January 11, 2007

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Children of Men (R)
The world has gone to hell in a baby carriage (or rather, for lack of them) in the delightfully dystopian Children of Men, a movie directed by Alfonso Cuaron of Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban fame.

Sure, he’s also directed Y Tu Mamá También and Great Expectations. But in some ways it’s the Harry Potter movie that was his most stunning accomplishment. He gave the franchise some complexity, some darkness (which, surprisingly for a series about an orphan fighting the embodiment of evil, the Harry Potter movies before and since have lacked). It’s fitting then that in a movie like Children of Men — thick with squalid scenes and gloom and hopelessness — Cuaron creates moments of sweetness and optimism. Followed usually by more violence and gloom — just in case you were getting too hopeful.

Hopeful is something Theodore (Clive Owen), a middle-age government drone, wouldn’t dare to be. He gives an “oh brother” look to the sappy tabloid coverage of the death of Baby Diego, an 18-year-old South American who was the last person born on Earth. Diego is killed in 2027 and the world mourns to slow-mo videos of him as a toddler — Theodore on the other hand calls him a wanker. He nonetheless uses the boy’s passing as an excuse to take the day off work and head out to the country to visit his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a pot-smoking, pot-selling old hippy who is caring for an invalid wife. (She’s made that way, we’re lead to believe, by government torture.) Theodore and Jasper happily (or at least resignedly) get stoned and try to theorize on why women can no longer have babies. Theodore suggests it doesn’t matter — the world has gone to hell and even Britain (which “soldiers on” as a government ad campaign proclaims despite bombings and chaos elsewhere) is now a society living under authoritarian, Big Brother-style rule. Let the world die, Theodore says with a weary expression.

When Theodore meets up with his estranged wife, we begin to understand his apathy. Julian (Julianne Moore) is now an anti-government activist full of angry energy. But 20 years earlier they were a happy socially conscious couple in love with each other and their beautiful young son. Then came the flu epidemic of 2008 and their son died, leaving each mortally wounded by grief, though showing the signs of this grief in different ways. Julian asks Theodore to help her get papers to help a young Fuji girl travel to the coast (in 2027 Britain illegal immigrants — and all immigrants are now illegal — are held in concentration camps until they are deported or killed). Theodore cares nothing for her politics but seems hungry to see her again and agrees. Soon, he is pulled into her plan far more than he expected and he finds himself the sole caretaker of the young girl, a late-teen-early-20s woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Originally disinterested in helping her, Theodore has a near-religious conversion and feels a desperate need to protect her when he learns that she is more than eight months pregnant.

It’s interesting that the population bust of Children of Men is shown with the same decaying results of the population boom in Soylent Green. In that Charleton Heston gem, a tired, cramped populace is offered a peaceful death. Here a suicide drug is pitched as a vehicle for personal choice — you decide when, the commercials say. Even with fewer people, life seems to have become dirtier and less private, especially in the government detention centers where immigrants are warehoused in the worse definition of a ghetto where they wait to die. From the grungy hooligans who throw rocks at the train Theodore rides into the country to the xenophobia that seems to defy logic (why bother saving a country if there will be nobody to live in it in 50 years?), Cuaron paints a deeply bleak picture of the future that sadly doesn’t seem all that outlandish. Work together as a species? Doubtful. Perhaps parts of America would “soldier on” as well but it’s likely that we would also get drawn into the extremist religions that have gripped Britain (extremist Christians give their lives over to repenting for humanity’s sins; militant Muslims march through streets of the immigrant slums waving guns and shouting “Allah akbar”) and give in to all the worst instincts of fear and prejudice. At one point, Theodore visits a cousin, a wealthy and important government minister, and marvels at his collection of art rescued from the world’s trouble spots, including a mostly intact Michelangelo’s David. This cousin, played with a sort of druggy haziness by Danny Houston, has chosen to inebriate himself with art, saving treasures for no one. I try not to think about it, he tells Theodore, who seems horrified and a bit jealous.

Owen gives us an excellent portrait here of a man who is tired, tired to his core but surprises himself by realizing that he can still believe in something. When his child died, he stopped caring about life because his future, as personified by his child, was gone. When the world lost children, the world seemed to stop caring about the future as well. The sudden hope that a baby could be born again, that nature could reboot itself with help from an “illegal” woman, gives Theodore a bit of his own son and his desire to fight for the future back.

There is nothing gadgety about this future — it is dirty and harsh and full of people with moral flaws and sudden heroics not unlike our own. The story is smart, perversely fun at times and well-constructed — fast-paced and full of wryly funny dialogue. A-

Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (from the novel The Children of Men by P.D. James), Children of Men is an hour and 54 minutes long and is in wide release by Universal Pictures Distribution