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January 9, 2007

Alfonso Cuarón fosters a bleak, hopeless future for Children of Men

Children of Men is an intense experience. It begins with the feel of most movies, especially most movies based in futuristic distopias. But by the halfway mark, all semblance of rules or narrative has been washed away in the crossfire. In a sequence that seemingly runs for hours, three characters move through a ruined city teeming with soldiers and warfare. Only a collective masterstroke could sustain such a sequence of nonstop movement and violence, with little or no dialogue, and come out with the best new movie I saw in 2006. Director Alfonso Cuarón and his team do just that. They have set a new bar for intensity in filmmaking.

It is not unusual for an American movie to dedicate much of its running time to a chase scene saturated with special effects. As a general rule, writing good dialogue and understanding social interactions are a greater feat than coordinating an hour of special-effects shots. Children of Men does not particularly depend on the talent of its actors (though considerable) or the strength of its screenplay (though notable). What is most incredible is that it takes the unchallenging premise of a simple chase movie and elevates it to heights of power and emotion that eluded nearly every other film this year.

The setting is London, 2027. As you may expect if you have seen or read anything distopian, government has become oppressive, technology has become invasive, and nationalism has reached frightening heights. There is a new bit, though. All women have become infertile. The youngest person on earth has just died at the age of 18.

The news is greeted with deeply caustic apathy by our protagonist, a government bureaucrat of lost ideals named Theo Faron (Clive Owen). He exhibits a detachment that protects him from facing the hopelessness surrounding him. His shake-up comes when a rebel group kidnaps him and he runs into one of their leaders, his ex-wife (Julianne Moore). Her group is harboring the ultimate bargaining chip: a pregnant woman.

Much of Children of Men’s considerable interest comes from recording the reactions various people have when they discover the potential for a new baby. Even the most hardened, violent soldiers still have an evolutionary override programmed into their systems. Procreation trumps all other agendas. The poor mother-to-be finds herself at the center of every single person’s hopes and dreams.

In a movie like this (if there is such a thing), what constitutes a happy ending is unclear. Such an unclean, inclement world may not be worth preserving. It is interesting to note that while most of the characters act out of self-interest, their happiness is tied to the distant future of society at large. The lack of children in the world would not seem to affect the prospects of adults who did not wish to be parents, yet living in that world for just two hours, I found myself feeling a certain hopelessness in the prospect of human society ending, even if decades after my disappearance from it.

In a film this stark, it would take Michael Caine to make us smile. Luckily, he is on hand as Theo’s hippie-esque friend Jasper, who lives out in the woods (such things still exist in this world?). A month or two back, I said that Caine’s performance in The Prestige made me want to see his entire filmography. That is still true, and I would not want that list to be without this most recent addition. Jasper’s cheery disposition serves as a welcome contrast to the sadness around him, but makes it all the sadder when terrible things happen (which occurs quite often).

All in all, go see Children of Men. It is an intense and disturbing experience, but also a fruitful and deeply entertaining one.