Children of Men Review
By Joe Lozito
It used to be that a low budget would bring out the best in science fiction (the original "Star Trek" soars shakily to mind). Without the flash of expensive special effects, sci-fi filmmakers needed to rely on character and story to get their point across. The best sci-fi, after all, reflects our present world back at us. As computer generated effects got cheaper and cheaper, the human element was sacrificed in the name of sweeping space operas and intricate planetscapes (cue the latest "Star Wars" entries). Occasionally, however, you can still find good sci-fi out there, regardless of budget. Andrew Niccol's wonderful 1997 "Gattaca" immediately comes to mind, as does "Minority Report"
. With "Children of Men", the exceedingly talented director Alfonso Cuarón turns in a bleak, unexpectedly gritty parable about a near future in which the human race is infertile and on the brink of extinction. But while his handling of the material is masterful, ultimately there's not enough story to back it up.
In 2027, most major cities are smoldering. The youngest human (he was 18) has just been killed. London has closed its borders, and all illegal immigrants (call "'fugees") are being rounded up and deported. One day, after coming deathly close to a street bombing, Theo (Clive Owen) is kidnapped by a group of freedom fighters (or, at least, I think that's what they are) led by Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo's ex. They have somehow discovered the first pregnant woman in 20 years (her name's Kee, pronounced "key", get it?) and she may or may not mean salvation for the human race.
The screenplay - credited to no less than five writers (including Mr. Cuarón) and based on a novel by P.D. James - follows the pretty standard action path. Theo must get from point A to point B before X time. There's the pothead friend (Michael Caine, having a great time), the sacrifice of a loved one, and many, many daring escapes. But the real star of the film is Mr. Cuarón himself, who directs the story with a down-and-dirty immediacy that is unexpected despite his great work in "Y tu mamá también" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
It takes a while to realize that Mr. Cuarón is doing everything possible to steer clear of the typical Hollywood clichés. There is very little music underscoring the action, most of which the director films in handheld master shots - in other words, Mr. Cuarón lets the audience decide how to react. Did that women just get her arm blown off? Was the hero just abducted? Mr. Cuarón's not going to spell it out for you. There are two sequences in particular which leave you shaking. One involves the ambush of a car filmed entirely from within the vehicle (no idea how he pulled that one off); the other is a continuous, uncut rescue sequence during a raid.
It's to the film's credit that we are dropped directly into this future without much exposition, but the politics of the world are a bit too loosely defined so, by the time an all out war erupts, it's difficult to determine who wants what and why. The raid sequence is technically stunning, and it's clear that Theo's in tremendous danger, but the different sides of the conflict are murky at best. Still, there are enough ideas here that the film's never boring, and Mr. Cuarón's bravura direction is thrilling from start to finish. In the end, "Children of Men" is a just good story, expertly told.