Sunday, 3 February 2008

First Draft, So Far...

“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’, recurring themes which can be found in an individual genre. Since the early 1900’s, 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.’[2], and in doing so provides an explanation to the consistent variation in their ‘syntactic cores’. This suggests genre is not fixed; rather it is a reflection of the zeitgeist. In turn, looking at the typicality of Children Of Men as a science-fiction film becomes far more complex and requires an analysis of genre 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’[3]. 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’[4] view of categorising films in which he suggests a process involving producers identifying what repertoire of elements to repeat and what to differentiate. By doing this, repetition is avoided whilst audiences are still able to categorise films under an individual genre.

Audiences are likely to identify a genre through what Altman defines as ‘the semantic and syntactic cores’ of different genres. The semantics 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.’[5] Since as early as 1910, science-fiction films, Children Of Men being no different, have been a prime example of this and are regularly used 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.’[6] 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.’[7] The bond between ‘science fiction, special effects technology and set design’[8] 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 first came to rise in Frankenstein (1910), a film which merged the science-fiction genre with horror. Different decades seemed to have spurned 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.’[9] This again would suggest genre, or in this instance science-fiction is indeed a reflection of the zeitgeist as its syntax seemingly continued 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 semantics of the genre had been well established as early as 1920. Pringle divided these semantics into ‘templates’ of which only ‘future cities…[and]…disasters’[10] 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.’[11] The critical and commercial success of Steven Spielberg’s A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001) amongst other titles certainly warrants the comment as accurate. Children Of Men very much takes on a different approach. Set in a dystopian 2027 setting, the film neglects the use of technological advances, or as Pringle would better describe it, ‘alien intrusions’[12]. 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.’[13]

‘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.’[14] 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, whilst at the same indirectly playing on the fear of communism. Similarly, Children Of Men ‘[focuses] on migrancy…[in Britain]… and terrorism…[internationally]…’[15], two contemporary issues that have been highly publicised in the media globally and have given much cause for thought to the public, at times even evolving into fear. Film critic Guerrasio describes this focus as ‘a complex meditation on the politics of today.’[16]

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 refugees have been ‘hunted down like cockroaches’ 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’[17] whilst critic Chris Smith observes ‘symbolic overtones and images of the Holocaust’[18] 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 placed in 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 capitalist values can easily employ fascist ideologies 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.’[19]

Like many other successful science-fiction films, ethical questions are inevitably raised. Here, Cuarón challenges the audience to question the morals behind the terrorism which exists in the film. The first encounter with an act of terrorism comes at 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 11 attacks in America and the July bombings in London. In his review of the film, Bradshaw describes the scene as ‘a punch in the solar plexus’[20], reinforcing the element of surprise. However, as the film progresses the audience learn that the terrorist group known as the ‘Fishes’ are actually 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 the bombing. Here, audiences can draw comparisons with the terrorist group IRA. 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.’[21]

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 has regularly been 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 in which Theo, the protagonist of the film, makes his way through a gun battle between the ‘Fishes’ and the British Army. Cuarón very much shoots the scene in a cinèma vèritè type 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 apart of the action on screen. It is through this that comparisons between the coverage of gun battles in Iraq and similar places can be made. 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 setting as the film proceeds to challenge Susan Sontag’s classic view that ‘science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence-a technological view.’[22] The lengthy single shot sequences combined with ‘the detailed mise-en-scenè to rival the vivid, lived in quality of Blade Runner’ [23] 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). 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) in which the film succeeds in creating a noir effect. Regardless, such techniques are reminiscent of those used in Steven Spielberg’s remake of War Of The Worlds (2005).

The cinèma vèritè style cinematography and lengthy single shot sequences, otherwise referred to as the hybrid aspect of the film, is a product of the auteur. Cuarón first established himself as a rising director with the art-house film Y tu mama también (2001). This provided him with the opportunity to express his own distinct style and the art-house elements found in Children Of Men demonstrate his own style of directing.

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). Despite being set in the year 2027, Cuarón portrays a London as it would look today if it was 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.’[24]

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 with semantics, 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. Hence, 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.

Word Count: 2,018

[1] Children Of Men review by Peter Bradshaw
[2] Maltby, Richard (2003), Hollywood Cinema, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd S (1980) cited in An Introduction to Genre Theory by Daniel Chandler
[3] Neale S (1980) cited in An Introduction to Genre Theory by Daniel Chandler
[4] Altman, Rick (1999), Film/Genre, London: BFI
[5] Altman R (1989) cited in Generic Conventions and Genre Evolution by Stephen Rowley
[6] Sobchack (1988) Cited in the course of a chapter on definitions of sci-fi
[7] The Cinema Book (p 192)
[8] The Cinema Book (p 192)
[9] Rahoul A (2005) Is Minority Report a typical science fiction film (pg. 2)
[10] Pringle D (1997, pg. 21-37) The Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction
[11] Telotte (1995) cited in The Cinema Book
[12] The Cinema Book (pg.192)
[13] John H (2006) There’s no place like hell for the holidays
[14] Unit 6 – Critical approaches to genre booklet
[15], Dave Calhoun
[16] Jason G (2003) A New Humanity, Filmmaker Magazine
[17] Alex V (2007) Interview with ‘Children Of Men’ director Alfonso Cuarón
[18] Chris S (2006) Children Of Men Review
[19] What If…? Article in ‘America’ (2006)
[20] Peter Bradshaw (2006) Children Of Men Review
[21] Blade Runner (1982) DVD Cover
[22] Susan Sontag cited in
[24] Colin C (2006) Future Shock in Children Of Men

No comments: