón places the audience in a position where they must decide whether the acts of terrorism are warranted. He further adds to this moral question when Luke, leader of the group, accuses the government of orchestrating some of the bombings. Ridley Scott’s cult classic, Blade Runner (1982), uses a similar technique in which the audience are first put in a position where they view conscious androids as villains, yet as the plot unfolds are forced to question whether they deserve to die or not as ‘their…[only]… crime…[is]…wanting to be human.’[28]

Cuarón intelligently uses the issue of terrorism to incorporate elements from another genre into the film, in turn giving rise to its hybrid nature. In contemporary society, the media has closely linked terrorism with Iraq. The coverage we see on television is regularly filmed in a documentary-style manner, more commonly known as ‘cinèma vèritè’. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film comes at the end, a six minute-long single shot sequence in which Theo, the protagonist of the film, struggles through a gun battle between the ‘Fishes’ and the British Army. Cuarón intentionally shoots the scene in a cinèma vèritè style. The camera follows Theo in a way reminiscent of a tracking shot and as a result the audience are put in a position where they feel they are part of the action on screen. Calhoun supports this, stating ‘it’s the film’s nervous and energetic vèritè style…that makes it so involving.’[29] The camera’s movement throughout this scene reflects that of a handheld one, in turn encouraging the audience to view the action as if they were watching a documentary. Cuarón suggests that ‘without the human connection (Theo and Julian)…[the film]…would be a documentary.’[30] It is through these aspects of the film that comparisons can be drawn between the coverage of gun battles in Iraq and the action on screen. The documentary feel to the film undoubtedly represents art-house elements, and in turn arguably provides reasons as to why advancements in technology were rejected so vigorously in this futuristic dystopian world.

Close attention is given to the dystopian element of the film as the 2027 London setting proceeds to challenge Susan Sontag’s classic view that ‘science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence-a technological view.’[31] The lengthy single shot sequences combined with ‘the detailed mise-en-scenè to rival the vivid, lived in quality of Blade Runner’ [32] engage the audience dramatically as they are able to identify the futuristic setting which appears near identical to the landscapes of today. Furthermore, the dystopian London appears strikingly similar to the one portrayed in the cult-classic, A Clockwork Orange (1971). In his interview, Zizek accurately states that ‘the true focus of the film is in the background.’[33] Cuarón uses various long shots of London throughout the film to emphasise the condition it is in. He further manipulates the manner in how the audience respond to these images by using low key lighting whenever possible in an attempt to create the grimmest setting possible, although not to the extent of Blade Runner (1982) (where the film succeeds in creating a neo-noir effect). Regardless, such techniques are reminiscent of those used in Steven Spielberg’s remake of War Of The Worlds (2005) where contemporary settings are destroyed to generate a dramatic dystopian effect.

Blade Runner (1982) used a futuristic setting with various technological advances – flying cars amongst other things. George Lucas also portrayed an unrecognisable setting in his sci-fi epic Star Wars (1981) where humanity had expanded across the universe. Despite being set in the year 2027, Cuarón portrays a London as it would look today if it was repeatedly bombed and law and order was defeated. Colin Covert of the Star Tribune points out that ‘in most sci-fi epics, special effects substitute for story…[yet]…here they seamlessly advance it.’[34] With audience theory in mind, it can be suggested from this that Children Of Men is likely to attract an active audience rather than a passive audience as the focus of the film is on the themes which play on the fears people have in contemporary society. Cuarón’s decision to portray a futuristic London in an alarmingly realistic way perhaps explains why he has put so much emphasis into the storyline and the themes associated with it. The grim setting adds to the shock the audience experience in retaliation to the themes raised in the film. Bradshaw suggests ‘the cinema screen…is like an opened window on to a world of Arctic fear and despair.’[35]

The cinèma vèritè style cinematography and lengthy single shot sequences (otherwise referred to as a hybrid aspect of the film) are both products of the auteur. Until the mid 1970’s, film ‘authorship’ (otherwise known as the ‘auteur theory’) was the primary critical tool used by film scholars when studying genre. ‘They identified auteurs within the commercial film industry and noted that many of these [individuals] tended to work within one or two specific genres.’[36] An example of this is Martin Scorsese, a director renowned for working in the ‘gangster’ genre with classic titles such as Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Cuarón first established himself as a rising director with the art-house film Y tu mama también (2001). He then went on to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Whilst both these films are of a completely different style and genre, they both provided him with the opportunity to express his own distinct style of directing, another feature of the auteur theory. The art-house elements of Y tu mama and the emphasis on setting in Harry Potter are two techniques which Cuarón uses throughout Children Of Men.

