Over the next few posts, I’m going to have some fun parsing through the opening shots of some of my favorite movies, trying to glean significance from whence there may be none at all. For starters, my favorite movie of the last 10 years (give or take a Millennium Actress): Children of Men.
The film opens with a voiceover on a black screen, telling us of the death of “baby Diego, the youngest person on the planet”. This is an odd, disarming way to start the film. A baby’s death is always sad, but why the detail of “youngest person on the planet?” Isn’t that honor passed on every few seconds, whenever a new baby is born?
Shot 1: A crowd of people, eyes glued to a television set, faces forlorn. I love two things about this shot. For one, it shows the level of detail that director Alfonso Cuaron pays to each shot and each scene. Even muted, we can tell the crowd is watching TV thanks to the set behind them at about the same elevated level of whatever they’re looking at. Additionally, he uses the first shot of the film to introduce its most common recurring visual motif: society’s embrace of pets as surrogate children. We don’t know the film’s story yet, but already Cuaron is setting us up for its introduction visually.
Shot 1 (continued): Enter Clive Owen’s character, the protagonist Theo (we learn his name later in the movie). He barges through the crowd to get a cup of coffee. He’s less interested in the news of Baby Diego’s death.
Shot 2: Here we are. Baby Diego was no baby. He was 18. From that information alone we can glean the significance of his murder. For some reason, there are no more babies. No more future. This teenager was the last person ever born.
The shot also establishes a time and place it’s 2027, and given that the broadcast in on BBC (or at least its copyright protected knockoff, BCC) and, well the accents of the newscaster, we’re in England. All this without an establishing shot.
Shot 3: Not that Theo seems to care much. He nonchalantly takes his coffee while the rest of the crowd looks on at the newscast in despair.
Shot 3 (continued): This is definitely England. London, actually. Just in case we missed the date on the telecast, the giant plasma screen tells us we’re in an future world more akin to “Blade Runner” (where sci-fi technology did nothing to eliminate inner city slums) than the sleek vision of “Minority Report”.
Shot 3 (continued): At this point, we’re aware that this is a tracking shot. There hasn’t been a cut since Theo left the coffee shop. Cuaron uses them a lot in the film. This shot sort of serves as an appetizer to some truly crazy tracking shots later in the film. Tracking shots can be tricky to use well. If they’re too self-indulgent, too obvious, they become distracting. We’re aware that the director is trying to impress us. But Cuaron uses tracking shots well in this film. They create a documentary feel. That’s important to what happens next…
Shot 3 (continued): And that there’s an explosion. The coffee shop we were just in has been blown up. Note Theo’s reaction. He’s shocked. His coffee’s all over the place. He’s frightened.
It’s vital to this film’s success that Theo is a completely normal man. He survives some incredible situations, and he never plays the action hero to do it. He’s not particularly brave or strong or apt at combat. He’s a normal guy, and normal guys are terrified of explosions when they happen in the coffee shop you were in 10 seconds prior. Cuaron seems to be playing with the action movie cliche of heroes ignoring explosions like minor annoyances.
Shot 3 (continued): And just so we know this wasn’t some pranksters playing with firecrackers, we get this disturbing shot of a dazed woman with her arm blown off, as screams of horror are heard off screen.
What did these three shots, which lasted just over a minute and a half, do? They set everything but the movie’s plot in motion. They establish the protagonist, a cynical but vulnerable man. They establish the state of the location: bleak, depressed, violent. No matter what happens in this story, the stakes will probably be high, simply because death can strike at any time. Effective science fiction films are aware that no genre is better suited to visual storytelling. Expositional dialogue drags science fiction. In three shots, Alfonso Cuaron establishes elements of a film that some sci-fi movies need a good half-hour plus to do. Cuaron is an extraordinary visual filmmaker, but his creativity extends beyond his ability to conjure aesthetically beautiful or astonishing shots. He fills the screen with details that help add to the story. He never allows for clutter, unlike most sci-fi CGI orgies. He’s efficient. For a lean, thrilling film like “Children of Men”, efficiency is vital.
What do we want out of movies? It differs for everyone. Some just want to be entertained. They don’t want an existential discourse with their friends after they’ve seen a film. That’s fine (as long as you don’t demand your money back after seeing “Tree of Life”). Some consider hyper-intellectual discourse about movies a given, and will ham-fistedly shoehorn it into any movie discussion they can. Again, that’s just fine. Just don’t do it unless you know what you’re talking about.
I can go both ways, depending on my mood and the movie I’ve just seen. “Tree of Life” was impossible to talk about without sound like you had just exited a philosophy round table, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Movies that ambitious ought to be dissected for personal meanings. I also consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to be the best film of the 80’s, based entirely on the entertainment value of Nazis being melted real good by God.
But what I really go for are movies that hit me with that tingle in my spine. I’m not talking about an 80’s training montage chill (though those are good too). I mean movies that blindside me with a moment of beauty, honesty, or majesty that renders me dumbstruck for a few moments.
The one that comes to mind, more than any other, is “Children of Men”. I think “Children of Men” might be the best movie of the 2000’s (it alternates with “Millennium Actress” and “Spirited Away” for that honor). It’s a gripping sci-fi thriller, yes, but its heart emerges in one key scene that had me sobbing in the theater. Please don’t watch this if you haven’t seen the movie.
This long, long take culminates in an extraordinary scene when a battle is temporarily stopped because of a baby. The first baby born in 18 years. Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, but sci-fi movies rarely stop and give proper gravity to some of the extraordinary things that happen within them.
As moviegoers, we’re conditioned to think that the crux of “Children of Men’s” story (a world gone to hell because there are no future generations to live for) is a device and nothing more. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. Sci-fi has a long history of quick-fix scenarios that give the audience instant emotional investment in the story. Luke Skywalker could easily be called Everyman, AND he loses his aunt and uncle almost right off the bat. The Nostromo in “Alien” has a cat on board. In “Dark City”, a man realizes that his ideal life with a beautiful, loving wife might be imagined.
Quick emotional investment is key to sci-fi. It gets us invested in the world and the story takes it from there. “Children of Men” didn’t need to include a scene that grounded the film in emotional realism. It had plenty going for it as a straightforward thriller about a man protecting the world’s only baby and her mother. But this scene added gravity to the film that it would’ve lacked otherwise, and that sci-fi almost always lacks. And my spine was chilled, my friend. Chilled to the cord.