In the dystopian future Britain of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, illegal immigrants are rounded up and herded into refugee camps by something called the Department of Homeland Security. It’s no Ministry of Love, but it’s a nice touch, a good solid Orwellian name—exactly the sort of thing you need for your science-fiction script. The joke, of course, is that we already have one of those Departments. That’s one of the many things this movie gets exactly right—if you want to make a good, bleak movie future, you have to stitch it together out of bits of Right Now. I don’t mean satire, either—it’s real easy to come up with fake future TV shows and have it be funny, but the trick is to play it absolutely straight. You know the premise of Children of Men, right? It’s the future, everybody’s infertile, humanity is doomed, etc. Pretty extreme stuff, but all the details are, well, not surprising at all. When the Youngest Person on Earth dies at the start of the film (in some kind of sordid bar fight, apparently) everything just kind of grinds to a halt; people call in sick to work, weep in public, and pile up flowers and stuffed animals against fences in exactly the way that they do when this kind of Media Death Frenzy actually happens. (Although you can argue that poor “Baby Diego” has a better claim to fame in the world of the film than Diana Spencer, say, had in ours.) The refugee camp looks like, well, a refugee camp, complete with the obligatory Angry Islamist Funeral. (It’s probably more shocking for British people, who might be familiar with this “Bexhill” place in the present day, before everything goes to hell.)
Plot-wise, the movie’s got a pretty standard chase/quest structure. (If, in this awful world, somebody could have babies, that’d be a pretty big deal, right? People would be interested?) It’s got a pretty standard Reluctant Hero (Clive Owen), who used to Have Ideals, but now drinks whiskey from his flask whenever he’s alone onscreen. He’s got a Wisecracking Old Mentor who must make a Noble Sacrifice (Michael Caine.) And yes, there is a scene in an abandoned elementary school—get it? And outside the school, there is a concrete statue of a triceratops—GET IT? Hard to avoid this sort of thing, I guess.
But if you get beyond all that, it’s pretty impressive. To begin with, Clive Owen kicks ass, as usual—there’s no comparable American actor right now who can just show up and be himself like that, without being funny or showing off, and still command attention. He doesn’t get a lot of room to maneuver in this movie, but he pulls it off. The action, when it comes, is convincing, something hardly any serious movie—and surprisingly few unserious ones—can pull off. (Hey, why did everybody like Little Miss Sunshine so much? Children of Men makes you understand what it means to really have to jump-start that car.) The violence, when it comes—and a lot of it comes—is hard and fast and unsentimental. Everybody who’s written about this movie has been awestruck by the final-act set piece, an endless street-battle in the aforementioned refugee camp, and I’m not gonna dissent. My girlfriend will get mad if I call it a tour de force, so I won’t—but by the end of one endless handheld shot, there’s fake blood and mud spattered all over the camera lens.
Your final opinion may depend on how you feel about the climactic scene, which is indeed a little hard to swallow. I’m not going to ruin the movie, but the entire plot hinges on one of those pseudo-religious scenes where Everyone Stands In Awestruck Silence Looking At Something Amazing. It’s not what I would have done, but I was willing to let it go—I felt the filmmakers had earned it by that point. Reasonable people may differ on this—one of the people I saw the movie with kept saying “you know, it’s just a baby.” She wasn’t wrong, but I still felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.
More: in an aside, Owen’s character visits his brother (brother in law? something like that.) who is in charge of something called the Ark of the Arts—they’re trying to preserve humanity’s legacy in the face of extinction, so that aliens, presumably, can appreciate Shakespeare and Michelangelo’s David. But during the whole introduction of this sequence, the soundtrack is blaring “In the Court of the Crimson King,” by King Crimson. And when Owen and his brother, or brother-in-law, look out of the window of the Ark, for some reason we see the giant inflatable pig from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. Apparently, according to the filmmakers, an important part of humanity’s artistic legacy—the stuff we want the aliens listening to—is 1970’s prog rock. Curious.