To me, Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most frustrating current filmmakers. Every time I go into one of his films, I want to love it. Everyone else seems to. But for some reason, even though I think his films are fine, they just don’t hit me on the emotional level that they seem to reach with many others.
He is certainly a talented filmmaker — on a technical level he might be one of the best there is — but his stories always leave me feeling flat, and that emptiness overrides the wonder that comes with experiencing what he does sonically and visually. His last two films, “Gravity” and “Roma,” were both released to huge critical and commercial success, netting him a combined four Oscars, including two for Best Director. But despite consistently being ready to be blown away, I kept feeling the same emptiness after each of his films.
I could never quite figure out what made Cuarón’s films not work for me until I watched “Children of Men.” The film takes place in a dystopian future where humans have become infertile. It follows Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen (“Gemini Man”), as he is tasked with helping the only pregnant woman on the planet — and the last hope to save humanity — reach a sanctuary.
The film, in my opinion, is fine. It’s often considered Cuarón’s best (a sentiment I agree with), and many consider it one of the best movies of the 2000s (something I very much disagree with). Cuarón does a lot of cool stuff with the camera, including a number of impressively choreographed long takes, but the story and characters feel flat. The emotional beats don’t hit for me, and despite all the wonderful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Revenant”), I ultimately came away from the film with nothing. I felt the same way I did after watching most of Cuarón’s other works, but this time I have the perfect piece of media to compare it to — something that finally helped me realize specifically why his films don’t click for me. But it’s not another movie, it’s a video game: Naughty Dog’s 2013 release, “The Last of Us.”
In many respects, “The Last of Us” feels like a feature film. From its presentation to its narrative structure, the game feels extremely cinematic. On top of that, it makes an excellent comparison piece to “Children of Men.” The tones, environments and plot structures are very similar in both. Like “Children of Men,” “The Last of Us” takes place in a dystopian future, except this time it’s a future in which a global pandemic has nearly destroyed society (seems like that aged well). The story follows Joel, played by Troy Baker (“Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End”), as he is tasked with helping a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson, “Teen Titans Go!”), who is immune from infection, reach a group of people that are working on a cure across the United States.
Unlike “Children of Men,” I love “The Last of Us.” Not only did it completely change how I view storytelling in video games, but it is an incredibly moving story about the developing father-daughter-esque relationship between Joel and Ellie, with Ellie’s presence allowing Joel to come to terms with the death of his own daughter. But why am I so moved by this video game? Why am I so moved by a work from a medium that usually just raises feelings like anger and frustration when I reach a particularly hard level? And how am I able to connect with it much more deeply than I can with a film that is, all things considered, incredibly similar?
One of the reasons I think “The Last of Us” works so much better than “Children of Men” is the nature of each story’s medium. Video games just have more time than films to properly flesh everything out, whereas the plot and world-building that “Children of Men” needs to get through in its 114-minute runtime comes at the cost of character and emotional resonance. Its scope is too ambitious for the story with the medium at hand. “The Last of Us” is able to use all 15 hours to its advantage, giving plenty of time to world-build through cutscenes and player exploration. It also gives the characters enough time to be written with impressive amounts of depth, without having the main plot feel rushed or drawn out (we’ll get a better idea of whether or not this is a reason why the game works so well when the 8-10 hour HBO miniseries adaptation comes out).
“The Last of Us” also feels much more personal than “Children of Men.” Part of this has to do with the fact that you actually control the characters in “The Last of Us” and, as such, form a greater emotional connection with them, but the themes of the game also feel much more personal. While “Children of Men” tries to aim high with its themes of hope and religion, it only sporadically hits those heights; more subjectively, I just don’t connect with those themes very much, at least not in the context in which the film portrays them. “The Last of Us,” on the other hand, deals with smaller, more personal themes of grief and family that both resonate with me more and feel better suited to the tone of the material.
And I think this is my main issue with the works of Cuarón and why I’m so frustrated with them. All of his films aim big, and while I’m usually excited about the prominent risks they take, his films end up not working because their focus is on such a macro level.
To me, the one exception is “Roma,” which focuses more on the personal drama of its main characters against the larger backdrop of war in Mexico. Unfortunately, in my opinion, “Roma” just lacks the momentum and dynamism that I really like in Cuarón’s other films, and it feels like the film swings too far in the other direction. A happy medium between the big ideas and the energy of “Children of Men” and the emotional depth of “Roma” would work best. Obviously, it’s an extremely tough task, but “The Last of Us” shows that it can be done (albeit with a bit more time). Hopefully, Cuarón’s next film can strike that balance.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.