"Children of Men" is the rare piece of futurism that actually looks and feels like it was taking place years from now – 2027 to be exact. Loosely adapted from a 1992 P.D. James novel and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, it's a doomsday nightmare that seems all too contemporary.
And that contemporaneity is, of course, the mark of a true apocalyptic vision. Because we don't see ourselves reflected in it, the futurism of most sci-fi is not disturbing. It's escapist. But the George Orwell who wrote "1984" was thinking of his own era. Likewise, Cuarón, aided immensely by his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, draws imagery from the here and now. The ravages of Iraq and global terrorism are this film's template.
Clive Owen plays Theo, a former political activist who is now a burned-out functionary for the Ministry of Energy in London. Mankind has become infertile. The world has been pulled apart by sectarian violence, and Britain, the only country that hasn't devolved into anarchy, has closed its borders. The refugees who nevertheless pour in – unaffectionately referred to as "fugees" – are captured, caged, and deported. The country survives as a totalitarian state with omnipresent security police and surveillance cameras. A public service announcement declares, "The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on."
Theo is drawn into a rescue mission engineered by his ex-lover Julian (Julianne Moore), a radical fighting for refugee rights. His job is to spirit Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), an African woman, out of the country. He soon discovers she's pregnant. It's been almost 19 years since a child has been born into this world.
Cuarón is one of the most versatile living directors. His first Hollywood film, "A Little Princess," is a family classic and, at the opposite extreme, "Y Tu Mamá También" is a great coming-of-age sexcapade. His "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is the easily best Potter film.
"Children of Men" is unlike anything the director has done before. Much of it was shot hand-held. He stages a couple of sequences, notably a terrorist ambush in the countryside, that are startlingly sinuous. The horror appears to be happening right in front of our eyes in a single take.
The raging despair at the heart of "Children of Men" is present right from the beginning, in the blasted, grayed-out atmosphere and in the mayhem that seems to erupt out of nowhere and everywhere. The hollowed-eyed refugees match up with their captors: Both are prisoners of a doomed planet. Harboring no hope for the perpetuation of humankind, people fall back on their basest instincts for survival.
Theo's race to protect Kee becomes all important. He initially takes on the responsibility not only to help Julian, but also for the money he'll collect. The revelation that Kee is pregnant changes everything. He is fighting for the future and he (and everyone else) knows it.
Owen never makes the mistake of playing Theo like an action-adventure stalwart. Near the beginning of the film we see him with his former comrade Jasper (the peerless Michael Caine), a former political cartoonist who lives in the remote countryside outside London in the manner of a hippie squire. Watching these two old friends together, we can see how each has made his peace with defeat. And yet circumstances force both men to rise as heroes. Jasper faces up to marauders. Theo, a rather ordinary man, is suddenly seized with a calling. That's when his fear becomes palpable.
It would have been easy to sentimentalize Kee and her miracle baby, but Cuarón never makes that mistake. He knows that, for these people, survival is not accompanied by a heavenly choir.
At times the film is so supercharged that it glosses over the story's thematic richness and turns into a very high-grade action picture. But if that's the worst thing you can say about a movie, you're doing all right. The best thing to be said about "Children of Men" is that it's a fully imagined vision of dystopia. Grade: A
• Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity.
Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes, including nudity. Violence: 19 scenes. Profanity: 72 harsh expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 6 scenes of smoking, 7 scenes of drinking, 2 scenes with marijuana.