Bound and hooded by a group of activists-turned-terrorists-trying-to-turn-activists-again, a kidnapped Clive Owen sits in a shelter papered in a decade's worth of tabloid headlines. They scream of war, nuclear mishaps, and ecological disaster. It's real end-of-the-world stuff, presented in the form of everyday material, much like the film around it. Children Of Men, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También), is set in 2027, but each strand of its dystopian vision comes tethered to 2006. It's all chillingly, disgustingly plausible, and the familiarity only amplifies its power to shock.
There's much more to Cuarón's film, adapted from a P.D. James novel, than a tour of a world gone terribly wrong, but the story comes tightly bound to its intricately realized setting, a fascist Britain that's also apparently the last nightmarish refuge of civilization. The parts of humanity that haven't already been destroyed wither away due to the mysterious onset of widespread infertility, which has prevented anyone from giving birth for 18 years. The British government rounds up all non-native residents for the good of the state, shipping them off to refugee camps, and beyond doubt, even worse fates. Animal corpses litter the countryside, and people with agendas are always blowing up something or other.
As a former radical now whiling away his time drinking scotch and manning a desk in a low-level bureaucratic office, Owen seems content to watch the world go to hell, until his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), a leader of the pro-immigrant Fishes, presses him into retrieving a pair of illegal travel passes in the hopes of reaching a group of much-rumored, never-confirmed benevolent off-shore scientists called The Human Project. Their motives, tied to the well-being of a young immigrant (Claire-Hope Ashitey), will soon become clear, but only after the cost of failure has been made equally clear.
Cuarón directs Children Of Men with remarkable long takes and indelible images, but it isn't the kind of craft that immediately calls attention to itself; Cuarón moves the story along with an intensity that makes it hard to pay attention to anything else. It's a film of astonishing immediacy, with all the urgency of a late-night phone call, but the human element drives it. Owen begins a broken man with little to sustain him beyond his relationship with a paternal Michael Caine, whose activism has devolved into a vague hopefulness and a routine of smoking pot, listening to music, and caring for his semi-comatose wife. By the film's end, Owen has been transformed and the possibility raised that the world might change with him. Cuarón has created a dire warning of the world that could be, but he's also made a film about faith, love, sacrifice, and all the other hard-won virtues that keep the world alive. It's a heartbreaking, bullet-strewn valentine to what keeps us human.