Let's start here — Children of Men is the best movie I've seen in a long, long time. It's one of those movies that seems, at 109 minutes, to be entirely too short, not because anything is missed or left out, but because the movie is so well done the time spent is quickly lost in the process of immersion. The pace and tone of this movie is set when a coffee shop explodes and a woman stumbles out of the rubble holding her arm, all before we are given the title of the movie.
The story takes place twenty years into the future, a world, that at first glance, does not seem too different from our own. There are no hovering cars. No ray guns. No reflective suits. But then we notice that terror groups, government controls, and mass media have turned our world into a fragmented dystopia. And, to top it off, for some mysterious reason humans can no longer reproduce. Be that as it may, with the human race facing extinction we still find ample time to kill and brutalize each other. In this reality lives Theo (Clive Owen), our post postmodern hero who takes his coffee with whiskey and searches for solace in a cigarette whenever he can.
We meet, Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo's old flame, now leader of the Fishers, who has returned into his life to ask him to use his connections to deliver a woman to the border. This woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), just happens to be pregnant. The life inside her is, of course, the most valuable commodity in the world. Life, long taken for granted, is now worth an incredible amount and Julian's sect wants the baby for their own political capital. Theo and Kee make a run for it and the rest of the movie is a pursuit thriller done so well I found myself clutching my jacket for protection.
By creating a very plausible future and ratcheting the violence beyond our present levels this is a movie that attacks ignorance and apathy head on. Children of Men is rife with social commentary. How did we get to our destructive future? Well, the movie doesn't come right out and say but you can catch clues: headline clippings of nuclear fallout over Africa, stories of flu pandemics, green sewage being pumped into a field as a car rolls by. A radio DJ introduces a hit song from 2003 "when people didn't know the future was right around the corner." Take that as you will, but this is a movie that doesn't want you to miss the point: the future is now.
To that end the film is shot at shoulder level, and the camera moves around the actors effortlessly. This future is also yours, not just Theo's. In one scene you're inside a bus taking refugees into a walled ghetto. As the bus arrives, out the window you see rows of people lined up with hoods on their heads, being forced into cages. It happens in the same way you might pass a homeless man on the street. The movie unfolds indiscriminately. Some of the horrors, like these, are subtle. Others, not so much, like when the camera pans around and a man gets shot right as he leaves the field of view. The blood spattered on the lens reminds you he was once there.
As gripping and stunning as the movie is, reality set in when a mother stood up to take her three-year-old son to the bathroom. They returned a few minutes later and the boy sat quietly for the rest of the movie. He did not flinch or wince or feel any revulsion or fear — completely normal reactions to a movie like this. It seemed a terrible irony that here was a film showing that the level of violence we fund and propagate is simply unnatural in comparison to the frailty of human life, meanwhile a three-year-old boy seemed to be completely desensitized to it all. Are we already too late?
The real horror is not inside the movie. Instead, perhaps, it is that future rides the rails of our own very real desensitization to human value. The real horror perhaps, is the number of people who will pay their money, enjoy a sci-fi movie with liberal overtones, and remain unaffected by the contempt for human life displayed on the screen.
What the movie sets out to accomplish it does so profoundly well. Director Alfonso Cuarón is a gifted storyteller, and this is a masterpiece. It is a future that does not rely on sterile ray guns and force fields, but on metal weaponry and overbearing humiliation, accomplished with bloody shock and awe. Yet the solution to our problems has been with us all along. The real miracle is, of course, life itself. We just didn't appreciate it until it was gone.