Thrilling, important, and invigoratingly bleak, Children of Men is one of the very best movies to come out in 2006. I think about it still, weeks after viewing, as scenes of the disintegrating near future envisioned by the prodigiously talented filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón — the year is 2027 in a ”civilized” Great Britain barely distinguishable from ruined current-day Iraq — literally haunt my dreams. Yet, to my enduring regret, I failed to include Children of Men on my list of last year’s top 10 movies.
So now I’ll call it No. 10 with an asterisk. And I’ll defend the delay by adding that sometimes leisurely, private consideration is a more fitting movie-loving response than instant assessment — especially when it comes to the power of this prophetic dystopian dazzler by the maker of Y Tu Mamá También (as well as the prophetic dystopian dazzler Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The clamorous competition for attention such a film (unsexy, a downer, no big-time Oscar prospects) has faced in the onslaught of big-ticket December releases has benefited no one. Not the filmmakers, nor the filmgoers, never mind us critics. Children of Men is too excellent to be stuffed in at year’s end as a kind of prestige-project after-dinner mint; it’s a work of art that deserves a space cleared for its angry, nervous beauty.
In the picture’s scenario, set just a calendar page or two ahead of our own, the birthrate has dropped to zero, as if a mysterious worldwide plague of infertility were the inevitable by-product of societal rot. (A five-man team is credited with wrestling a script from the story, broadly based on the book by best-selling author P.D. James.) Apathy has led to privation, which in turn has led to conflagrations of lawlessness, even in Britain. And Britain has fared better than the rest of the crap world only by wielding a big militaristic stick to keep a semblance of order; the illegal refugees pouring into England are rounded up like — well, like those in images transmitted to us from any number of the world’s current misery sites. Violence and terrorism are all the more disturbing for being so matter-of-fact. With no future to live for, the present will not hold.
In such a dead zone, Theo (Clive Owen), a callous bureaucrat who would have prospered in Brazil (and no one dedicates his good looks to the service of brutish characters better than Owen), just happens to cheat death when a bomb goes off at the crummy joint where he has picked up his morning coffee. Once Theo was an activist who fought the good fight alongside his lover, Julian (Julianne Moore, again dedicating her elegant delicacy of gesture to the service of a chilly tale). But while Julian continues her underground activities on behalf of revolution (her fellow anarchists call themselves the Fishes, as they swim against the current), Theo has long since given up, settling for thick-skinned cynicism as a defense against despair, relieved only by occasional visits (and drug binges) with an old hippie friend (Michael Caine, a gas in Jesus hair).
All that begins to change, though, with a request, just this side of a bribe, from Julian and her compadres, for Theo’s assistance in spiriting one particular refugee out of the country. Because the young ”fugee” woman called Kee (newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey) is key indeed: She’s pregnant, a modern-day Madonna ripe with the possibility of the planet’s first new human life in 18 years. And so Theo, who sticks his neck out for no one, becomes involved, and like Rick in Casablanca, helps obtain precious letters of transit to a new tomorrow.
There’s certainly a flash of George Orwell and a glint of Blade Runner in such glitteringly downbeat prognostications. But what sets the picture apart from its poli-sci-fi forebears is Cuarón’s unique, full-throttle storytelling talent for blending propulsiveness of staging and seriousness of political content into one urgent piece; there’s no gap between entertainment and art, no lulls to make room for flights of philosophy. With audacious cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World) and production design by Geoffrey Kirkland and Jim Clay, Children of Men is never so reassuringly out there in the future that we can comfortably ignore its anxious, relevant nowness. My biggest movie-loving anxiety these days is that this great, dark specimen of fine 2006 filmmaking will be lost too soon in the jumble of last year’s more classifiable classy fare.