Saturday, February 17, 2007

MacGuffins of Men--Contrarian Blog-A-Thon

Earlier this month at Matthew's House Project, I posted a response to the question, "What makes a good contrarian review?"

This weekend, The Contrarian Blog-A-Thon officially gets underway, so I wanted to participate by writing a contrarian take on a current release. The general consensus in the preparatory comments at Jim Emerson's blog seemed to be that it is easier to be a nay-sayer than a white knight, though doing either well (as opposed to being contrarian for the sake of it) strikes me as equally difficult.

As the title here suggests, my contrary take is on Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron's ninety-one percent "fresh" thriller that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I know some critics, especially in Christian media, have been knocking the screenplay for losing what is perceived to be the latent (or implicit) Christian content of James's novel, but my reservations are of a different sort.

I thought the film was, essentially, one long set piece chase scene. It was a cross between Terminator and The Gauntlet, with a strong, cynical male hero protecting an innocent female whose survival is more important than his own.

A MacGuffin (alt. maguffin, McGuffin) is a plot element which advances the story and/or motivates the characters but which remains ambiguous as to its details. Whether it be the papers in Casablanca (are the Germans really going to let them leave just because they have papers?) or the trial in Snakes on a Plane (does it really matter why they are on the plane?), the particular details of the MacGuffin (maybe even the internal consistency of them) are immaterial.

There is a MacGuffin in Children of Men; it is the baby. Oh, but someone might object, the baby is the whole point of the film--the survival of humanity depends upon its survival. Maybe, maybe not. The details as to the whether or not this baby is unique [or only its mother] and whether it will have a better chance of survival with the shadowy "Human Project" are largely absent from the film.

I actually like the way Wikipedia puts it: "A true MacGuffin is essentially interchangeable. Its importance will generally be accepted completely by the story's characters, with minimal explanation." With minimal explanation it is accepted by the story's characters that it is necessary that Kee and her baby survive and be delivered to the Human Project. Because minimal explanation is required, Kee and her baby are "essentially interchangeable" with any other object that would need to be delivered from point "A" to point "B" in order to save the future of mankind: a plague vaccine, a secret formula for food, war plans, a portkey to another dimension. The important point is not how Kee and her baby will save mankind but only that someone in the story--Clive Owen--believes they will.

In my preparatory piece at The Matthew's House Project, I argued: "[M]any of the best—or most persuasive--contrarian reviews I’ve read are the ones that reveal weakness or problems within a film that have been hiding in plain sight rather than the reviews that attempt to argue for problems that only the contrarian critic was sharp enough to spot."

To illustrate this point, let me indicate how many of the positive reviews mention--but overlook--the film's deficiencies:

"The infertility theme isn't explored in any depth. What exactly will it accomplish to get Kee out of the country? Since the future of mankind rests on this pregnant girl, we want details. "Children of Men" leaves too many questions unanswered, yet it has a stunning visceral impact. You can forgive a lot in the face of filmmaking this dazzling."--David Ansen, Newsweek

"...[T]akes the classic movie formula of a cynical tough guy required to see an innocent party to safe harbor, and shoots it to pieces."--Ray Bennett, The Hollywood Reporter (who calls the film "gripping"). While insisting that the film revitalizes rather than merely regurgitates the formula, Bennett doesn't exactly say which parts are new or how it is innovative (except that its vision of the future is different from that presented in recent films by "Richard Curtis and Woody Allen"). At another point, Bennett goes from saying in one paragraph that "there's barely a pause for breath" to claiming in another that the film "take[s] sufficient time to register the deeper impact of things that are troubling the world." These are not exactly contradictory claims, but their juxtaposition is suggestive.

"It contains evocative passages and some interesting and powerful ideas, but it often reads too much like an erudite potboiler." -- James Berardinelli, Reelviews (who awards the film three stars out of four).

"[T]he future he presents is so poorly conceived and full of contradictions, and is such a non sequitur coming just 20 years down the road, that we never buy it long enough to suspend disbelief."-- William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (who calls the film "a solid action movie").

My point here is not that Children of Men is the worst film of all time or that those who rated it highly are conscious hypocrites. My larger point isn't even about Children of Men at all but rather about contrarianism.

In this day of marketing hype and review saturation, the difference between a contrarian review and an assenting review is often little more than a matter of which the viewer trusts more--the consensus opinion or his or her own two eyes.


andyhorbal said...


If I understand you correctly, it is your view that the film succeeds as a set piece but is deficient in other areas: plot, originality of theme, etc.

I read the film the same way you did, as "essentially, one long set piece chase scene." And I agree pretty much completely with your MacGuffin analysis. But here's where we differ:

It's in precisely this way that the film is new and how it's innovative. I think the movie is structured in such a way that we can't find answers to our questions about why humanity is suddenly infertile and "whether or not this baby is unique [or only its mother] and whether it will have a better chance of survival with the shadowy 'Human Project'" in the dialogue. Instead, we have to look elsewhere: to the mise-en-scene.

I submit that the bravado long takes are part of CuarĂ³n's technique for turning our attention to other parts of the frame, the "less important" parts like the background. And I submit that there's as much information there in this film as there is in the foreground of most other Hollywood films. And if there are still no answers, I submit that this is perhaps not "innovative" or "new," but at least interesting.

I think these critics you cite are dismissing as the film's "deficencies" as unimportant. If they don't make a clear case for what they're doing and why, they have failed in their reviews. But in general, I think that's a legitmate approach to Children of Men.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure if I meant to imply the film succeeds as a set piece--more on that in a second.

I do think that the supposed inferiority of the action/thriller genre in an unofficial hierarchy of genres allows critics to simultaneously vent their contrarian estimation/hedge their bets (i.e. "it's only a thriller") while ultimately lining up on the consensus side of any thumbs up/down dichotomy (i.e. "though it does work on that level").

Does it work as a set piece thriller? Sure, I guess, though it doesn't seem exceptional as such--at least not to the degree to which it is being praised as a serious drama or hybrid. Cuaron's admitted gifts for long takes and mise-en-scene don't make the thriller particularly...thrilling, and, mechanically, neither the stunts, pacing, nor intricacies of the chase would elevate it--as a thriller--to the level of something like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Road Warrior (just off the top of my head, I'm not claiming those two are the sine qua non of the genre).

Not that consensus proves truth (especially in the contrarian blog-a-thon!), but I thought it ironic that the other entry in the blog-a-thon about Children of Men focused on Theo as a passive action hero. (

I don't/didn't mean to imply that these critics have some sort of cultural cachet that makes their opinion priviliged--I use them to demonstrate how common is the critical move I mentioned in the other post--spend the bulk of the anlaysis/review cataloging problems/deficiencies, then, at the eleventh hour, find a justification for giving it a positive rating or grade.