The best science fiction talks about the future to talk about the now, and "Children of Men" very much belongs in that class. Made with palpable energy, intensity and excitement, it compellingly creates a world gone mad that is uncomfortably close to the one we live in. It is a "Blade Runner" for the 21st century, a worthy successor to that epic of dystopian decay.
Like that earlier film, "Children of Men" is based on a novel (P.D. James this time, not Philip K. Dick) and deals with the question of the future of human life. It brings so much urgency to the possibility of the world ending that we feel the kind of terror we would if the scenario were taking place tomorrow instead of 20 years in the future.
Also, in Alfonso Cuarón, "Children of Men" has a strong director with a powerhouse visual sense who is at home with both action sequences and philosophical concerns. Cuarón, with such widely diverse films as "A Little Princess" and "Y Tu Mamá También" behind him, demonstrates once again that no genre is beyond his mastery.
The plot hook of "Children of Men" is simple but devastating: the infertility of the entire human race. The date is 2027, and it's been 18 years since the Earth's last human child was born. James, whose novel has been altered considerably by the film's five credited screenwriters, says she wrote it to answer the question, "If there were no future, how would we behave?" The answer, in a word, is horribly.
For what "Children of Men" shows us is a world coming apart at the seams. Britain, where the story is set, has survived by becoming a chaotic police state in which rioters fueled by pure fury attack whatever moves and heavily armed police and savage dogs keep a close eye on ever-present refugees stuffed into sidewalk holding tanks. "Renouncers" flog themselves for the forgiveness of humanity, public service ads insist "The world has collapsed, only Britain soldiers on," and an underground group called the Fishes fights for equal rights for that flood of immigrants.
This, again like "Blade Runner," is an undeniably pulpy premise, but two things elevate "Children of Men": One is the sheer forcefulness of the storytelling, the other the film's brilliant visual look and style.
The story line here is again quite simple. A disheartened bureaucrat named Theo (Clive Owen, master of the disillusioned look) has cut himself off from most human contact except for an old friend and hippie drug dealer named Jasper (Michael Caine in a way we've not seen him before).
This all changes when Theo comes face to face with Julian (Julianne Moore), his old flame who turns out to be part of the leadership of the Fishes. She and her lieutenant, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Luke, want his help in procuring exit visas for a young refugee woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). It will surprise no one who has noticed "Children of Men" is opening on Christmas Day that, astonishingly, Kee is with child.
Theo reluctantly agrees to help, and all kinds of unexpected complications follow in the wake of that decision. Everyone has agendas within agendas, and even simple notions, like the importance of getting Kee to safety, turn out to mean different things to different people. And, because of Kee's urgent condition, every decision is taken under the ever-higher pressure of increasingly dire time constraints.
The critical factor in helping keep that tension at a high pitch, critical in getting us to take seriously what could be a lurid premise, is Cuarón's skill in not only motivating his actors but also in creating such a ferocious sense of forward momentum that everything feels more real — and more terrifying — than would seem possible.
Essential here is exceptional work by production designers Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland, who create a world of garbage and decay that looks both contemporary and futuristic. Most remarkable of all is what Cuarón's longtime director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki has accomplished by shooting entirely hand-held with few lights, greatly increasing the film's verisimilitude. Although everyone will notice the bravura work of camera operator George Richmond during one continuous seven-minute-plus battle scene, the skill of the cinematography team carries the film from the beginning to the end.
Perhaps most delicate of all is the way director Cuarón has made "Children of Men" comment on the problems society faces today, crises involving racism, terrorism, decaying infrastructure, threatened environment, government-inspired paranoia and more.
This is a world of rubble, fear and hopelessness whose connections to our own are never forced; Cuarón is such a fluid director with such a powerful imagination, they don't have to be. This could well be our future, and we know it.
"Children of Men." MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Opens Monday exclusively at Pacific's Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, L.A., (323) 692-0829, and AMC Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-4AMC.