Alfonso Cuarón has many virtues as a director and they are all in evidence in this powerful, spectacular movie. My favorite virtue of his, which was much in evidence in the great Y tu mamá también, is his ability to weave many different moods and tones into a coherent emotional whole. Just as in Y tu mamá también he achieved a lovely melancholy undertone to the picaresque adventures of the two main characters, here he melds an urgent, moving emotional core to what is essentially an action movie. Or perhaps it's the other way around. His refreshing lack of sentimentality is what makes this possible: his movies are emotionally complex. Cuarón seems allergic to melodrama and to sentimentality, and I hope he is never cured. That is what I love about his films, the playfulness and sense of humor, the complexity, not of storytelling but of human emotion, the truthfulness of feeling. A couple of small details, like angelic choral music in a redemptive scene or the name of a ship at the end are as much as he is willing to concede to sentimentality; not much, considering that the fate of mankind is at stake.
Children of Men is an apocalyptic movie about a future that is too close to home. It is apocalyptic, yet not futuristic. That is, the immediate future looks less like the Jetsons and more like a nightmare out of Hyeronimus Bosch. It takes place in 2027, which is just around the corner, and it's not a happy sight. In this world torn apart by conflict and self-destruction, the discourse that we hear today from the likes of Bush and Donald Rumsfeld has come to pass. Illegal immigrants are put in cages and deported, they are sent to detention camps closely reminiscent of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the environment is almost all toxic waste. The premise that the entire world suffers from collective infertility doesn't seem at all farfetched. What makes the movie harrowing is how close we are to being in such a state. It's almost as if the filmmakers are saying "wipe the self-satisfied grin off your face and don't get too comfortable, for we are already there".
This is a movie where there is no detachment. The camera follows the hero like a shadow and it feels as if you are there with him, right next to the explosions, shockingly close to the violence, with the point of view of the naked eye, not of the language of the camera. Yet amidst the incredible chase scenes and the beautifully exploding mayhem, Cuarón and Lubezki are capable of achieving quiet, luminous moments of grace.
I was frantically looking in the credits for whoever was responsible for the production design, which, with the entire art department, deserves a standing ovation and an Oscar (imdb says it's Jim Clay and the great Geoffrey Kirkland). I don't think I remember (except for High and Low by Kurosawa) a film that is more crammed with visual information. Because of the wide angles, the frame is full of details, and it takes a few moments to get used to so much coming from the screen. The context is as much in the foreground as the characters. I heard Cuarón say in an interview that this was his and the great cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki's approach in Y tu mamá también and they use it here as well, albeit on a much grander scale. There are not a lot, if any, traditional set ups of close up, medium shot, and reverse takes in Children of Men. The camera is fully engaged in the world around the characters. As you may have already heard, there are several extended shots in this film that are absolutely mindboggling. The piece de resistance is a climactic nine minute (or so) extended tracking shot without a single cut. However, to their credit, Lubezki and Cuarón so immerse you in the dramatic narrative that you barely notice there is a tour de force in progress. It is a thing of breathtaking power and beauty.
In Clive Owen (long live his mother, as they say in Spain, praise the Lord for making him, a bona fide movie star with tons of talent), Cuarón has found a perfectly reluctant hero and one of the main reasons why the movie works at an emotional level. Owen plays Theo, a jaded ex-activist, embittered and hurt by the loss of his son and who has grown inured to the horrors around him. I will not give you the entire plot of the movie, as Anthony Lane did in his review, because you must see for yourself. But Owen gives a sharp, moving performance of a despondent human being who is slowly wakened from his apathy by having to perform a heroic deed almost against his will. As the world collapses around him, what Theo has that many others don't is basic human decency. It's as simple as that. It is not grandiloquent outrage or a self-righteous belief in freedom and democracy or none of that crap that gets bandied about by the bad guys nowadays as an excuse for their self-interested mayhem. Theo drinks, he smokes, he winces at the grief of others and he wears his task quite uncomfortably on his sleeve. Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis or any of those simplistic, grandiose fools, he ain't.
In the end, what I most admire about Children of Men, besides it's undeniable artistry, and despite some of its commercial inclinations, is its commitment to protest. Cuarón does not shy away from shocking violence, but it is not much different from what you see on CNN any given day: people's limbs torn out by bombs, ethnic strife, a generalized disregard for human life. The movie has a strong, quietly indignant point of view about the state of affairs today, and that is what makes it so relevant, so powerful and so disturbing.