Children of Men: Alfonso Cuaron and the eve of destruction
Children of Men imagines a world twenty years from now in which most major cities are under siege, there is terrorism on every corner, and women have become infertile. The last child was born 18 years ago, and in this movie’s first scene, that young man has just died, and the people mourn. Children of Men is set in Britain but parts of it look like Baghdad; and the general atmosphere is one of paranoia and despair. All illegal immigrants are rounded up by the ubiquitous Homeland Security forces, and shuffled off to hellish, gated prisons that resemble the squalid do-or-die refugee camps you’d find on war-torn African borders. There is hopelessness in the air since, with no new people being born, everyone will eventually die.Clive Owen, a mid-level technocrat living out his days in semi-inebriated boredom, is thrust into the role of reluctant hero in Children of Men when he is asked to help a young immigrant, a fugitive, or “fugee” as they are called, escape to safe haven. Why her? Because she is pregnant, and the sight of her belly is looked upon as something from a lost age, a miracle too impossible to believe.
Revolutionaries or, if you will, “terrorists” harboring the mother intend to use the baby as a pawn in their struggle to overthrow the military government but Owen, a former anarchist himself, is stirred to action by the possibility of hope, and he vows to ensure the young woman will reach the safety of something called The Human Project, a secret research institute that is trying to reverse the plague of infertility.
I’m leaving much out of this plot description so as not to spoil it, but there is also much the filmmakers have left out—details of how and why and when—that may have satisfied viewers who like their science fiction simplified, but Children of Men would have been crushed under the heaps of exposition required to fill us in. As it is, the film is something of a miracle itself.
The movie is alive with terror and hope, life and death, survival and savagery. It’s a gripping chase film and a thought-provoking human drama, and part of its power comes from the details left unattended to. Is it so hard to imagine this future, a bleak and spiritually scarred planet, where children have stopped being born because maybe, just maybe, they don’t want to live in a world gone ugly and mad?
Such is the devastating, brilliantly realized landscape of this picture, directed with brazen skill by Alfonso Cuaron, who made Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Little Princess, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuaron, his cinematographer, and his team of set designers have crafted a damaged and rubble strewn setting which is all too recognizable, a sobering reminder—as if we need one—of how the world could indeed plummet to this kind of hell. Yet, within the bleak inevitability of the end of the world, he also fashions a moving vision of possible salvation: a new Jesus, a human child, whose startling cries manage, for a few minutes, to silence the guns of destruction.
There are three or four terrifically mounted set pieces in this film—technically accomplished and riveting in intensity—that will leave you drained; and there are also perfectly modulated moments of humor and sadness and basic human decency. At the end of Children of Men you realize you have witnessed a great work of art, and where there is true art in the world—art that communicates the essential humanity we are all capable of—then you realize we can be saved after all.