History repeats itself: Twelve winters ago, Universal had the season's strongest movie a downbeat sci-fi flick freely adapted from a well-known source by a name director. With a bare minimum of advance screenings and a shocking absence of hype, the studio dumped it. This year, they've done it again.
The 1995 cast-off was 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's remake of Chris Marker's La Jetée; this year's victim is Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's dank, hallucinated, shockingly immediate version of P.D. James' novel. Never mind that Cuarón saved the Harry Potter franchise and, with Y Tu Mamá También, directed the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie ever released in America (or that Children of Men was respectfully received at the Venice Film Festival and topped the British box office the week that it opened), this superbly crafted action thriller is being treated like a communicable disease.
Ever-sensitive to buzz, critics have gotten the message and are steering clear. When the New York Film Critics Circle met a few weeks ago, Children of Men got only a handful of votes, mainly for Emmanuel Lubezki's sensational cinematography. Last month, the New York Times imagined Academy members in surgical scrubs, with a "news analysis" noting the unusual goriness of the year's Oscar contenders: The Departed, Flags of Our Fathers, Blood Diamond, Apocalypto and The Last King of Scotland. A more resonant and gripping movie than any of these, Children of Men wasn't even mentioned.
This despite the vivid Fleet Street terror bombing that establishes London 2027, the jolting, bloody car chase shot in what looks like a single take that eliminates one of the stars, and the year's most brilliantly choreographed action sequence. Children of Men vaults into another dimension with one more long-shot tour de force as Clive Owen's protagonist dashes from a nightmare prison camp through an urban free-fire zone, cradling a newborn baby. (Not since John Woo's Hard Boiled has an infant been put in such egregious harm's way.)
With five screenwriters (Cuarón included), it's impossible to give credit for the intelligent path Children of Men takes through James's 1992 novel, preserving while enriching her allegorical premise. Humanity is facing its own extinction not through nuclear proliferation or global warming, but through the end of fertility. Like James' book, the movie opens with the violent death of the world's youngest person (eighteen-year-old "Baby Diego," stabbed by an irate fan in Buenos Aires) and imagines what might happen if the human race were granted a miraculous second chance. Universal may have deemed Children of Men too grim for Christmas, but it is premised on a reverence for life that some might term religious.
The year is 2027, but the mood is late 1940. "The world has collapsed," a BBC newsreader explains. "Only Britain soldiers on" barely. The U.K. is a mecca for illegal immigrants, as well as a bastion of neo-fascist homeland security. London's smog-shrouded smear of garbage, graffiti and motorcycle rickshaws is the shabbiest of havens. Armed cops are ubiquitous, and refugees or 'fugees are locked up in curbside cages. Religious cultists parade through the streets. Terrorists and looters control the despoiled landscape poignantly dotted with long-abandoned schools.
Enormously sympathetic, as always, Owen plays a wry and rumpled joker less an actual character than a nexus of connections. His ex-wife (Julianne Moore) is an underground revolutionary; his buddy (Michael Caine) is a scene-stealing old hippie with a secret house in the woods. He has a well-off cousin in the government (Danny Huston) who lives in what looks like a South Bank power station amid recovered artworks, including Michelangelo's David (missing a leg) and Picasso's Guernica, and no longer worries about tomorrow. Owen's warmth is such that everyone trusts him, including animals and a mysterious young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who needs to be smuggled through the countryside.
It's a measure of Cuarón's directorial chops that Children of Men functions equally well as fantasy and thriller. Like Spielberg's War of the Worlds and the Wachowski Brothers' V for Vendetta (and more consistently than either), the movie attempts to fuse contemporary life with pulp mythology. The war against terror and the battle in Iraq are most powerfully present in the aforementioned set piece where Owen escapes a nightmare Gitmo into the exploding rubble of an incipient Fallujah. Children of Men doesn't entirely elude a sentimental tinge. (I've heard it called a disaster film for NPR subscribers.) But scenes that express the solace of solidarity or the fragility of human life are viscerally bleak, when not totally brutal.
Infertility is only a metaphor that enables Children of Men to entertain the possibility of No Future. The only parents these days who assume their children will inhabit a better world are either those living in the gated communities of the super-rich or the immigrants imported to tend their gardens. That these 'fugees are visualized as the persecuted rabble of a crumbling empire is only one of this movie's inconvenient truths.