So, welcome to 2007. We’ve now got two years left until humanity loses the ability to make babies. In 20, it’ll be bedlam — literally, a London madhouse, as Children of Men has it, in which the compulsory sorrow of species-wide infertility has brought out the worst in us: war, fascism, terrorism, xenophobia, ruinous environmental negligence, and a thinly-veiled John Lennon impression from Michael Caine.
Actually, under the circumstances, that last item is a highlight. “The world has collapsed,” one public-service announcement says. “Only Britain soldiers on.” This means brutal, but only barely effective, martial law. Grim-visaged urbanites trudge daily to dull jobs through trash-strewn streets under sallow skies, clutching lattes and looking past cages full of non-native refugees on the sidewalks. In this bleakly plausible situation, the quirky Caine shines brightly, as a forest-dwelling dope grower and retired political cartoonist who offers warmth, hippie wisdom, useful connections and a (briefly) safe haven to the movie’s dark-horse protagonist, a well-cast Clive Owen.
Owen plays Theo, a formerly radical activist who’s been ground down into a desk-jockey for the Ministry of Energy. His ex (Julianne Moore) remains a dissident, still battling for immigrants’ rights—which would seem like a ludicrously lost cause except that she’s discovered one (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who happens to be pregnant. Theo is forcibly recruited to obtain the young woman’s exit visa, and then harshly obliged to assist her exit. So, yes, it’s basically V for Vendetta for grownups. Logan’s Run with post-9/11 sensibilities. Blade Runner for—yeah, OK, you get it: dystopia du jour.
But if this Britain is the best thing left in a collapsed world, what could possibly be worth leaving it for? There are rumors of a mysterious offshore concern called the Human Project, which hasn’t taken the barrenness pandemic lying down. The more pressing question is whether Theo’s up to his task. Coyly, perhaps, the film begins with a nice anti-sentimentalist touch: Theo learns from a crowded café television that the youngest person alive—a lifelong celebrity on account of being last to arrive in the world—has just been murdered. With shrugging disdain (“I mean, come on,” he’ll later say, “the guy was a wanker.”), Theo excuses himself, stepping outside just in time to see his café blown to smithereens from an explosion within.
The movie does well by the counterintuitive idea that the best way to convey the horror of a gradually unraveling apocalypse is through an urgent thrust of forward momentum. That conceit of mass sterility is a particularly excruciating prognosis, allowing only enough time to register how bad the news actually is: Don’t relax, it’s later than you think.
No one knows how it happened, by the way, but there’s the sense that we probably deserved it. Nor can anyone supply a (non-Christian) explanation for the refugee’s miracle pregnancy. Director Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t want to bog down in exposition, and given the hectoring, tin-eared tone of occasional attempts at back story, his restraint seems prudent: “As the sounds of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in,” someone intones at one point, leaving the audience to wonder why this project required five writers. Six if you count P.D. James, whose 1992 novel it loosely adapts.
Anyway, the real chops are in the direction. Cuarón delights in marshaling his showpieces, like the finer details of Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland’s just-futuristic-enough production design, or, especially, camera operator George Richmond’s agile enactment of Emmanuel Lubezki’s moody cinematography. A few important sequences transpire in dazzling single takes—so dazzling, actually, that they threaten to show up the action staged within them. The charitable view holds that Cuarón, who also brought us Y tu mamá también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is too shrewd to lose sight of human interest, and his indulgent technique only underscores a message about this destabilizing, dehumanizing environment. But that doesn’t fully wash; at least one of those lengthy, hyper-choreographed shots, in which a spatter of blood hits the lens and stays there for a while, seems more interested in aping your average first-person-shooter video game.
Cuarón also shares with his fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) a certain bullying impulse, probably forged from culturally sanctioned disenfranchisement, to bring new meaning to the phrase “border conflict” and become a big player of world cinema. That can be self-defeating. Even Harry Potter knows that conspicuous wizardry in matters of social service can read as schadenfreude. Indeed, a world without children is gravely without innocence.