January 1st, 2007. Leave it to this day, New Year's Day, for me to see what could be the best movie of 2006. Children of Men, the new movie from Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), is sensational, a tour de force of drama, suspense, political commentary and even humor.
Children of Men is set twenty years in the future, nearly twenty years after human beings stopped being able to reproduce. Due to genetic testing, pollution, disease or whatever, women are unable to have babies. Since then, with no hope for the future, the world has gone to chaos. New York has been destroyed by nuclear terrorism, most of the rest of the world has fallen into depression, and Great Britain has isolated itself from the rest of the world. The country has become a military state, and the government, with the intent to protect its homeland, has driven all immigrants into refugee camps, where they are essentially prisoners. Terrorism is common, even though the government claims Britain is the last safe place on Earth.
That is the setting for Children of Men, and it is a bleak and startlingly realistic setting at that. In terms of setting, Children of Men is a science-fiction picture, but that's as far as it goes in terms of veering into that genre. Cuarón has successfully made a living world of depression and oppression, a world that draws the audience in within seconds and doesn't let go until long after the closing credits roll. The film properly captures the hopelessness of the people without making everything completely depressing; while things are 99% depressing, people still go about their jobs, still laugh with one another, so on and so forth.
Of course, the purpose of Children of Men is not about hopelessness but about hope in the future, and the movie is not a character study but instead a dramatic action-adventure film that somehow manages to piece everything together just right to give it a shot at Oscar gold (though the odds are probably against it). Clive Owen stars as Theodore Faron, a man who has accepted his fate and distanced himself from anything political. His only joy comes from his spending time with his reclusive, pot-smoking friend, played by Michael Caine, but it is still only a matter of time before humanity breaks down completely. When his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) confronts him about smuggling a young woman out of the country, however, he suddenly finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the terrorists (or freedom fighters) and the government. But, as he soon discovers, the stakes are much higher than he could have ever imagined: the young woman is pregnant.
Children of Men works on so many levels I can hardly fathom it. As an action-adventure, it is terrific. The first half of the movie isn't particularly action-packed, but every minute is intense in its own way. As the film progresses, the excitement factor rises, and Cuarón is careful to make sure every bullet fired hits home. The movie feels so real at times that you are fully drawn into the action, even if the movie isn't, by most descriptions, an action movie. The final act is especially gritty and powerful.
As a drama, Children of Men is even better. Cuarón establishes the hopelessness of his world so well that when the pregnant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) is introduced, he sparks that emotion inside you that is rarely tapped in films. Most people would say I am not the most emotional person in the world, and by that I mean I am a cold bastard. Especially when it comes to movies, I am rarely affected in any emotional way. It takes a really good film to strike that chord, and in a scene where the military realizes that a baby has been born, that chord is struck. This one, single scene near the end of the film is so powerful it almost had me crying.
Surprisingly, the movie is also quite funny at times. As in real life, people can still laugh in even the most dire circumstances. Owen delivers a terrific performance, bringing a much needed intensity to the role while still balancing the drama and comedy quite well. He is one of those actors that can slip between seriousness and humor smoothly, and that ability works wonders here. In a movie that is as bleak as this, the audience needs something to laugh about.
Children of Men is amazing. This is one of the few films I've seen this year (2006, that is), that has fully engaged me on so many levels. Cuarón has delivered another masterpiece.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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