Following a fascinating and quite detailed opening sequence, which proposes that utter chaos will rule the world by 2027, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” boils down to an elaborate chase movie. But what a chase.
The Mexican director behind both “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” uses his extraordinarily mobile cameras to capture a modern police state that rounds up refugees and deports them or sends them to Homeland Security camps.
Long, uninterrupted takes are used for everything from intricately choreographed action scenes to a ping-pong game to a scene of the British bureaucrat hero, Theo (Clive Owen), stealthily swiping liquor from his oblivious aging-hippie pal, Jasper (Michael Caine). The lack of editing tricks succeeds in suggesting that real time is passing.
As the movie opens, it’s Day 1,000 of the siege of Seattle. London-based television propaganda, ignored by much of the populace, insists that “the world has collapsed” and “only Britain soldiers on.” Objections to the Iraq war still turn up, and bombs explode whenever politicians need to drum up a little fear.
For reasons that are never explained, everyone’s infertile. No babies have been born anywhere for a couple of decades. “Baby” Diego, a young man and the youngest person in the world, is mourned like Princess Diana when he dies.
After nearly getting killed in a terrorist attack, Theo visits Jasper at his country home, where the fatalistic older man is able to satisfy his addiction to homegrown pot and “Ruby Tuesday” (which gets a lot of play on the soundtrack). When Theo is kidnapped by a terrorist group led by his former lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), he’s recruited to help a refugee, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) — who happens to be the first pregnant woman in 18 years.
Loosely based on an early-1990s novel by P.D. James, “Children of Men” establishes a ruthless tone when one key character is killed off, “Psycho”-style, early in the picture. This certainly heightens the film’s intensity (who could be next?), but several interesting peripheral characters disappear too quickly, and it’s left to Owen and Ashitey to carry the film’s second half.
Fortunately, they’re both up to the task. Owen subtly suggests Theo’s renewed activism, as he finds himself instinctively protecting Kee while she nears the end of her pregnancy. Ashitey, who was praised for her work in the 2005 Rwanda drama “Shooting Dogs,” creates a spirited character who matches Theo’s ability to improvise in a tough situation.
Several writers, including Cuaron, worked on the script, which could have done more to flesh out the history between 2006 and 2027. They’re good at hinting that 2006 is already Orwellian enough, and that 2027 is a logical extension of today, but what they’re very, very good at is creating dazzling chase sequences. Whether it’s an old favorite (the bad guys are in pursuit and the car stalls) or a more futuristic bit (storm troopers invading British trains), they know exactly what they’re doing.