It is the year 2027. No babies have been born in the world for over 18 years, so humanity is slowly dying. In some ways, though, the pace of this dying has been considerably accelerated as civilization is dissolving into chaos. The entire movie takes place in a gray and violent England. As awful as things are there, with a brutal dictatorship rounding up aliens (the human sort) by the thousands and herding them into camps, it is apparently one of the few functioning countries remaining in the world. A low-level bureaucrat, Theo (Clive Owen), gets pulled into the workings of a desperate terrorist group that turns out to be headed by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). The next thing I’m going to mention may seem like a spoiler, but it really isn’t, since it is a featured part of the movie’s advertisements: Theo soon discovers that the terrorist group is guarding a wondrous secret – an actual pregnant woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). I want to add, though, that I think the director intended for that to be a surprise, but as is so often the case, the folks who put together movie ads don’t give a rat’s ass for the director’s intent; they just want to produce the most compelling ad they can come up with in order to sell tickets. In any case, this revelation comes about a quarter of the way through the film, so it isn’t anything to stress over.
Beyond that revelation, the film’s plot mostly concerns trying to safely protect the expectant mother from A) getting killed, and B) being exploited by special interest groups, with an eye toward delivering her to an offshore secret organization that is trying to save humanity. One complication is that no one really knows until the end of the movie whether this organization actually exists, or whether it is wishful thinking by some desperate people.
So that’s the basic plot – a nice little story about an awful future dystopia. But let me here repeat the first words out of my mouth when the credits were done rolling. I turned to my friend GL and said, “You know, this movie might seem to be about a make-believe future dystopia. But it’s really about the world we live in right now.” GL agreed whole-heartedly. Let me add here a favorite quote from Roger Ebert: “A movie is not about what it’s about; it is about how it is about what it’s about.” In this case, the “how” is embodied in the remarkable direction of Alfonso Cuaron, as well as in the overall production design.
This movie takes you into the streets and into the boots of urban street fighting through its energetic use of hand-held cameras and its easy-to-overlook sound design. It barely tries to look futuristic; what you’re looking at could be happening somewhere in the world today, and I have no doubt that Cuaron wants us to think that. There is also the matter of how the plot flows.
WARNING – BEYOND THIS POINT, I WILL BE DISCUSSING GENUINE SPOILERS, SO YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
One very significant plot point concerns Julianne Moore’s character. Just when we’ve assumed that the relationship between her character and Clive Owen’s character will be a major axis of the story, Moore’s character is killed, much to our shock and dismay. It’s highly reminiscent of Psycho in that way, where we assume that Janet Leigh is our heroine only to see her take her last shower less than halfway through the movie. In fact, there were several other moments in Children of Men that reminded me of other films. In the scene where the terrorist group’s inner sanctum is trying to decide where the expectant Kee should go, Kee finally speaks up and tells the group what she has decided. It so reminded me of the Council of Elrond from The Lord of the Rings that I expected at any moment to hear Kee volunteer to give birth in Mordor and to see Gandalf and Aragorn offer to accompany her. Also, the very last scene in the film was more than a little reminiscent of the last scene in John Sayles’ film Limbo (and that’s all I’ll say about that!)
It seems that people frequently cite Blade Runner as an object of comparison to this film but to me, they are far too different from one another for that comparison to be of value. I think a better comparison would be to look at Fahrenheit 451, though Children of Men is far grittier, far more realistic, and has little of the poetic quality to be found in 451.
Anyway, the sudden killing of Moore’s character is a signal to we the audience that we should have checked our expectations at the door. We know from that point on that this movie is not going to follow the tidy structure of a typical action film. We have received the message – this is real life baby, and there are no guarantees.
This is a movie that deserves to be seen, and to be seen on the big screen. It gave me a lot more to think about than the usual fare, though having said all that, I still haven’t decided whether I’d want to see it again. It doesn’t send you out the doors of the theater with a song in your heart or inspiration in your soul. But it may send you to the nearest coffee house to go over what you’re feeling. That’s what GL and I did, and we talked until the lights were being turned off and we were asked to leave. If that’s something you enjoy, then I recommend this film to you.
P.S. I also want to offer a tip of the cap to the ever-reliable Michael Caine, who plays the small but important role of Theo’s pot-smoking friend Jasper. Caine must love to work! The list of people who’ve been in more movies than he has must be a short list indeed!