Action movies are rarely taken seriously by critics, rarely even evaluated on the merits of their action. Instead of analyzing the mechanics of a fight scene, the movement through space and edits, a more conventional approach is taken in accordance with chats about character, story, and drama. Action may be perceived as a void of other things — where explosions are going on, intellectual things cannot exist (possibly because they’re being blown up).
What if action, and really good action, could be put to toward that more conventional stuff? Children of Men is nearly interactive, using its blistering chase scenes to engage physically with the audience, and grant them an empathy perfect for this story. As a post-apocalypse, it’s a generic pastiche of the familiar: there’s dystopic rule, bandits, urban decay, war — and yet it is among the most palpable, the most terrifying. The film sells its world through masterclass direction, and Mr. Cuaron’s inherent knowledge of how the viewer interfaces with the screen.
We saw it earlier on this list with Gravity, and here in Children of Men, the story is similarly of survival, but the journey is much more draining. It’s arguable whether we can truly derive hope out of the ending, given how much brutality and inhumanity has been witnessed. We can take the sparse, full-frontal force approach like Hillcoat’s The Road adaptation, but Children of Men takes it a step further by not just setting a depressing mood, but embodying the minute details of an entire world with it.
It’s a film where the male protagonist breaks down crying after a particularly traumatic episode, and so at first we take in the ruthlessness of the scene, and later understand the effects it has on the characters peopling this terrible world. It’s difficult for a film to break through to us on this level, we as an audience being so desensitized to cinema violence. Making it real with full characters, physically real set-pieces, and easily imagined situations is a comprehensive creative job.
The movie where we can celebrate its technical achievements is a exceptional thing. The movie where such those technical achievements are an afterthought to what they create is the cinematic ideal. The creator’s hand is invisible for two blistering hours, but after the credits roll and we reclaim ourselves, we know that this was the work of a visionary.