‘Children of Men’: The shot and the sea

The Shot

There is a moment in the film “Children of Men” that is referred to simply as “the shot” by film critics and students alike.  For those of you who, like me, are not film elitists, “the shot” is director Alfonso Cuaron’s ten-minute long single tracking shot where the camera trails Theo as he staggers through a hellish, war-ravaged city street in search of Kee and the child. As the scene reaches its denouement, the camera lens is spattered with blood, yet still reflects, unblinking, the surrounding carnage, like a corpse that died with its eyes open. It is a mesmerizing, visceral scene which shadows Theo’s every glance and head-turn.  It is one of the few moments in the film where the audience fuses with Theo through a shared point of view.  This is “the shot.”

No, I am not a Cinemaphile.

When I first saw “Children of Men” in theaters, there was one scene that haunted me for weeks after, and it was not the shot described above.  I was and remain ignorant of film student vernacular and culture, so when I overheard cinema hipsters buzzing about the “the shot,” I naturally thought that my shot and their shot were one in the same.

[Cinemaphile]:  “You see ‘Children of Men’?”

[Me]:  Yeah.

[Cinema Hipster glares at me knowingly

and shakes head slowly from side to side, dumbstruck]:

[Cinema Hipster]:  “the fucking shot, man…”

[Me, in the know]: “I know.”

Apparently, I did not know.  My scene and the cinema hipster’s shot were indeed not the same.  For me, there is only one scene in “Children of Men” worth referring to as “the shot.”  I will refer to this shot as “The Sea,” and it plays as follows:

 My Shot, or The Sea: Why it is Important, and Why it is better than Your Shot, Cinema Hipster

 The end of the film.  Theo, Kee, and the newborn are led to a dingy floating in a water tunnel that leads to the sea.  There is a halo of light within the otherwise dark tunnel which illuminates them and follows them out until they reach the exit.  Once they are out in open water, the atmosphere feels strangely claustrophobic.  Although they have escaped the imminent menace of the shore, they are encircled by thick, white fog and endless ocean on all sides.  Kee and the child sit facing Theo, whom is rowing the lifeboat.  They are seeking the vessel “Tomorrow,” alone in the middle of the sea, shrouded in mist, no help or living thing within sight.  The chaos of the city streets would almost seem a relief to the eerie isolation of their current surroundings.  At this moment, the threesome is most vulnerable.  Smothered by fog and endless ocean, they sway precariously in the swells, waiting.

Focus is now on the three passengers.  Kee, spotting blood on the boat’s floor, has a freak-out, believing the blood to be her own.  Theo reassures her that it is his own blood, and smiles.  “They got me,” he says, like a soldier wounded in battle.  But his smile is laced with the irony of a man who is about to die an inglorious death on a dingy in the middle of the ocean.

The child begins to cry.  Kee, having been a mother for less than a day, is unsure of how to hold and comfort her child.  Unexpectedly, Theo’s paternal instincts surface.  He pantomimes the act of holding a newborn to guide Kee.  There is a faraway, distant shot of the boat, and the threesome appear to be barely visible blurs in the mist.  Even so, Theo’s movements are unmistakable; he is embracing and gently rocking a phantom child in his empty arms.  Kee mimics his movements.  The child, soothed, is quiet and still.

“Dylan,” Kee says.  “I will name the baby Dylan.  It is a girl’s name, too.”  Theo smiles at this, slumps over, and closes his eyes.  He could be dead.  Or he could be sleeping.  Nevertheless, the few seconds that follow are the most hopeless and dismal of the entire film.  Without Theo, Kee realizes that she and her baby are utterly alone in the middle of the sea.  Suddenly, Kee sees the rescue vessel, “The Tomorrow” as it approaches, and attempts, unsuccessfully, to rouse Theo from his stupor.  Man, woman, and child await the ship amidst the trembling undulations of the sea.  There is a haunting, operatic soprano’s voice that sings the film’s reoccurring theme.  The screen cuts suddenly to black, with the words “Children of Men” branded across in stark white letters.  The end.

Days after watching “Children of Men,” I was thoroughly depressed by the ending.  I found myself dwelling on this last image; the bleakness and solitude of the sea, and the three souls, alone, their last hopes lying with naught but a rusty ship. Then I remembered the child’s name.  Dylan.  Yes, Dylan is a girl’s name, and it is also the name of Theo’s dead son.  Translated from its Gaelic origins, Dylan means “of the sea.”  I remembered that in the film, Theo taught his son, Dylan, how to swim when he was two months old.  And, being an English major who has nothing better to think about, I remembered the last lines of a cherished Dylan Thomas poem:

“Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

 I thought about those lines.  I thought about the human race as it is presented in the film; a species approaching extinction, on its last legs; a populace that is alarmingly similar to our own.  I thought about how the child’s name signifies one of the few places left on earth that humans are unable to inhabit, due to lack of fins and gills.  And yet here she is, in the middle of the sea.  Dylan.  And in this moment, there is not a body around to corrupt her spirit, save her teenage mother and a man who is still holding onto his own dead child, either in his dreams or in another life.  This scene is important because it is simultaneously hopeless and hopeful.  It presents us with ourselves, dying, and then being born again in a place where, until now, human life has yet to thrive: the sea.  And so, Cinema Hipster: that is why my shot is better than your shot.

 

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About Vanessa Graniello

Vanessa's film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in the English Department at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, NY. View all posts by Vanessa Graniello

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