Alfonso Cuarón, a director best known for making films about the hazardous but hopeful trajectory of adolescence, imagines a world without children in the not-so-distant future in his apocalyptic thriller Children of Men. In 2027 mankind, facing its own extinction, has gone about the task of self destruction. The only democratic (but really totalitarian) and seemingly stable country (where the trains are riot-protected) is England, which, using terrorism as an excuse, locks its large illegal immigrant population in holding pens guarded by soldiers in riot gear before deporting them. Sound familiar? Cuarón (Great Expectations, Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) has intentionally and realistically created a future that is a result of today’s current events, where terrorism and religious extremism have paved the way for governments to control their people through fear in the name of democracy. But you don’t really need to pay attention to all of that because, as it turns out, this is all secondary and irrelevant to what is basically a chase film at heart.
We first encounter bureaucrat Theo (Clive Owen, inhabiting the tall, dark, and brooding character we’ve already met in The Insider and Closer) leaving a London coffee shop just before a terrorist bomb blasts the store into rubble. Unfazed by the occurrence he continues on his way to work as his fellow commuters mourn for Baby Diego, an 18-year-old Argentine and the youngest person on earth. For reasons never explained the world’s women have become infertile, and signs all over the city remind citizens of mandatory fertility tests.
But none of this permeates Theo’s tormented state of mind, numbed with liquor, until he is kidnapped by a guerrilla group of immigrant freedom-fighters, The Fishes. (As Theo quite mockingly points out, the line is thin between freedom fighter and terrorist.) We learn quite early on the reason for Theo’s now cynical view of the world when we meet the leader of the group, Theo’s ex-girlfriend Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), the mother of his now-deceased child. Both of them had been activists, but after the death of their child Theo turned to drinking while Julienne used her pain to fight for justice. While the script calls for an easy rapport between Julienne and Theo, after having not seen each for twenty-odd years, their once more blossoming romance comes off as clunky and awkward. Plus, it doesn’t help that it’s the promise of money and not the chance of a reunion that convinces Theo to get a young pregnant refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the papers necessary and help her to leave the country to meet a group of intellectuals known as The Human Project, which might not even exist.
And after a promising start everything falls apart. Although the action never wavers, the storyline becomes predictable, and the unanswered questions start piling up, making it hard to concentrate on the story, which is quite a shame considering this film started on such an original note. For example, why would a government so intent on finding a cure for the infertility problem not want to help Kee have her baby? If they are so good why does the Human Project remain incognito?
As Theo and Kee are betrayed time and time again, they are aided by several kind people who still believe in humankind, including a political-catoonist-turned-hippie-pot-grower played by Michael Caine in a performance that turns out to be less of a stretch of the imagination than it first appears. For someone who doesn’t take up much time in the film, Caine’s turns out to be one of the most fleshed out and interesting characters we get to meet. Despite Kee’s centrality to the story, there is not much space in the script for viewers to become attached to her. We don’t even get a simple background on her. Claire-Hope does the best she can with the limited and sometimes silly lines she must utter, but by the middle of the movie the message of the film is completely lost.
On the other hand, as Theo and Kee traverse the British landscape, some incredibly creative chase scenes ensue — including a sequence shot inside a moving car that captures a murder and chase without a single cut and a Black Hawk Down-type climax that takes place in refugee camp.
Forever an optimist Cuarón holds back no punches in pulling viewers’ heart strings (which might annoy some people); but, by the end, the lack of a message makes it all quite pointless. While the action keeps the film moving forward, the world Cuarón imagines we are headed towards doesn’t seem worth redeeming. I just wish the story had been fleshed out some more and that the characters had a chance to grow in amidst all the running.