In the movies, the future is always bleak. For those of us in the audience who are single and child free, Children of Men seems like paradise.
In 2009, all women will become inexplicably infertile. In the eighteen years following this catastrophe, life is irrevocably changed. Governments and economies crumble, and more well-to-do countries like Great Britain put up their defenses to keep the less fortunate out. Celebrities are no longer actors and musicians, but the people who were born before the human landscape was forever altered. The youngest person in the world is merely 18 years old. Planet Earth is child-free.
No, this isn't the realized dream of cynical single people everywhere, it's the plot of the new film Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban) and adapted from a novel by P.D. James. The story opens on a day in 2027 when London is mourning the death of Baby Diego, famous for being the last person born. Theo Faron (Clive Owen, The Inside Man) learns of this public tragedy from a TV in the shop where he buys his coffee. Moments after leaving the depressed crowd viewing the news report, the coffee shop blows up. Though Theo narrowly escaped death, he is merely annoyed by the ringing in his ears. This bleak existence is just a way of life.
It wasn't always such. Theo was once an idealist. He even met his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore, The Hours), at a protest. Their lives have taken divergent paths, however, since their son died. Theo has withdrawn from his fellow man, while Julian is still active in the fight to save humanity, leading a pro-human rights terrorist group called the Fishes. As Theo's old hippy friend, Jasper (Michael Caine, The Quiet American) explains it, the course most people travel is governed by the forces of faith and chance. Faith put Theo and Julian at the protest, chance brought them together; faith bound their union, while chance took their son away and drove them apart. It's a great piece of writing, and after this and The Prestige, I think all films should have scenes where Michael Caine comes in to explain what it all means.
Of course, Theo isn't going to be staying out of the game for long. Julian isn't going to let him. The Fishes have gotten their hands on Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young girl who has inexplicably gotten pregnant, offering a possible key to everyone's salvation. They need an outside party to ferry her to safety--quite literally, as it were. Theo is going to get her to a boat, aptly named Tomorrow, that will get Kee out of England and to a safe haven run by the Human Project, another rogue group that may or may not be an urban legend.
Julian has more in mind when she chooses Theo for this mission, and without giving too much away, it's going to be up to him to get Kee out of the country. The girl has been told that she can trust Theo completely, and watching Clive Owen in action, this makes a certain amount of sense. (Hell, even animals think he's special. They love him!) Julian knows Theo is a mercurial creature who only shows his true colors to a select few. He can switch his vulnerability on and off in an instant, such as one scene where he says he isn't helping Kee for the money and then asks for the cash in the space of a few breaths. You can do it for love, sure, but love can get expensive. As a result, his character is the only one who doesn't have any political allegiances to anyone else. He doesn't have any interest in saving anyone but himself, and so when it's up to him to protect a mother and child, his only motivation is the preservation of life. By being selfish, he represents the most honest testimony to the power of the individual. He thinks his fellow man is getting exactly what they deserve, so all that's left for him is to do what is right.
Alfonso Cuarón doesn't go overboard in creating futuristic life. Children of Men isn't glitzy or overloaded with special effects. Outside of increased improvements in the size and clarity of video screens, and some additions of windshield displays in cars, most of the world has gotten worse. The streets are dirty, the sky is dark, and nature is losing the fight against sprawl. No one is happy, no one is laughing, and the government even sponsors suicide drugs. (This latter point may be a result of the fact that from the evidence of the soundtrack, new music stopped being made several decades before everyone stopped making babies.) Cuarón has shot Children of Men more like a gritty action thriller than he has a whacked-out sci-fi flick. As Theo and Kee run for their lives, their fleeing is filmed with handheld cameras, so that the movements are shaky and essential detail sometimes moves off screen. The action is done in long takes--heavily orchestrated tracking shots that move across the scenery, in and out of structures, around corners--and likely the sort of thing that the crew had to get right the first time and could not easily duplicate--thus explaining why, in one instance, blood splatters the lens and isn't wiped away. For all the lofty ideals of the Fishes and the high-gloss propaganda of the government, everyone's hands are in the muck.
Of course, where Children of Men does feel like sci-fi is how it subtly echoes the perils of today in its imagined world of tomorrow. The conditions of the immigration camps don't seem so far-fetched in a post Abu Ghraib world, nor does the infighting that occurs amongst those trying to establish a new order. Theo may believe in the philosophy of "every man for himself," but it's only so that society can get along; everyone else believes in "every interest for itself," and they want to emerge from the rubble as the right one. As the last song over the closing credits, Jarvis Cocker's "Running the World," sardonically suggests, this is just the way it is. The worst will always rule, and the decent people will always struggle.
Don't misinterpret my words. Cuarón doesn't inflate Children of Men with any fist-pumping sloganeering. This really is a futuristic action film fraught with tension and packed with thrills. If you merely want to go to a movie to see a guy and a girl on the run and struggling to stay alive, then Children of Men has everything you're looking for. It's just hard for a pretentious bastard like me to watch a film like this and not think about how close the current population is to tumbling over the edge. Would it really take one cataclysmic cliff to knock us that far off balance? The answer seems to be "yes," which makes that the most frightening part of the movie. For all the tense action and the occasional bits of grisly violence, it's the realization of what we might do to each other if the occasion arises that gives Children of Men its potency. Cuarón isn't ready to give up on us yet, he gives us Clive Owen to be our hero, and after a sacrifice, a restoration may be possible, but given what a lonely position Owen's character is in, it really makes you wonder if there would be anyone left to play that role, and which side each of us is on.