When I spend days devoted to writing, I need breaks to get my mind off of my own stories, and give myself some motivational juice and inspiration that, yes, film is the correct career choice. So during these breaks, I like to read news articles on films, watch clips, and find interesting things to preoccupy my mind from film… with film. What a beautiful field.
Anyways, during these breaks, I thought a cool thing to do for this somewhat confusing blog is to create these segments where we can break down scenes and how great they are. Sometimes, a film can be remembered and even immortalized for one single scene from The Godfather’s baptism/take down of the families scene to Titanic’s “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD”. These scenes are what keeps older films and classics fresh in our minds as their ability to execute a scene perfectly is what keeps the legacy of any film growing. So the first movie I want to break down is CHILDREN OF MEN, one of my favorite films of all time.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who’s the favorite right now to win the Oscar for his work in GRAVITY, this film, to me, is truly his masterpiece. Grand themes, epic scale, and risky choices, CHILDREN OF MEN arguably gave Cuaron the confidence to shoot a film like GRAVITY. So one can maybe make the argument that without CHILDREN OF MEN, there is no GRAVITY. It’s probably not legitimate, but whatever.
This film is famous for two scenes, the sudden onslaught brought upon their car where, and the seven minute continuous action sequence where the camera follows the leads through a chaotic gun fight between rebels and the army. Though those two scenes are accomplishments and deserve its recognition, but I’m going to focus on the opening scene of CHILDREN OF MEN.
Once you get past the studio credits (I couldn’t find one without that I liked), you’re quickly thrown into the world of CHILDREN OF MEN. I remember watching this film for the first time in theaters, and I was mesmerized by it, quickly being sold without knowing anything about the film. But when you rewatch the scene over and over, you start picking up the genius behind its set up and how it tells you so much about the film within the first two minutes.
The first thing the opening scene does is give us the audio of news reports without showing us any images. It automatically throws the audience into an intriguing state, clearly realizing something important must be happening if we start off with this. The first image we see is a tiny coffee shop packed with people watching the same news report as we first heard.
No one is conversing, reading a newspaper, or really ordering anything outside of our main protagonist (which we’ll get back to in a bit). All eyes are glued on the screen, giving us the impression that people care. Seeing that the reports are centered around the tragic death of the youngest person alive, we are given pieces of information that provide us less exposition and more curiosity and interest.
We asks questions right away like:
-Why is he the youngest person?
-What is happening in this world?
-Why are people so afraid, so sad, so depressed by this news?
But the genius of this scene is to not stay here, but to follow our protagonist, Theo, played by the great Clive Owen. Another great aspect of the scene above is that though everyone is clearly invested into the death of baby Diego, he wouldn’t give his own two cents about the story. He orders his coffee, takes a glimpse at the television, and leaves. It shows us that there’s something to this character, his apathy, his depressing body language. He walks out of the coffee shop, and we’re sent into futuristic London, a dark, greyish atmosphere that looks unsettling and unsafe.
We see a future that is realistic in terms of society’s advancement in technology but also how grounded it is in making sure that this world is believable. If not, we lose ourselves in disbelief, thus losing our ability to integrate ourselves in the story of a world where it’s impossible to not create life. If we don’t believe in the surroundings, we won’t believe in the story. We also see how big the story of baby Diego is as it’s playing through large screens that also act as windows of large stores and buildings, an advancement that we could easily believe take place in the year 2027.
We follow Theo, using a hand held shaky cam (shaky cam is always done intentionally) to give us the feeling of chaos. If done with a dolly or a moving track, we lose the feeling of fear and disturbance. The fact that the camera follows Theo, watches him pour whiskey or whatever alcoholic beverage he chooses, into his coffee, and gives us the view of the other side elicits a tense and insecure feeling, making the viewer all the more fearful of this world. The pouring of alcohol in his coffee also gives us a better understanding that Theo most likely does suffer from some kind of depression, regardless of it being the current state of society or his own situation, which would be totally believable considering what we’ve witnessed already in the last minute or so. That’s the vision and the purpose of this opening scene. To make everything believable from the what transpires next through all the way to the end. We must believe in this world, we must believe that cruelty, violence, and the existence of peace between humans has all but disappeared.
As the camera turns, unstably, to the other side of Theo, we watch him pour his whiskey into his coffee. And as we are about to ask questions about Theo and his mental state, his potential depression, and why is he like this during a time that should expose imminent emotion… BOOM! The coffee shop that he was just in explodes. He reacts in ways that all other humans in the scene would react, ducking, quickly covering, and protecting themselves from potential danger and hurt. This shows us a very real Theo, human, and that he’s aware of his surroundings. Now if you continue past this opening scene, Theo goes back to his apathetic and dark ways, showing you that even though he just luckily survived and cheated death by mere seconds, he’s still this way. But this scene above is crucial because it shows us that Theo does have capabilities in expressing human reactions, but even after a traumatic event like a terrorist bomb, he’s back to normal, thus giving us more questions including why is he still like this or moving into a bigger and more important question: is he just used to this kind of life and this kind of world? But before we can ask those questions, we get the strongest image and the final image of the opening scene:
Now this scene is crucial in so many different ways. First off, it’s a shocking, brutal, and disturbing image that isn’t grotesque or all too gory, which is the most effective way to showcase violence: allow the viewer to imagine it. A woman walks out of the coffee shop holding her ripped off arm, screaming in pain and in fear. What I love most about this scene, besides from the obvious, is that the camera consciously leaves Theo, though we’ve been in his perspective this whole time. I believe they do this to show us a few things. The first is to get a better shot of the woman. Duh. But when you think more about this scene, it’s a metaphor of Theo’s current state. He’s broken. He’s hurt. But he’s still alive. It’s obvious that something happened to Theo that shows us that something is wrong, but this is a reminder to Theo that something is wrong with him. It’s an image that Theo will most likely not forget, and more of a reflection of who he is. It’s also seems like a metaphor on the current state of society. Broken, hurt, and clear in terrible shape, but still alive. This woman survived, against all odds, and though it seems as if life has all but left from her, she still can overcome. Society still has hope, but only if it figures out how to instill hope and believe in it. And that’s the major theme in this film: hope, belief, and faith.
The opening sequence of CHILDREN OF MEN is so great not just because of everything we’ve discussed before, but because of how efficient it is in displaying all these different elements, thoughts, and providing a clear world in such a short amount of time. One of the things I’ve learned through the cruel world of screenwriting is that showing is better than telling. This is a great example of that, and within two minutes, we are given all the motivation we need to keep watching.
The story revolves around something we as humans can attach to in representing hope. As a new baby has been born, the world can find hope and use that image of life to believe again. The opening scene represents the entire film, but you wouldn’t be aware of that until you rewatch CHILDREN OF MEN over and over again. It’s depth and its awareness is what separates itself from most movies. Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki are masters of story telling through imagery and vision, and the opening scene of CHILDREN OF MEN is a prime example of their skill level.
Here is one of the famous two scenes to CHILDREN OF MEN, but I urge you to go watch the film in its entirety to really experience this masterpiece.
And here’s how they executed this specific scene.