“Children Of Men,” the latest film from rising Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y tu mama tambi’n”), asks a very curious question: What would the world be like if we could no longer have children? Pretty crappy, it seems. The film takes place in London in the year 2027, 18 years after the last child on earth was born. The Earth has been inexplicably stricken by total infertility, and faced with the very real prospect of extinction mankind has torn itself apart. Global society has crumbled to the point where England remains the last place with a working government.
Now, when I say ‘working government’ I mean that in the loosest sense. England is a “1984”-style police state where armed troops patrol the streets rounding up immigrants and stuffing them into cages for relocation to internment camps. London is a crumbling ruin, with garbage piled high on every street corner, and riots and bombings are a daily occurrence. The only respite is in a hilariously idyllic inner sanctum encompassing Buckingham Palace and Batterseas Power Station. It is here that we meet Theo Faron (Clive Owen, “Sin City”), a stereotypical dark suit wearing government clock puncher.
Theo wears the sunken eyes and world-wary expression of someone who has been defeated by the world and is content to live out his life punching his time card and occasionally smoking a blunt with his old buddy Jasper (a wild haired Michael Caine, looking a lot like Richard Harris after one of his famous benders). All this changes when Theo is kidnapped by a militant rebel group known as The Fishes, led by Theo’s ex-lover Julian (Julianne Moore, “The Forgotten”). She entrusts Theo with smuggling a young refugee named Kee (newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey) to a shadowy group known as The Human Project. As we soon learn, Kee holds a secret that could change the future of mankind.
From a technical standpoint, “Children Of Men” is one of the better action thrillers to come along in a while. The action scenes are staged with a brutal realism that hasn’t really been seen since “Blackhawk Down.” The camera work is stunning, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki employing a hand-held style that’s not quite as nausea inducing as “Saving Private Ryan”, but equally immediate. Particularly impressive is an elaborately staged siege on a refugee stronghold, which is done in a single, unbroken take reminiscent of the Hospital assault in John Woo’s “Hard Boiled”. The ultra-sharp images give the whole scene a hyper realistic feel that compounds the concussions from the tank barrage.
The film’s second stylistic coup is its realization of near-future London, created by mixing little hints of the future into everyday activities that we all recognize. There are no flying cars or vertical highways, but we get micro home theaters, virtual keyboards, and holographic billboards skillfully and nonchalantly mixed in with ordinary notebooks, coffee shops and diesel buses. The result is a future that is just far enough removed from the present day to seem plausible. And keep an eye out for the cheeky Pink Floyd reference.
Unfortunately the dystopian setting of “Children of Men” is nothing we haven’t seen before. In fact, we saw it earlier this year in “V for Vendetta,” though there’s a lot more muck this time. All the usual neo-fascist ‘Big Brother’ trappings and societal malaise/detritus are also in evidence. Paranoia and depression have let authoritarian rule take hold, and people aren’t allowed to move from place to place without military/government oversight. And with all immigrants declared illegal, this paves the way for a brutal crackdown on undesirables.
The scenes of people being herded like cattle into roadside cages for transport to decrepit detention camps are quite striking in their boldness. However, once the initial shock wears off, it becomes clear that the images are only fluff. For all its clever conceits and dire implications, the script (co-written by Cuaron and based on the novel by P.D. James) doesn’t have the stuffing to support it all. The dystopian themes are all window dressing for what amounts to a traditional action movie.
The film’s biggest problem is that the script is very vague as to the motivation of The Fishes. They at first want to safeguard Kee and get her to The Human Project, but after an off-screen altercation with government troops, their motivation seems to do a 360 and they are suddenly hell-bent on keeping her for their own unexplained designs. This may seem like a small detail, but it is the central motivating factor behind the action in the last third of the movie, so a narrative lapse that calls this into question is a rather serious gaff.
The film also has a very open ending, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but given the flimsy foundation we’ve been treading on up till this point, that final drop off is a doozy. Still, the performances are strong and mostly believable. The reactions the characters give when Kee’s big secret is revealed are hilarious, but perfectly nuance given the background of the story.
“Children Of Men” presents several interesting ideas and operates smoothly within the framework they create, but it does not follow through on them. The film requires the viewer to take a bit too much on faith and just assume that the script accounted for its many thematic gaps before we came in. The film’s frenetic pace and dazzling camera work mostly make up for it, though. There’s barely a dull moment, and you won’t mind the problems so long as you don’t think about them too hard.
Alfonso Cuaron (director) / P.D. James (novel The Children of Men), Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby (screenplay)
CAST: Clive Owen …. Theodore Faron
Julianne Moore …. Julian Taylor
Chiwetel Ejiofor …. Luke
Charlie Hunnam …. Patric
Danny Huston …. Nigel
Claire-Hope Ashitey …. Kee
Peter Mullan …. Syd
Pam Ferris …. Miriam
Michael Caine …. Jasper Palmer