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Monday, December 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Children of Men": A reluctant hero carrying the hopes of a dying race

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

Opens today

"Children of Men" with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. Directed by Alfonso Cuarn, based on the novel by P.D. James. Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity. 109 minutes. Several theaters.

Imagine a country where the government rounds up and cages immigrants who desperately want in, terrorists bomb the joint where you get your morning coffee, and activists are as ruthless as the oppressive government they fight. Also, it's been nearly 20 years since any babies were born on Earth.

That's the ultra-bleak world of Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men," which looks a lot like here and now, but takes place in 2027 England. I don't know what I expected from the director of "Y tu mamá también" and the third Harry Potter kiddie flick, but this dystopian masterpiece of misery kept me wound up for hours after the credits rolled. It's got a controversial and thought-provoking premise, action scenes that equal anything in "Saving Private Ryan," and a ragged performance from Clive Owen that'll make you glad he didn't squander his talents on the James Bond series.

Owen plays Theo Faron, a former activist turned utter burnout government bureaucrat. He numbs himself to the palpable hopelessness of humanity's imminent extinction with a healthy dose of hooch in his morning java and trips to the secluded country house of his old hippie pal, Jasper (Michael Caine) — a lovable fascist-hater who grows primo weed and tends to his catatonic wife.

The world turns another shade bleaker after news reports of the death of the world's youngest person — a 19-year-old. And then Theo gets jogged out of his stupor by contact from an ex (Julianne Moore). Unlike Theo, she went from activist to extremist, and offers to pay him a good-size lump of cash to get transit papers for a young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) important to the radicals. He's reluctant, bitter, sardonic. But a sight forces Theo to pick up his jaw, come out of his stupor and risk everything to get the girl to safety: her bulging belly.

Like the best science fiction — or speculative fiction, or whatever you prefer — "Children" comments on current events, and in a way that would make Rod Serling need a cigarette. Cuarón keeps everything realistic, so that no hokey "Logan's Run" nonsense can pull you out of the story for an instant. It's a near-future where the cars look just a little different and a young man at the dinner table is zombified by the impenetrable 2027 version of what must be a GameBoy. Cuarón's so deft with pacing that even such intentionally slow spots as chill time at Jasper's hideaway seem perfectly natural.

The film also boasts some jaw-dropping camera work in astonishingly planned, long set-pieces. In one, Theo and company are driving along a country road when enemies on foot attack from a hillside and give chase. In another, Theo makes his way through a bombed-out, besieged building filled with squatters and fighters dropping all around him from stray lead.

Cuarón and his four other screenwriters depart from P.D. James' more contemplative 1992 novel — he has freely admitted that he didn't even read it — for the better. What's both bold and frustrating are the ambiguities that hang like the huge, Pink-Floydesque pig floating in the industrial background of one scene. There's no explanation for the world's infertility crisis. And although I was fully in fight-or-flight mode by the end, I had to wonder what all that trauma really added up to.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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