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Children of Men   A

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton (based on the novel by P.D. James)
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston.

Review by Rob Vaux

I believe in the world of Children of Men. That's vital to any science-fiction film: selling us on the setting, no matter how outlandish or bizarre. The V for Vendetta adaptation failed for me in part because it couldn't convince me that its dystopian society was real; similarly, I'm willing to cut the latter-day Star Wars films a lot of slack because the universe they occupy still feels authentic and true. Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón understands the importance of that equation, and presents a future so believable in every detail that we never question its authenticity. We feel the creeping despair it embodies, set 20 years after the human race has been crippled by infertility. Cuarón and his crew invest untold effort into making every nook and cranny fit the part... and then, like all canny storytellers, push it into the background and let the characters take the stage.

That's particularly important for this story -- based on a novel by P.D. James -- because the central point can be grasped very quickly. It's 2027; no child has been born for over 18 years, and a quiet, all-pervading nihilism is gripping the planet. How would society react to such an event -- a cataclysm involving not bombs or plagues, but the simple fact that in a few decades, no one's going to be around to pick up the mess? Not only does Children of Men have an exceedingly insightful answer, it demonstrates how we got there from here in a thousand little ways. The pierced and tattooed twentysomethings of 2006 are now in their fifties: still sporting eyebrow rings on increasingly wrinkled faces, even though fashion has long since passed them by. Television is still a central part of life, only now it includes ads for ominous products like Quietus, a do-it-yourself suicide kit for when the despair finally overwhelms you. Everyone owns pets -- surrogate children to replace the ones who no longer play in the streets -- while toy stores and elementary schools fall slowly into decay.

The rest of the world is in utter chaos, but Britain endures: propped up by a totalitarian government whose strong-arm tactics maintain a strangely normal facade for its citizens. Refugees from every shore teem towards it, only to be herded into camps and sent back to their crumbling nations of origin. An "ark reclamation project" seeks to gather the world's great pieces of art for posterity, suggesting black-clad commandos storming the Louvre to rescue Monet from the howling mob. A rebel movement hides in the countryside and plots revolution, horrified at the regime's excesses and determined to make it pay. And yet life of a sort goes on. People still go to work and get together with friends; they buy coffee and run to catch the bus; they smoke the odd joint and complain about how those clowns in the government are screwing everything up. The lack of children -- the lack of a future for the species -- doesn't enter into moment-to-moment thoughts. Rather, it becomes a slowly growing shadow: a quiet, inexorable apocalypse consuming us piece by piece.

Cuarón nurtures this environment with an extended series of tracking shots, following characters through their routine and staging important events as incidental elements amid passive normality. His favored subject is Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), an alcoholic former activist now engaged in the time-consuming task of minding his own business. That is, until old flame Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) shows up asking for help. She has a line on a miracle -- a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) nearly nine months pregnant, whose child may hold the secret to saving the species -- and wants to get her to the coast, where ship-bound scientists will take her to safety. But there are complications. For starters, Taylor belongs to the underground, whose members are more interested in using the baby as a propaganda tool than just handing it over to strangers. Then there's the government itself, which might have ideas of its own if it learned of Kee's existence (she's black, among other things, and therefore "inferior"). And of course, a society teetering on the brink of collapse presents any number of threats -- rioters, prison camps, jackbooted policemen who don't give a shit what you think -- which may snuff out this last flickering light in an act of thoughtless self-annihilation.

Despite a few quiet jabs at our current political situation, the film largely avoids moral judgment, ascribing plausible human motives to every character. Most films of this type would lionize the resistance as the hope for freedom and equality. Not so here. The guerillas (led by the always brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor) are often just as bad as the government they oppose, assassinating those who stand in their way and playing short-term political games with humanity's final hope. Similarly evenhanded notions abound, enhanced by Cuarón's extraordinary camera technique, which utilizes extended shots in lengthy sequences that fully immerse us in the action. Violence comes without warning, punctuated by none of the editing tricks and cinematic precursors audiences are accustomed to. We're getting coffee with Faron, taking a country drive, or engaging in a perfectly normal conversation, and bam! Gunfire, shrieking bloodshed, and any assumptions we may have had get tossed into a cocked hat. The results leave us nowhere to hide; we're thrust into chaotic situations along with the protagonists, clinging to them as our only anchor and hoping madly to come out the other side. Children of Men uses the same methods for much of its narrative, allowing us to experience events as the characters do rather than sitting back and merely watching what happens. The topper is a lengthy shot in the midst of a full-bore combat zone: the most harrowing piece of action footage since Saving Private Ryan, which evolves from panic to despair to hope to wonderment in a single, unbroken arc.

Such is the nature of filmmaking so extraordinary. Within it, good material becomes great, and workaday emotions take on a vibrancy that no other medium can provide. Children of Men works as a science-fiction parable, as a social commentary, as an action film, and as a character study. But mostly it works as pure cinematic experience, blending imagery, story, and human truth to move us and touch us and fill us with awe. At its heart, Cuarón emphasizes the fragility of life: the miraculous nature of existence and the delicate shining thread which can pull us through even the darkest times. I believe in the world of Children of Men because it's a world worth believing in. Hope can always be found, it tells us, even in the face of our own doom. All you have to do is look.

Review published 12.24.2006.

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