There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón's masterful Children of Men where the reality of what is going on finally sinks in. It doesn't occur when our hero, Theo, narrowly escapes death as a bomb goes off in his local coffee shop. Nor is it the sequence where a band of rebels known as the Fish kidnap this disgruntled civil servant and ask him for a bureaucratic favor. No, in a scene so subtle it almost gets away with its subversion, Cuarón lets us look at the London kept unaffected by the ongoing apocalypse around it. Behind well guarded gates, past lawns loaded with all manner of English tea party pageantry, zoo animals mingle with the privileged and the upper crust, palace guards parading down archetypical streets, everything glazed with proper British ceremony.
Theo, there to visit a relative in the ministry, gets to see the spoils of a world gone warlike. The "rescued" statue of David sits in the foyer, as memento of a raid in Florence. Similarly, a trip to Spain garners Picasso's Guernica, it's images of death and destruction used to line a dining room wall. As he sits and eats, sipping wine and drinking in the artificial atmosphere, we see a shockingly familiar site just beyond our view. Sure enough, right outside the window, is yet another lesson in preserving the past. It's the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd's Animals album, once again sitting perched within its Battlesea Power Station setting.
Call it dystopian or future shocking, but Children of Men is nothing more than a sensational cinematic allegory as bona fide art. Fashioned from PD James famed novel about a world gone infertile (and the horrors that accompany such a biological barrier), a legion of screenwriters have boiled the metaphorical wake up call into a look at the planet circa 2006. The technology visible is not quite beyond our current comprehension (even if computer screens float freely in the air) and the destruction not predicated on massive acts of global extermination. It is clear from the neo-fascist regime ruling Britain that Earth has died from the inside out, unable to cope with the demise of implied immortality. One of the ideas that this stellar motion picture exploits effectively is the hopelessness of those unable to contemplate the inability to continue on with the species. Instead of finding ways to channel this despair, to join together to fight, they turn on each other, creating police states where citizenship is more important than solutions.
The scenes where immigrants – or 'fugees', for refugee – are rounded up and placed in camps smack of so many historical atrocities that it's hard to pick just one. Between references to the Troubles, the Holocaust and post-9/11 America to the Cuban Boat Lift of the '80s and the Japanese internment of the '40s, it is clear that Cuarón sees the world as a constant power struggle between the established and the excluded, a continuation of colonialism and imperialism wrapped up in jingoistic jargon and problematic patriotism. When we learn that Theo's being recruited to help Kee, a pregnant black migrant, escape the city to a supposed scientific project, his stupefaction over seeing a woman with child provides him with an answer to everyone's problems. "Tell them", he says, "tell the world." Naturally, he is scoffed at, one member of the resistance making it clear that Britain would never stand for the first new baby in 18 years being a non-citizen. Of course, there is another reason for their rejection of Theo's plan, but it's clear from their conviction that Kee's existence would only escalate the problem.
Part of the beauty of this film is its exquisite attention to detail. Songs like "In the Court of the Crimson King", "Hush" and "Ruby Tuesday", obviously chosen for their ready recognizability, also set the tone for these looking backward times. The Beatles are nowhere to be heard, and bands from the later part of the Brit-pop movement fail to make an appearance as well. Indeed, when Theo's hippy friend, a pot growing ex-political cartoonist named Jasper (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) wants to "rock out", he puts on some discordant noise which sounds like techno gone tainted. Memories from the past are important to the people of Children of Men, but they also realize that without a future generation to share them with, such recollections are more or less pointless. They too will die one day. Even Theo's ex-lover, the Fish leader Julian (Julianne Moore) reminds her partner (and father of their now dead child) that you never really forget what came before, you simply try and learn to live with it. Since each performance is amazingly effective – Clive Owen, as Theo, argues for his place as one of today's best big screen actors – and the world Cuarón creates so precise, we don't need long scenes of expositional explanation to get the feel of this tentative time period.
The camerawork here is equally amazing. Mostly handheld, sometimes with the addition of a Steadicam, Cuarón places us alongside the characters, letting us overhear conversations and viewing potential dangers from a clear first person POV position. Some may see this as a trick – along with a couple of sensational tracking shots that, in one take, cover substantial narrative and action ground – but it works to keep us attached to the storyline. Something as unfathomable as Children of Men's crisis needs to stay immediate and focused. Sit around too long, or maintain too much distance from the situations and people begin to pick away at plotpoints. Similar to the style Stephen Spielberg employed during War of the Worlds, Cuarón is making it clear that this is no time for thinking. Thought went away over 18 years ago, and now governments wage war against humanity in order to save their own sense of sovereignty. We are supposed to be swept up in events like these, not sit back in the comfort of our stadium seat and rationalize a way for these desperate people to simply get along.
Yet there's another element at play here, something sly and rather underhanded. It is clear that Children of Men is offering up a weird sort of warning sign, telling a social structure that clearly sanctifies all offspring to be careful what they live vicariously through. The notion of biology as a balm has long been a staple of the cinematic experience. Couples are fighting, families are in free fall, the wicked are wearing down the world. Have a baby, and suddenly, everything is lollipops, roses and puffy pink (or blue) clouds. The implication, both from the opening news report on "Baby Diego" and the glimpses we see of other catastrophes, is that without kids, adults go insane. Unhappy, unfulfilled and without a means of channeling their fear of death into something that will theoretically live on, the supposedly more mature members of society become unglued, guiding the populace toward genocide, isolationism and religious radicalism. Both Christians and Muslims get their moment to muck things up (never outwardly, but in the background) and it's interesting how God becomes an incomplete catalyst. Kee is seen as a miracle, but one only a phantom group of scientists can supposedly help.
In addition, the film forces a confrontation between the diplomatic minded among the liberal set and the far more iron fisted forces in charge. The parallels to Iraq and other recent US foreign policy blunders are more than obvious, and scenes where armed forces battle rebels for control of a refugee facility have a war correspondent feel to their filmmaking. Cuarón keeps his camera fluid during these moments, never letting it settle even in sequences of outrageous histrionics or nail-biting stealth. He also avoids the brave new worldisms of most futuristic films, keeping police state Britain recognizable, with minor touches here and there to amplify the unfamiliarity. In the end though, Children of Men is more about the present than what we can anticipate years from now. It holds up a mirror to our sentimentalized selves and argues that, without a conduit for our care and consideration, we will turn on our fellow man and destroy all civilizing concepts around us. In a year that saw masterpiece works from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a cinematic clinic on how to make images work both as metaphors and movie. Definitely one of 2006's best, Children of Men helps reinstate the sagging fortunes of serious sci-fi. Too bad all filmmakers can't be as specific – and sensational – as Cuarón.