As I watched Children of Men, I was often struck by the parallels between the movie and a high-concept prog rock album. I suppose that some of the decisions made by the film's creators explicitly led to the comparison: at one point, our hero Theo Faron (played by Clive Owen), looks out a window over the city of London--a balloon pig floats in his point of view, evoking the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals, while King Crimson's "Court of the Crimson King" plays in the foreground. But the implicit comparisons are more evocative--the movie is made up of broad sweeping movements punctuated with set pieces that illuminate the characters or create discordant images to raise the emotional hackles of the viewer. By intermingling moments of faith and war, hope and crushing despair, the movie raises the emotional stakes and calmly, at the end, delivers on its potential.
The year is 2027, and the youngest person in the world has just died at the age of 18 years and four months. In this time, no children have been conceived, and abysmal despair has set in. Our point-of-view is British, and according to news reports, most of the rest of the world has fallen to wars, terrorism, ecological disaster, and unnamed violence. Whether the violence is the result or the cause of the lack of children is unclear, but what is important is that they go hand-in-hand for the purposes of the movie. England has closed its borders (one assumes it affects all of the UK, but the movie doesn’t bother to ask the question), and illegal immigrants seeking to escape the calamities of the rest of the world are round up and kept in cages as they await deportation to refugee camps. We follow Theo around this world for a couple of days as bombs go off around him and he catalogues the miseries of his age when they tick by. Breaking one of the conventions of such movies, instead of giving us a voiceover (like in Dune) or so much scrolling text to provide the setting, director Alfonso Cuaron establishes the dystopia by observation. For instance, Theo learns of the death of “Baby Diego” from a news report on the TV above the line he waits for coffee in, so that we are given both sweeping views of the world we find ourselves in and details of our protagonist as he reacts to the news. Scenes like this continue to immerse the viewer more and more deeply, and even when the action really starts, facts about the setting appear and disappear from the screen in the natural way of a man moving through his daily life.
But Theo’s daily life is irrevocably altered when his ex-wife contacts him. She is now the leader of an underground group, the Fishes, who are rebelling against the government’s strict stance on immigration. Sometimes their activities push into the realm of terrorism, but Julian (played by Julianne Moore) herself does not seem to be the stereotypical terrorist; she is a fanatic, but not, apparently, violent. She asks Theo for help only his job in the immigration office can provide, and he reluctantly agrees. Through it all, Theo is gently confused and perhaps bemused by what his life has brought him to, but he is well-liked by all he associates with; even his ex-wife claims Theo is the only man she will trust. He attempts to do as asked with conviction based on his word, and then it all goes horribly wrong.
What follows is Theo’s trip through the far darker side of the world he lives in as he first attempts to fulfill his promise, but he eventually comes to believe in the cause of his ex-wife, if not that of the Fishes. And as a result of the brilliant cinematography that uses a camera that follows Theo as if we are standing beside him, sometimes using the shakiness of the handheld camera and using very few jump-cuts, we are immersed in the ugliness of his world. As we uncover the facts of his mission when Theo does, we too feel strongly about his goals and cheer him on through some of the most unsettling scenes in recent movies. Cuaron grabs the root of your emotions and pulls them from dark to light as Theo literally staggers onward, such that we feel that we become part of the movie itself.
Eventually Theo finds himself in a war zone, trying to protect his wards, and the action is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. People are hurt and die all around him in brutal battle sequences, and yet he continues on, hopeful and earnest. At last the viewer is allowed to pull back and gaze on scenes of biblical allegory and human strength and weakness with a sense of wonder—what have we done? And even in its horror, Children of Men is evocatively beautiful; dark scenes of industrial cities wreathed in their own smoke are awful to behold and compelling all at once. People facing their worst fears and nightmares are capable of acts of unspeakable kindness alongside the atrocities that must follow.
Children of Men is a brilliant movie. It plays with allegory and allusion, convincing the viewer of its depth as its characters chase hope, not-so-ironically located in a ship named Tomorrow. Clive Owen plays a different role from those in his most recent films, but he plays it wonderfully, portraying the depths of a man trading between despair and hope. Michael Caine is also superb in this movie, playing an aged hippie friend (or perhaps even father) of Theo’s, who acts as moral compass to the weary party.
Sadly, this movie is far too thoughtful to remain too long in theaters. You must see it soon, and you should try very hard to see it in a digital theater. As meticulous as the cinematography is, exquisite care has been given to the soundtrack as well. You will leave the movie shaken, not so much by the fairly simple plot, but by one of the effects of the very best science fiction—this world and the events in it are not so very far removed from our very own.