Though I'll be coming out with a 10-best list in this space next week, I've never been much of one for the year-end obsession with sorting and ranking cultural products in neat rows. But I'll go out on a limb and say this: Children of Men (Universal), Alfonso Cuarón's dense, dark, and layered meditation on fertility, technology, immigration, war, love, and life itself may be the movie of the still-young millennium. And I don't just mean it's one of the best movies of the past six years. Children of Men, based on the 1992 novel by P.D. James, is the movie of the millennium because it's about our millennium, with its fractured, fearful politics and random bursts of violence and terror. Though it's set in the London of 2027, Cuarón's film isn't some high-tech, futuristic fantasy. It takes place in a grimly familiar location: the hell we are currently making for ourselves.
The particular conditions of that hell, sketched with a deft indirectness in the bravura opening sequence, are these: Since a fertility crisis of unknown origin struck in 2009, no new people have been born on earth. The human race is dying out slowly as the planet falls into political chaos. As a propagandistic slogan on a TV screen early in the film boasts, "The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on"—mainly by means of a strict anti-immigration policy that rounds up refugees in cages to be sent to camps. When the world's youngest living citizen, an 18-year-old still known as "Baby Diego," dies in a bar brawl, the whole planet mourns, egged on by sentimental tabloid media that are only the barest exaggeration of our own.
Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist who's now a burned-out bureaucrat in the Ministry of Energy, hardly reacts to the death of Baby Diego."He was a wanker," he tells his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an ex-political cartoonist who makes a living selling pot in the countryside near London. "Yeah, but he was the world's youngest wanker," Jasper counters.
On his way back to the city, Theo is kidnapped by the Fishes, a rebel group responsible for several recent bombings. As it happens, the Fishes' leader, Julian (Julianne Moore), is Theo's ex-wife, with whom he had and lost a child 20 years before. Now all business, Julian bribes Theo into using his connections to secure transit papers for a member of their group, a young African immigrant named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). As it turns out, Kee is mysteriously pregnant, only a month away from delivery. Soon the half-unwilling Theo is helping to smuggle Kee to the coast, aided by a new-agey midwife (Pam Ferris) and hunted both by terrorist factions and government troops.
When I said above that Children of Men is a "layered" film, it wasn't a metaphor. Nearly every frame is a palimpsest of visual information, from TV screens to graffiti-covered walls to the newspaper headlines and propaganda posters plastered everywhere in the gray and squalid London of Cuarón's imagination. His vision of the future comes to us in details that are as precise as they are terrifying. "It's Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle," burbles a radio voice as the movie opens, and we don't need to hear any more than that to picture the United States as a distant, war-torn police state like … well, a few others I could name. *
The sound and production design lay the groundwork for a convincing dystopia, but it's Cuarón's daring, fluid camera that brings this terrible world to life. Without being showy about it, he creates two of the most virtuoso single-shot chase sequences I've ever seen. So virtuoso, in fact, that as the scenes are unfolding, all you can think is, sweet Jesus, please let the good guys get away! It's only later that you realize the technique that went into crafting that sickening suspense. In the first of the two sequences, a car chase, the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, helped create a special rig that allowed the camera to swivel 360 degrees around the interior of the car. The second sequence, a siege on a building in a war zone, provides the movie's shattering climax; by the end of the nearly 10-minute shot, the camera lens is spattered with dirt and (fake, I hope) blood.
As reluctant hero Theo, Owen has the weary gravity of a Mitchum or a Bogart. He seems like an adult, a rare thing in action heroes these days, and Moore is a perfect match as the rebel leader who gave up long ago on the luxury of personal happiness. Michael Caine plays Jasper as John Lennon if he really had lived to be 64, a loopy, irreverent sage with a taste for strawberry-flavored pot. The scenes in Jasper's cozy hideout in the woods provide the only warmth in Theo's uncompromisingly chilly world, until he opens himself to the fragile hope growing inside the body of the decidedly unfragile Kee (played by 19-year-old Ashitey with great freshness and verve).
I have almost nothing negative to say about Children of Men. A couple of scenes, including one expository monologue by the midwife, hit their emotional marks a little too neatly, and one might argue that the particulars of the film's political world are too vaguely sketched (though to me, this obliqueness was one of the film's strengths—it never condescends to its viewers with a pat history lesson). Cuarón, who's no newcomer to evoking magical worlds onscreen (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), feels like he's just hitting his stride.
A movie about the last days of humanity that opens on Christmas Day may seem like a bleak choice for holiday viewing. But Children of Men is a modern-day nativity story that's far more moving and even, in its way, reverent than the current film by that name. It's also the herald of another blessed event: the arrival of a great director by the name of Alfonso Cuarón.