Alfonso Cuarón’s science fiction thriller is set in a decaying future world where women have been infertile for 18 years. Clive Owen plays a former activist asked to protect a newly pregnant mother. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
London, 2027. The human race is facing extinction. All women have become infertile and no child has been born since 2009. In those eighteen years, the world has gone to hell. Every country on earth has collapsed into anarchy except Great Britain, which is now run by a harsh, authoritarian government.
This government has reacted to the influx of refugees from the rest of the world by banning immigration, rounding up all immigrants and placing them in an Escape-From-New-York-style walled community – the seaside town of Bexhill in East Sussex, of all places! Terrorist groups, both Islamic and political, oppose the authorities, sometimes violently, although some insist the bombings attributed to these groups are in fact the work of the government.
In this world, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) lives the monotonous life of a civil service bureaucrat. Out of the blue, he’s contacted by Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), his former lover from his days as a left wing activist. She’s now the leader of a terrorist cell and she has a favour to ask him – she needs him to provide documents for a young immigrant girl (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who needs to get out of the country.
For old times’ sake, Theo agrees to helps Julian and her comrades (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Pam Ferris), joining them on a perilous drive to the coast, but he’s unwilling to commit to their cause until he discovers why the girl is so important. She’s pregnant.
Children Of Men takes an intriguing science fiction concept – what if mankind became infertile – and uses it as the basis for a simple chase thriller that’s less interested in its premise than it is in treating us to a big-budget vision of a decaying world, providing action movie thrills and making political statements about today’s world. As a thriller, it works, but as the serious film it wants to be, it’s a failure.
This is another Orwellian science fiction allegory (the second this year to be set in a fascist, future Britain, following V For Vendetta) and it’s an unsubtle one, packed with references to recent and current events so obvious that they often pull you out of the film. The War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, conspiracy theories about 9/11, even Princess Diana’s death are checked off. The first half hour plays like a political zealot’s prophecy of how the country will turn out if people don’t start listening to him.
The depiction of London is expensive and visually impressive but unconvincing: urban decay blanketed with barbed wire and video screens. The film consistently goes for visuals over logic. Why will we all be living in nasty, 1960s tower blocks, travelling in already decommissioned, slam-door trains and driving cars that should be scrap long before 2027? Incidentally, where do we get the oil for these cars? Who are the gangs of feral thugs we see lobbing bricks? How do they elude the armed, fascist police, who seem to be everywhere?
The whole world the film envisions doesn’t make sense. How has every other country collapsed, except Britain? If the UK really is the only haven in the world, shouldn’t there be a lot more refugees flooding here than we see in the film, far more than could be practically kept out or contained, certainly far more than would fit into the small town of Bexhill?
And since there would be no other countries left to import from and our resources would therefore be extremely limited, wouldn’t the government have good cause to shut the gates in such a situation? Wouldn’t letting everyone in condemn Britain to the same poverty and chaos experienced everywhere else? This film misunderstands the argument over immigration and asylum – it’s about whether we actually are being swamped, not whether being swamped would be a bad thing.
The biggest unanswered question in the film is this: why did the human race suddenly become infertile? There’s some talk of a flu pandemic, which may or may not have been responsible, but even if this flu had managed to touch every single human on the planet, there would surely still be a few people immune. We see Christians claiming it’s an act of God – that’s about the only satisfactory explanation.
Possibly the answers to many of these questions are in the novel Children Of Men, by British crime-writer PD James, but they’re not in writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation. His script is weak on many levels: thudding allegory, unconvincing portrayal of a future world, clumsy comic relief, poor plotting. At one point, the identity of a villain is discovered when Theo happens to be standing nearby at just the right time to overhear him discussing his evil plan. The last film that tried to get away with that one was xXx: The Next Level.
On the other hand, it can’t be denied that Cuarón’s direction is stunning. The action scenes are the best committed to film this year. A simple escape from a farmhouse is like a masterclass in cinematic suspense and the climax is genuinely brilliant. This is a handsome and exceptionally well made film that’s worth seeing for its technique and visual style.
Like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Children Of Men demonstrates the struggle of a great director to make a good film out of a bad script – only this time, the director is also the screenwriter. In both cases, the films deserve to be seen but they’re also terribly frustrating. I was repeatedly drawn into the movies by the director’s technique and then pulled out again by the lousy writing. Ironically, in the case of The Black Dahlia, the problem isn’t that the film leaves things out, but that it tries to cram in far too much of James Ellroy’s novel.
The locations are a big plus – this must be the first major sci-fi movie set largely in the Home Counties countryside. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki do a good job of making the woods, farms and country roads look suitably atmospheric and sinister. While their vision of London doesn’t make much sense logically, it does at least look great.
Clive Owen makes a sympathetic everyman hero. He’s certainly a much more effective action star in Children Of Men than he was in King Arthur. He’s just about the whole show though. The other two big names – Julianne Moore and Michael Caine – have surprisingly little screen time. Caine does make an impression as an old hippy, as do Peter Mullan as a policeman and Pam Ferris (Ma Larkin from The Darling Buds Of May!) as an activist, but only Owen’s character is really developed.
My biggest problem with Children Of Men is that it makes no real attempt to imagine what the world would be like without children or what would be the effect on such a world of a new baby being born. We see some women sobbing over the death of the world’s youngest man but otherwise the worldwide malaise is talked about rather than shown or dealt with. The pregnant woman in the movie represents an event of earth-shattering importance but she and her baby are treated as mere McGuffins to be protected from the villains. This is a film which brims with ideas but leaves them disappointingly unexplored.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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