THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Children of Men
Reassessing “Children of Men” in the Age of Coronavirus
“I can’t really remember when I last had any hope. And I certainly can’t remember when anyone else did either.”
These are the opening lines to the trailer for “Children of Men” and they seem even more applicable today than they did when the movie premiered 15 years ago. Released the US on Christmas Day 2006, “Children of Men” is about a humanity-wide condition that has turned the world upside down and left many without hope for the future.
Directed by Alfonzo Cuarón and shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, “Children of Men” was not considered a massive hit upon its initial release. It was however named to a significant number of film critics’ top ten lists of 2006. Its reputation has only grown since. The BBC named it the one of the greatest movies of the 21st Century and Rolling Stone named it the best sci-fi film of the century.
Starring Clive Owen, Julian Moore, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Children of Men” has the wonderful distinction of being one of the few action-heavy films where the protagonist (Owen’s Theo) never handles a gun. He begins the film dejected; having lost his faith in humanity’s future. And he ends the film risking his life to save humanity’s future. It is a beautiful redemption arc and one that is fire-arm free.
Based on a book of the same name by P.D. James, “Children of Men” has many memorable scenes. Few, however, are as iconic as the Bexhill raid oner near the end of the film.
In this article, we take a closer look at this massive scene. We will break it down into three sections:
- Elements that are COVID-19 risks
- A change to increase pandemic safety
- Final thoughts
From a COVID-19 safety perspective, this scene from “Children of Men” is pretty risky.
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the most intricately staged scenes of the 21st century so far. Let’s see how risky things get when the Fishes raid Bexhill in the culminating action sequence of “Children of Men.”
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
We usually begin by highlighting aspects of a scene that are COVID-19 safe. Well, in this installment, there really aren’t any (save for the fact that a portion of the scene takes place outside). When Alfonso Cuarón shot this scene in 2006, he didn’t have to worry about pandemic safety on set. And it’s a good thing, because the entire scene is high-risk, so let’s look at why.
While there are myriad pandemic safety issues with this scene, we want to highlight two:
- Production Size
As we have said repeatedly in this series, one of the safest ways to shoot any scene during a pandemic is to minimize the number of people in it. This scene does the exact opposite. Every major character (still alive) is in this scene, along with hundreds of extras, tanks, explosions, squibs, and loads of physical contact. The scene also required a large crew to pull off this intricately timed shot.
While the scene is technically not a true “oner” because it is actually several takes from a few locations digitally stitched together in post, the size of the cast and crew is still enormous.
The scene is over six minutes long and involves choreographing the movements of armies, rubble, buses, and fleeing and injured people. It required crew members to fill the air with smoke and debris.
With this many people on set, interacting in close proximity, and with lots of contact, this long shot is a risky one to attempt during a pandemic. It gets even riskier when the scene goes indoors.
The first section of this scene takes place outdoors but it ends inside a crumbling building. When it comes to COVID-19 safety, the worst place you can be is indoors. The coronavirus spreads far more easily in areas with poor ventilation, with large groups of people in close proximity, who are screaming, crying, and yelling. This scene has a lot of red flags.
The Bexhill raid might seem like it is too complicated to be made safe to shoot during a pandemic. Well, to quote Ryan George from Youtube’s Pitch Meeting, “it’s actually super easy, barely an inconvenience.” Let’s look at how we make it safer.
A Change to Increase Pandemic Safety
In the short 15 years since this movie’s release, this scene has become iconic. We are not interested in changing it. This is simply an exercise to highlight COVID-19 safety where we imagine shooting this scene today, in a pandemic with a new variant spreading like wildfire.
Our COVID-19 certified risk managers would be sure to highlight this scene during pre-production and work with the creative team to devise strategies to make this scene safer to film in a pandemic. In this particular instance, we might suggest shrinking the size of the production in this scene and— potentially— not going inside during the second half of the scene.
But we would likely have these suggestions rebuffed. The creative team’s goal in much of this film was to do impressive, long, and complicated shots. To make this scene safer from a COVID-19 perspective and still allow the creative team to achieve its goals, we would need to think outside the box. In this case, we would actually suggest making the scene more “dangerous” in order to make it safer.
Increasing Danger to Increase Safety
If we can increase the danger for the characters we just might be able to make it safer for the actors, the extras, and the crew. To do this, we would suggest that along with the explosions, the bullets, the rubble, and the missiles the scene involve tear gas.
This scene pits two armed groups against each other. The Fishes – a militia group with questionable motives – blast their way into the Bexhill Refugee Camp, creating chaos to distract from their goal of recapturing the first woman to give birth in 18 years and her baby. They face off against an honest-to-goodness army with tanks and loads of infantry personnel. Both sides have a variety of ordnance at their disposal. It would make sense for one, or both, of them to have tear gas as well.
The Fishes could use tear gas to create even more mayhem and increase their chances of success. The military could deploy tear gas as an often used tactic in urban warfare. In either case, the majority of the people in the scene would have gas-masks.
Our team of heroes could easily grab gas-masks off bodies and protect themselves from the gas by wearing the masks throughout this scene. Even those characters who would believably not have gas-masks could fashion some face-covering to compensate.
This scenario allows the production to mask everyone, either with professional grade gas masks or with N95 masks hidden under make-shift cloth masks. There is a reason the CDC has been pushing for more mask-wearing since the beginning of this pandemic: masks work. They help stop the spread of the virus.
By making the scene more dangerous for the characters, we can devise a way to believably have everyone in this scene masked. By masking everyone, we will have dramatically increased the safety of this scene without detracting from the stakes. In fact, the scene might become more tense and visually arresting with toxic smoke in the air and everyone in gas masks.
“Children of Men” is an unforgettable film. Much of what makes it so is the ambition of the filmmakers involved and the dedication of the cast and crew. On the face of it, this enormous scene looks like it might be impossible to film during the pandemic. But that is not the case.
By looking at the stakes, the production design, and thinking outside the box, we can make things safer by making them more dangerous. Introducing tear gas into the world of the scene (though, obviously, not in real life) gives the production a justifiable and realistic reason to mask everyone. This makes everyone safer.
In her original review of “Children on Men,” Slate film critic Dana Stevens said, “A movie about the last days of humanity…may seem like a bleak choice for holiday viewing. But ‘Children of Men’ is a modern-day nativity story…”
“Children of Men” is likely the most relevant Christmas movie for this moment in history. It is about reestablishing our faith and hope in humanity’s future, no matter the odds. No matter how bleak it may be at times. In the end (literally), it is a film about making it to Tomorrow (spoiler alert in that link).
As we near the end of another pandemic year, let’s focus on the sources of new life in our world and allow them to renew our faith in our collective future. From everyone here at Epitome, we wish you a Happy Holiday Season and a wonderful New Year. See you on the Tomorrow.
Join us next month – and next year – when we celebrate the 27th anniversary of one of the best love stories every put to film as we look through the COVID lens at 1995’s “Before Sunrise.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.