Still Stoking Terror: The Hopeless World of ‘Children of Men’

Still Stoking Terror: The Hopeless World of ‘Children of Men’


Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 masterpiece, “Children of Men.”

Universal Studios

Grimly dystopian yet bursting with cinematic brio, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” (2006) is a film that, set in 2027, feels like the present day — only more so. It could almost have taken the title of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, “The Way We Live Now.”

The movie — showing Friday and Saturday at midnight at the IFC Center in a good 35-millimeter print — opens in a dank, despoiled Britain ruled in the name of Homeland Security. Murderous gangs plague the countryside. Refugees are kept in cages. A bomb explodes on a busy London street even before the movie announces its title. “The world has collapsed,” the TV reports, but “Britain soldiers on.”

This collapsed future world, as imagined in P.D. James’s 1992 speculative fiction, is also a world that has no future. Human fertility has vanished. The species is dying even faster than the earth. It’s been 18 years since the last baby was born. Indeed, the movie opens with mass mourning for the world’s youngest person, who has been killed.

The protagonist, Theo, played by Clive Owen, is a low-level bureaucrat and depressed former activist drawn back into the struggle after agreeing to help a resistance group led by his ex-partner, played by Julianne Moore. (Chiwetel Ejiofor is another member.) Theo’s mission is to get transit documents for a young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who, miraculously pregnant, needs to be smuggled out of the country.

With this quest, “Children of Men” becomes a dark and bloody magical adventure, played out in cozy woodland hide-outs and hellish concentration camps populated by the human equivalents of hobbits, wizards and orcs. Shot by the distinguished Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the movie has several jaw-dropping long takes (or apparent long takes) that don’t stop the action with their choreographed virtuosity but only enhance its acceleration. One is a jolting, gory automobile chase as seen from inside the pursued car; the other, even more amazing, has Theo dash from a nightmare of a prison camp into a free-fire zone, trying to protect a newborn.

No less than Mr. Cuarón’s “Gravity,” another technological tour de force, “Children of Men” is an evident religious parable. Life is not only fragile but also violently transitory. Few popular movies are so predicated on sudden death and irrevocable loss, while still offering the promise — or illusion — of hope. There is a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky in Mr. Cuarón’s redemptive vision and a measure of self-mocking millennialism too. It’s not any movie that, already steeped in ’60s rock, can use John Lennon’s anthem “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” under its end credits. (The film even has a Lennon figure in Michael Caine’s cheerful old hippie.)

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