In 2027, the world is on the brink of collapse because no children have been born for 18 years. Offered £5,000 by a politically radical ex-girlfriend, London office worker Theo (Owen) agrees to escort a refugee to safety, but soon finds his life is in dan
In the terrorist graffiti that adorns every concrete surface in Alfonso Cuarón’s wonderful black comedy — and there’s no shortage of concrete surfaces — one phrase stands out: “The future’s a thing of the past.” Indeed, Cuarón’s idea of it is a good deal less futuristic than you might imagine. Britain in 2027 is, it seems, backward even by ’70s standards, a military regime where public transport is rundown and battered, immigrants are arrested on the streets, and the whole city of Bexhill has become a lawless internment camp for the dispossessed.
It recalls the dusty dystopia of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but where Gilliam stressed the absurd and delighted in the sheer scale of his masterpiece, Cuarón has taken a whole new route. In fact, it’s fair to say that Children Of Men is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, a milestone movie that takes action movie conventions and bends them right out of shape. Though it appears to be a sci-fi movie, it recalls the episodic qualities of a satire like Lindsay Anderson’s If.…, as the bewildered Theo (Clive Owen) begins his picaresque adventure, blundering from one encounter to another like philosopher Voltaire’s naive 18th century hero, Candide (so nothing futuristic there).
That’s not to say Children Of Men isn’t spectacular, mind. But it doesn’t dwell on it, and amid the explosions and terrorist ambushes, Cuarón homes in on his hero to create the magnificent illusion that we are right in the thick of things. In one bravura tracking shot that covers a mini-siege in Bexhill, Cuarón’s roving camera performs unimaginable pirouettes while Owen handles the technical needs of the scene and simultaneously delivers an impressively nuanced performance. His life is in danger but Theo pushes forward, and his recklessness takes on an unbelievable air of dignity.
The strong streak of comedy may be hard for some to take, most notably Michael Caine’s weed-dealing peacenik and Peter Mullan as his deliciously sadistic soldier friend Syd. And, admittedly, its moral — war is stupid and people are stupid — is a little glib in these troubled times.
But Cuarón has achieved something tremendous, and his take on the action genre rivals that of Paul Greengrass in terms of invigoration. His eye is unfaltering, much like Theo’s, and his film a provocative circus of the mind, rich in ideas and invention but never too proud to stoop
to a fart gag.
A visually stunning Swiftian satire, Children Of Men may appear clumsy, but its message is simple, heartfelt and ultimately rather moving.