However, it is the use of an anti-hero that draws the most attention to Cuarón’s distinct directorial style. Clive Owen portrays Theo, the protagonist who was a former political activist but who has now become an alcoholic who lacks enthusiasm towards his profession and life in general. In his interview, Owen makes reference to this by stating, ‘[he] isn’t your big Hollywood obvious hero…[he’s]…a flawed character.’[37] It would seem Cuarón’s motive behind using an anti-hero was to coincide with his aim to not alienate his audience from the future dystopian setting. Owen supports this notion by further adding, ‘he’s an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation.’[38] This is a refreshing contrast to the typical masculine, all-action male hero sci-fi audiences have become accustomed to over the years (e.g. Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars trilogy and Deckard from Blade Runner). Owen acknowledges that ‘the last part of the movie is…a sort of action movie and Theo is the most unlikely guy taking you through it.’[39] By this point, the audience has been placed in a position where they identify with Theo as an everyday middle class individual, so by following him through the gun battle, the documentary feel to the film is stronger and more obvious. Furthermore, Cuarón rejects the use of low angle shots when filming Theo and this significantly contributes to his ‘everyday’ persona that is gradually created throughout the course of the film.

As Pringle would suggest, Children Of Men incorporates two templates of the many others which are used by an audience to categorise the film under the science-fiction genre. Science-fiction has thrived on its semantic elements, yet Cuarón rejects the conventionally recognised ones; both the scientific proposals of a futuristic setting, commonly in the form of artificial intelligence, and a dystopian society as a result of an ‘alien intrusion’. Regardless, like many other science-fiction films, contemporary issues and their consequences are explored. It would seem that Children Of Men would have been the ideal film for Neale to use as evidence when he stated, ‘it is more productive to think of genres as difference in repetition; films repeat themselves in different ways.’[40] Regardless, with Altman in mind, the repertoire of elements needed for an audience to identify the science-fiction elements are kept, and the film does enough in terms of incorporating elements from other genres to keep the audience interested and engaged.

Word Count: 2,924

[1] Children Of Men review by Peter Bradshaw
[2] Neale, Steve (2002), Genre and Contemporary Hollywood
[3] Maltby, Richard (2003), Hollywood Cinema, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd S (1980) cited in An Introduction to Genre Theory by Daniel Chandler
[4] Altman, Rick (1999), Film/Genre, London: BFI
[5] Neale S (1980) cited in An Introduction to Genre Theory by Daniel Chandler
[6] Altman, Rick (1999), Film/Genre, London: BFI
[7] Neale, S (1980), London: BFI
[8] Altman R (1989) cited in Generic Conventions and Genre Evolution by Stephen Rowley
[9] Sobchack (1987) Cited in the course of a chapter on definitions of sci-fi
[10] The Cinema Book (p 192)
[11] The Cinema Book (p 192)
[12] Rahoul A (2005) Is Minority Report a typical science fiction film (pg. 2)
[13] Pringle D (1997, pg. 21-37) The Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction
[14] Telotte (1995) cited in The Cinema Book
[15] The Cinema Book (pg.192)
[16] John H (2006) There’s no place like hell for the holidays
[17], Dave Calhoun
[18] Unit 6 – Critical approaches to genre booklet
[19], Dave Calhoun
[20] Guerrasio, Jason (2003) A New Humanity, Filmmaker Magazine
[21] Horn, John (2006), There’s no place like hell for the holidays
[22] Vo, Alex (2007) Interview with ‘Children Of Men’ director Alfonso Cuarón
[23] Smith, Chris (2006) Children Of Men Review
[24] What If…? Article in ‘America’ (2006)
[25] Official Fabrizio Eva interview in Children Of Men DVD
[26] Official Fabrizio Eva interview in Children Of Men DVD
[27] Peter Bradshaw (2006) Children Of Men Review
[28] Blade Runner (1982) DVD Cover
[29], Dave Calhoun
[30] Official Alfonso Cuaron interview in Children Of Men DVD
[31] Susan Sontag cited in
[33] Zizek, Slavoj (2007), Children Of Men DVD
[34] Colin C (2006) Future Shock in Children Of Men
[35] Children Of Men review by Peter Bradshaw
[36] Introducing Genre booklet, Unit 1
[37] Official Clive Owen interview in Children Of Men DVD
[38] Official Clive Owen interview in Children Of Men DVD
[39] Official Clive Owen interview in Children Of Men DVD
[40] Neale, Steve (1980), London: BFI

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