The sheer pyrotechnic thrills of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men have earned justifiable critical acclaim. I was literally riveted by this movie, and it took several glasses of wine afterward to restore my heart and head to their upright, locked positions.
But there's something else at work here and I've been trying to figure it out. This isn't a review so much as a compendium of notes to help me process why I think Children of Men is the best film I've seen all year.
This dystopic thriller presents with unnerving clarity a near-future where mankind faces extinction. For reasons not even science can explain, children are no longer being born. As lensed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this dying world feels as tactile and urgent as a breaking catastrophe you'd see unfolding on CNN.
Without continuity of species, the grim story posits, nations will de-evolve violently. The one surviving superpower, Great Britain, locks itself down with fascist police-state tactics that make Orwell's 1984 look like a how-to manual.
And yet there's a seriously dark wit at work that elicits uneasy laughter. For example, illegal citizens are herded onto trains for concentration camps ... using the same train platforms as daily commuters, who don't even blink as they clop past cages of weeping refugees held at gun-point. There's a rich and admittedly uncaring government official who blithely surrounds himself with famous works of art, including a war-shattered David and the giant inflatable pig from Pink Floyd. Marijuana is still an illegal substance in this bleak world, but a suicide concoction called Quietus is readily available at the corner convenience store. Its chilling yet comforting slogan: "You decide when."
Such welcome humor not only serves to balance this dark material, but creates a verisimilitude too often lacking in near-future scenarios. When we finally meet one of these fascist police-soldiers up close, we're surprised and somehow relieved to find that he's a funny fellow. This sort of thing keeps us off-guard and allows Children of Men to shock and awe. Every frame is filled with tangible hooks to our increasingly absurd present-day world. It's a future that feels like it's going to happen, one way or another, because there's laughter amidst the chaos.
Even the casual student of history knows that we live in a splintered, fragmented civilization that, when pressure is applied, easily breeds xenophobia and prejudice. This fast-paced, sobering adaptation of P.D. James' novel (by Cuaron and co-writers Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby) suggests that we deserve whatever doom may befall us ... almost.
This qualifier comes courtesy of one Theodore Faron, played with a glum restraint by the glassy-eyed Clive Owen. He's the central human story at the heart of this film, even though he's emotionally walled-off for much of it.
When we meet Faron, he's numb to the point of lethargy. Even after narrowly surviving a terrorist attack, he reports to his office workplace with a bored expression plastered on his long weathered face. In true anti-hero fashion, he then proceeds to feign mental anguish over another incident -- the tragic death of the youngest person in the world, running 24/7 on the news channels -- so he can take the day off and get stoned with an old friend.
Soon Faron is drawn into a plot by a subversive group headed by his ex-wife Julian (the crisp Julianne Moore). It seems that one young refugee woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) has somehow conceived a child. Julian's subversive cell must spirit away this miracle to a scientific research group that's been outlawed in the UK.
Faron takes the job for the money, but when things go wrong, he steps up with quiet heroism that's tempered by personal tragedy. We learn (in part from a wonderfully hippified Michael Caine) that Faron and Julian lost a son years ago during a worldwide flu epidemic. That's when we realize Faron harbors a pain so personal that the impending extinction of his own species just doesn't register in a normal way.
Children of Men never preaches. It's too busy whisking us through shell-shattered streets and hailstorms of bullets. With a frantic urgency that will have you catching your breath (yes, those single-take extended action sequences are everything you've heard about - watch for the ping-pong ball), this is ultimately about a world reconnecting with itself, trying to be born anew, through the actions of one broken man.
By the movie's climax, Faron quietly allows that searing, submerged pain to rise. He sits in a rowboat rocked by gray waves and, in a heartbreaking gesture, holds an invisible child in his arms. He's trying to show this young mother how to calm her crying baby, but he's really holding the memory of his own dead son. We've seen him beaten and shot and imperiled a dozen different ways, but he never looks as fragile, or as peaceful, as he does here. Faron is a wounded man with a heart cracked wide open, and the release he finds is painful, hopeful, redemptive.
This movie serves up a bleak, compelling vision that scared the hell outta me. It features some fantastic action sequences that truly made me fear for the characters (and, afterward, wonder how the hell the filmmakers pulled 'em off). But I think this fog-shrouded final scene is my key to understanding why Children of Men stands so far above everything else I saw last year.
But that's just my opinion.
You sitting at your computer: see this movie now.