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 passes my strenuous tests, 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 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. More importantly, 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.
I found the Nordic Blu-ray edition of 'Children of Men' to be shot-for-shot identical to the already impressive domestic HD DVD release from Universal. Presented with a remarkable 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, the film is beautiful 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. 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. Finally, watch the scene in which Theo makes a dash through the battle-torn city. 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.
Unfortunately, everything's not perfect. The transfer is largely free of source noise, but the print is peppered with white flecks and small nicks. There are also a few instances of mild color banding evident in scenes flush 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 the otherwise noteworthy transfer.
The audio on this Nordic import fared just as well. Aside from a higher default volume, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (640 kbps) housed on this Blu-ray disc did a great job with the film's intricate soundscape. Of course, one can only imagine what the film will sound like when presented with a lossless or uncompressed mix on its inevitable domestic Blu-ray release.
'Children of Men' benefits from amazing sound design and attention to detail. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, aggressive LFE support allows low-end tones to resonante, and the entire soundfield is packed with enviornmental ambiance and believeable acoustics. 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. Better still, the rear surrounds work non-stop to envelop the listener in every silence and explosion that shakes the screen. The results transformed my home theater into despondant, futuristic England and allowed me to completely immerse myself in Theo's quest.
However, like the Universal HD DVD, this DD track suffers from slightly stocky channel movement 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.
All things considered, this Nordic Blu-ray provides an excellent sonic experience that's as strong as the domestic HD DVD's Digital Plus track. My lone hesitation? I'm chomping at the bit to hear 'Children of Men' presented with a lossless or uncompressed audio mix. Unless Universal completely drops the ball when the film is released on domestic BD, it should prove to be a 5-star experience.
The big disappointment with this import is that it doesn't have any extra features. While the domestic HD DVD had a U-Control PiP track, multiple featurettes, and a collection of deleted scenes, this Nordic Blu-ray doesn't even have animated or pop-up menus.
Simply put, I adore 'Children of Men,' Alfonso Cuaron's bleak vision of mankind's self-destructive nature and the absolute necessity of hope. Like the domestic HD DVD, this Nordic Blu-ray boasts an excellent video transfer and an impressive (albeit standard) sound mix. The only major disappointment is that this import doesn't have a single special feature. In the end, if you aren't patient enough to wait for Universal to release 'Children of Men' on Blu-ray, purchasing this Nordic import is a no-brainer. However, if you're looking for a high-end audio track or a thorough supplemental package, keep waiting for Universal to reveal their domestic Blu-ray release plans.
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.