Children of Men (review)

A Bang and a Whimper

It’s over. We’re done. This is the world ending with a bang and a whimper. Women — everywhere, every one — are infertile. Or maybe the problem is with men. But this is what it comes down to: No more babies. Ever.

It’s twenty years from now, twenty years after the last baby was born, and on the day when the youngest person on the planet is murdered, that Children of Men opens with a bang of its own: a terrorist bombing on the streets of London. Or is it the British government behind the ongoing bombing campaign (as it is later suggested), looking to justify its ongoing oppression of the British people and its expulsion of all foreigners? As the rest of the world is going to hell (New York’s been nuked, for one), “Britain soldiers on.” But at what price?
There’s so much despair and anger and grief layered just into the background of Alfonso Cuarón’s film that I can’t shake its gray grimness — I’ve been haunted by this film for weeks now, wanting to see it again and almost afraid to, which is almost exactly like how I simultaneously can’t bear to watch and can’t bear not to watch footage of 9/11 again and again. This is a real horror movie, a horror movie for those of us who can’t or don’t want to have to turn our brains off at the movies, and to witness the totally plausible breakdown of everything is soul-crushing. And the layers extend into the deeply personal and hence even more deepy affecting, too, through Theodore Faron, a former social activist now just getting through the day working as a civil servant. He’s walled himself off from the daily nightmare around him so much so that he does not appear overly startled when the coffee shop he’s just left one morning on his way to the office explodes behind him. So much so that he can dismiss with disdain the global outpouring of anguish for “Baby Diego,” the celebrity last baby whose death as a young man, the world’s youngest person, has people sobbing at their desks in Faron’s office (shades of 9/11) and leaving piles of flowers and teddy bears on streetcorners (shades of Princess Diana). You understand why Theo has shut down — it’s the only way to survive. And yet, Clive Owen (Inside Man, Derailed), as our stand-in, is too emotional an actor not to let Theo’s underlying misery and hopelessness bust out in aching flashes: his Theo is not shut off, he’s just pretending to be, trying to be. He can’t, not really, not deep down, and so his misery and hopelessness becomes our own.

Oh man, this is not a fun movie, not in any way, but it is profoundly thrilling in a way that so few films are. It’s passionate without being maudlin, even when it comes to that topic — babies! — about which the sentiment could have been invented. It’s intellectual without being academic: it doesn’t see a divide between being a thinking person and a feeling one. It’s cinematic without giving in to the worst impulses of filmmakers to be purely visceral; Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) gives us one extended sequence toward the end of the film, a pitched urban battle between British soldiers and a citizens’ uprising, that is a spectacular — and spectacularly hellish — example of filmed terror, of an artist’s mastery of his medium, of the joining of riveting action and immensely tender emotion. I want to cheer Cuarón for making a science fiction movie that defies all the asinine stereotypes of the genre as it typically gets depicted on film — this is the rare instance where the movie is actually better than the book it’s based on, the novel of the same name by P.D. James. But mostly, I want to cheer Cuarón simply for making a movie, of whatever genre, that so brilliantly condenses many of our fears and anxieties of today — about overreaching governments, about the public’s willingness to cede hard-won freedoms, about our own relationship as a species to our environment — and deploys them in a story that’s close enough to reality to feel like a kick in the gut and fictional enough to make us (hopefully) take a step back and say, Hey, are we doing the right thing?

And then the final genius of Children of Men is that it is not without hope. Theo comes to his own awakening of hope when he gets caught up — via his old activist friends, including his long-estranged ex-wife (Julianne Moore: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Trust the Man) — in a mission to ferry a young girl who may represent a new beginning for humanity to a mysterious organization called the Human Project. Does the Human Project even exist? Is the girl’s promise a fluke, or is it something that the rest of the planet can share? Children of Men offers hope… but it does not offer easy answers, and even any answers, except that to give up, to not fight till the very end, is the worst way to face the end.

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