Children of Men is like Sex Pistols lyrics come to life, with war, poverty, disease and racism choking the life out of a London on fascist lockdown, in a world with literally "no future." As horrifying dystopian visions go, they don't come more relentlessly grim and earnest than director Alfonso Cuaron's gloomy thriller, though it's an elegantly crafted nightmare.
As the movie races breathlessly through a bleak landscape of a near future in collapse, it is easy to marvel at the craftsmanship even as it becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. It commits to its setting as thoroughly as the best sci-fi films, but feels earthbound; it lacks the imagination of masterpieces like Brazil or Blade Runner to elevate it beyond glib agitprop. The gimmick here is that for unknown reasons the whole globe has gone infertile, with no new births in 18 years, leaving an aging population to go through the motions of their increasingly meaningless lives. Much of the planet is in revolt, with religious and ethnic factions tearing each apart, but Britain is holding on with an iron fist, shutting down the borders and herding refugees into concentration camps. In the midst of this chaos, Julian (Julianne Moore), leader of the pro-refugee terrorist group the Fishes, forcibly recruits Theo (Clive Owen) her former lover, an activist turned government drone, to help transport a very precious cargo, a young African woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who's inexplicably pregnant. Danger is everywhere; the revolutionaries want to use her baby as a symbol, while others see only profit, and the government can't be trusted. Beneath the politics is a basic chase movie, with Owen's cynic gradually rediscovering his idealism while becoming a protective surrogate father to the unborn miracle child. He's the right man for the job, with a sly performance full of wit and intelligence that never slides into action hero clichés. Moore turns in predictably classy work but the real fun is watching Micheal Caine romp as Theo's wise, old stoner philosopher buddy Jasper.
The script is merciless with the rest of the supporting cast, disposing of them casually, because, well, they're disposable despite some personality tics and solid acting, they're little more than walking metaphors for societal ills. And the more implausible elements of the backstory are waved off with throwaway lines about flu pandemics, gamma rays and other conspiracies, as if to say: "Silly audience, don't think so hard, we don't have answers either."
Fortunately, the film rarely slows down long enough to proselytize, especially in the hellish refugee-camp climax, a horrid polyglot of ceaseless conflict that could be any war zone on the planet. Children Of Men is a message movie that uses a heavy hand to shove our faces into the shitstorm generated by our own carelessness, but at least it's carrying a little bundle of hope under its rags.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].