I discussed the ‘70s filmic obsession with environmental collapse and dystopia at length. It kind of feels like it’s due for a comeback. The Green Revolution made things look a lot better, but we’re still headed towards 10 billion people and we’re increasingly butting up against the limits of water, soil, and energy. Children of Men is a great way to bring it back, as Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of a PD James’ novel is the finest entry in the genre yet made.
It’s 2027, and, for some unknown reason, no children have been born since 2009. In the meantime, the world has fallen apart due to warfare and terrorism. Britain is relatively stable, but immigrants have flooded in from the world’s warzones, and a fascist government has created brutal immigrant camps. Large numbers of refugees sit in cages on the streets with armed guards. As in Soylent Green, there are advertisements for commercial suicide-assistance (“Quietus: You Decide When”). Like all great sf, the film really is a commentary on our own world of terrorism and intolerance. The film opens with a bombing and then takes us on a tour of a dilapidated London with our point-of-view character, Theo Faron (Clive Owen).
Theo is contacted by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to help escort a young refugee woman named Kee safely out of England. Things go wrong, and, when Theo learns that Kee is nine-months pregnant, he must try to protect her himself.
He doesn’t make a lot of films, but I think Cuaron might be the finest working director. He takes what could be a standard, depressing dystopia and brings it to life in a way that makes it impossible to look away. He works in several long tracking shots that put the viewer in this world. Without cuts to distance the viewer, it feels like POV work. You’re there, looking over Clive Owen’s shoulder. These shots are made all the more impressive by the fact that they tend to take place during action scenes or large crowd scenes. There’s a near five minute shot filmed from inside a car as it’s ambushed and attacked by a group of thugs. It’s technically amazing and completely gripping.
On top of all of this, the film is quite beautiful. The color palette is bleak and gorgeous at the same time, and Cuaron finds all sorts of odd juxtapositions. Theo’s cousin works for a government program attempting to save the world’s great artworks, and Cuaron stages a surreal dinner scene in front of Picasso’s Guernica. These flashes of bleak beauty suit the film’s message, which is hopeful, despite the horrors depicted.
This movie is just plain brilliant. The only thing I can say against it, is that it’s so good, so real and dark, that it can be damn hard to watch. It ends with an extended battle in a refugee camp, and by the time it's over, I’m usually emotionally worn out.