(Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) Children of Men is all things to all people. Fundamentally, it’s a speculative thriller engorged with a tension so keen, we’re at seat’s edge during second and even third viewings. Mood shifts from despair to terror with sudden blasts of sound and fire; soldiers and radicals churn up the world while lost, ordinary folk pick out an existence around them. Cuaron’s future is futureless thanks to a mysterious infertility that guarantees human extinction, but he doesn’t stop there, slapping an ugly dystopic vision over the sadness. Enter Clive Owen as Theo, a misanthrope who wrestles his way into optimism with the help of an ex-wife (Julianne Moore), an old friend (Michael Caine), and a pregnant stranger (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who bears the suggestive name of Kee.
Viewers agree on the ‘speculative thriller’ tag, but Children of Men features such provocative content and such ambiguous symbolism that its message has been co-opted equally by anti- and pro-choicers. Is it a call for exalted, inevitable motherhood—at any cost—and babies as god-sent messiahs that promise to bring peace on chaotic earth? Or a condemnation of mandated reproduction? Every first-glance glorification of the womb is vexed. For instance, it’s illegal for women to avoid fertility tests, a regulation as sinister as it is, perhaps, necessary, and billboards that proclaim this are reminiscent of Big Brother flair in other dystopias. Kee reveals her bump in a dairy barn warmed by the bodies of cows kept in a perpetual lactating state—as Kee herself points out, indignant. If the ship that collects Kee at film’s end is named the Tomorrow, the organization that steers her has the secular-agency name of The Human Project. Tack on the story’s anxieties about the production of immigrant babies, and Cuaron’s film becomes even more subversive of conservative bylines—accidentally or no.
But it also has enough vroom that one needn’t think of politics or New Testament allusions. It’s a poignantly made film, with dreary set-pieces and haggard faces; we’re surprised to find so much action amidst all that mood. Cuaron’s crafting adds to its look, performances and rich storyline. He’s mastered the handheld camera, which gives him freedom of movement and gives us a sense of harrowing immediacy during action sequences without turning tummies or straining eyes. And he reminds us that single takes can generate tension when Theo loses Kee in a warzone (one shot links them between the moment they separate and the moment they reunite). Vivid, subtextual, and expertly made, Children of Men insists that SF cinema is still thriving, and possibly more elegantly than ever. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade feature, in February 2010.)