Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Notes on Children of Men and The Road 

This past week I saw the film Children of Men and read Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (which was named by Entertainment Weekly the #1 Fiction Book of the Year).

I mention these together because my reactions to them are similar. Both are exceptionally well-crafted works of art, but both presume science-fictional premises entirely without examination, without in any way exploring the bases for those premises.

Children of Men, is set some 20 years from now when humanity has gone sterile, for some unknown reason, with no children born since 2009 or so, causing social unrest that apparently has brought chaos to virtually all the world except for Britain, which reacts with extreme measures against immigrants, forcing their exportation via coastal refugee ('fugee') camps. Equally unexplained, one woman has become pregnant after all, and to avoid exploitation by the UK government, must be ferreted offshore to a mysterious international organization aboard a ship called 'Tomorrow' with the help of the Clive Owen character.

Gary Westfahl's review posted here makes the crucial point that the film is better at depicting social chaos and political turmoil than in imagining what a world *without children* would be like. Still, it does the former quite well, I thought, and I think the reason mainstream critics are reacting positively to the film is partly due to its depiction of a Britain under siege, with a great many incidental and background details, -- with many obvious parallels to the 'homeland security' paranoia current in the US -- and partly due to numerous examples of bravura filmmaking. The latter include at least two extended scenes filmed as single takes. The one most written about in reviews is the battle scene near the end, with Clive Owen dodging execution squads and military tanks in a Full Metal Jacket-like sequence lasting some 7 minutes (in a single, uninterrupted take, which required weeks of planning and rehearsing, reportedly), but also an earlier scene in which Clive and the pregnant mother and two other 'terrorists' are fleeing police in a small car, and the camera amazingly swivels and pans back and forth *from inside the car* to capture what happens to them as they flee down the road and are stopped by police. Yes, these might be filmmaking stunts (to some extent distracting to viewers who can't help but wonder *how did they do that?*), irrelevent to the content and conceptual premise of the film, but they're also effective stunts, truly enhancing the intensity of those events. And that intensity is in part what mainstream critics are appreciating.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a post-apocalypse novel in which a man and his 10-year-old-or-so son, born just after the barely-alluded to event that destroyed civilization, are scrambling across a ruined American landscape scrambling for food, trying to survive, and having nothing to live for but the arbitrary goal of reaching the coast. The writing is extremely spare: the characters are unnamed, dialogue is presented without quotation marks, and in fact McCarthy barely uses any punctuation aside from periods (full stops), breaking even subordinate phrases into separately stopped sentences. It's emotionally effective and devastating, as the father remembers how the boy's mother took her own life just after the apocalyptic event, how he wonders if it might even be better to take his son's life rather than force him to endure endless hunger and trial, much less be captured by the various survivalist clans roaming the countryside. But McCarthy is concerned about that relationship between the characters, about what they think and feel from moment to moment, and in the context of their story, the cause of the apocalypse is irrelevant.

So are these works a victory of some sort? Have SF themes become such a part of popular culture they don't need justification? Is this progress?

But seriously... CHILDREN OF MEN is SOYLENT GREEN in reverse. Same unexplained doom scenario that doesn't hold up to rational analysis.
A victory of sorts, yes. SF tropes no longer need to be explained - spaceships, time travel, alien invasion, it's all taken for granted.

But as commonly practiced in the movies you mention and many other media presentations, this is a victory for bad SF, a defeat for good SF. The scientifictional settings no longer need to be justified, but also no longer need to be rationally examined. As much as I favor SF as pure entertainment (phooey on predictive value, satire, and "if this goes on" messages), good SF still requires an intellectual kernel at its heart. If the story is not initiated or resolved, at some essential level, by a scientific or technical premise, it's not good SF, it's just a Western with rayguns, a Mystery with telepathy, thunder and lightening without rain.

Really enjoyed your review of CHILDREN OF MEN. I saw it about the same time you did and truly enjoyed it, though I didn't analyse why at the time. Likewise, I went to the movie anticipating a clever sf'nl answer to the mysteries presented so effectively in the trailer, namely: "Why have women become sterile in this future?" and, of course, "Why is this one woman pregnant?"

Oddly enough though, I never questioned why PD James (author of the book) never answered these questions -- at least until I read your review, anyway. The movie worked completely for me, turning my interests away from my usual expectations (the kind I'd have reading a run-of-the-mill SF novel, for example, dealing entirely with scientific cause and effect), and towards what I thought were ultimately more interesting & satisfying issues of personal tragedy, perseverence, and hope.

One of the things I (eventually) learned as a reviewer as the SF Site years ago was never to criticize a work for not accomplishing something the author never intended. I'm speculating here, but I think PD James had no interest in exploring the medical causes of sterility. She's not a doctor. She could have made some feeble, hand-waving attempt, typical of much SF (granted, I'm thinking of endless seasons of Star Trek: The Next generation, not the superior SF of Baxter & Stross, but still). But that kind of thing is very hard to get right, and done wrong it can seriously mar a work.

So believe it or not, I'm glad she didn't make the attempt. That's not what the book was about.

- John
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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