by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Children of Men & r & The opening sequence of Children of Men tells us a lot. As the camera rolls backward into a shabby-looking coffee shop, following Theodore Feron (Clive Owen) in to buy coffee, we hear news that the world's youngest person has died. Born in 2009, the boy was 18. All eyes in the shop are fixated on the screen. Feron is too, momentarily, before getting his coffee and change. The camera then dutifully begins to follow him back into the street. We see another screen, the same image, and more people, transfixed. We get the sense that everyone in Britain is watching the same channel. The despair is palpable. Feron opens the door and heads left -- and the camera follows, but pauses for a moment, looking a bit to the right. The billboards are moving, informing us that if we're suspicious of something, we should report it. The camera pans back toward Feron, and we see the street lined with barbed wire cages. People inside. Armored personnel carriers make up the bulk of traffic. We squint to read an advert that says, "Quietus: You decide when it's time." The camera finds Feron again. He's got his coffee perched on top of a newspaper rack. The camera passes him while staying trained on his hands. The camera spins, putting Feron between itself and the entrance to the caf & eacute;, we see him struggle to put the lid back on. The camera begins to move again, turning left. Just as the door to the caf & eacute; is about to leave our view, the cup goes flying. The caf & eacute;'s fa & ccedil;ade explodes outward from our peripheral vision into our direct line of sight. There's a sickening, high-pitched ringing and rubble everywhere. Feron crumples. The camera leaves him crouching against the wall, and speeds back to the caf & eacute;. Movement from inside makes it stop. A woman walks out carrying her arm. We realize the ringing in our ears hasn't stopped. The scene ends, but the ringing doesn't.
The whole scene is a continuous tracking shot that does the work in 100 seconds -- establishing background, setting tone and creating character -- that most films chronicling an apocalyptic future take 100 minutes to accomplish. We know Feron and we know his world. Shots like that, spread throughout, use every stray second of an incredibly economical 109-minute runtime, to offer more information passively than films like Minority Report crammed down our throats with exposition.
From one brief port of calm to the next, Feron is drawn into a story of almost unfathomable importance. Humanity has been infertile for 18 years. He must get Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), nine months pregnant, past Britain's totalitarian army, self-serving rebels and riotous mobs, to the coast and, possibly, to safety.
The success of this film is not primarily in writer/director Alfonso Cuar & oacute;n's dialogue -- which is often pockmarked and unsure -- but in the story he tells without speech, in those long shots and in the way he creates an environment of such chaos that the film's initial tension is preserved with very little orchestral trickery. Violence exists in the blink between heartbeats. It's not the string section you worry about, then, but the silence in which you permit yourself a calming breath. It's remarkable and utterly exhausting. It's the kind of cinema to which future directors will aspire.