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Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Futurama: Owen and Ashitey run for the border. (Double Negative/Universal Pictures)

In the year 2027, the planet has plunged into war-torn chaos, and the human race has been plagued by 20 years of female infertility. On the streets of London — supposedly the world’s last center of relative calm — illegal immigrants, or “fugees,” are herded into Guantanamo-style holding pens by officers from a department of “Homeland Security.” Terror cells — or possibly government itself, propagating the fear of terror — blow Fleet Street coffeehouses to smithereens. Trafalgar Square spills over with self-flagellating fanatics, begging God for forgiveness. And those who can afford it still live in exclusive enclaves, literally and figuratively walled off from reality. Unlike so many directors making movies about the future, Alfonso Cuarón (together with the immeasurable aid of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designers Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland) doesn’t offer us a radically new vision, but rather one distinctly rooted in the present, and he doesn’t go out of his way to explain how we got there from here. Indeed, the most terrifying thing about the coming dystopia proffered by Cuarón’s Children of Men is how familiar it seems.

Through this landscape trudges a man named Theo (an excellent Clive Owen), whose life as a midlevel government bureaucrat belies his radical past. Once upon a time, Theo had ideals — he believed he could change the world — until a flu pandemic wiped them out along with the life of his young son. Then Theo’s past comes rushing back to him: Kidnapped off the street by the underground radicals known as the Fishes, he’s asked by his revolutionary ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), to help with an important mission. There’s this fugee, an African girl called Kee (luminous newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey), who needs urgent passage to the coast, and Theo has family connections that can help get Kee the transit papers she needs. Plus, there’s 5,000 pounds in it for him for his troubles.

So he says yes, and soon finds himself not only going along for the ride, but reconnecting with that part of himself that he turned off long ago. (It’s one of Cuarón’s most delicate touches that, in the midst of all this, Theo finds himself falling back in love with Julian.) But in the world of Children of Men, idealism comes with a heavy price tag. En route to the coast, Theo, Julian and the Fishes are ambushed by an angry mob, their windshield smashed and Julian mortally wounded. After which, and for the rest of its running time, Children of Men evolves into a breathless chase, with Theo and Kee fleeing from one supposed safe house to another, narrowly staying one step ahead of those who would prevent their rendezvous with a boat called the Tomorrow — the supposed home of a progressive think tank called The Human Project — that may be but a mythical Shangri-la. And why all the fuss about Kee? Well, you see, she just so happens to be eight months pregnant, and a newborn baby could do a lot to further the revolutionaries’ cause.

Children of Men, which was loosely adapted by Cuarón and four other writers from the 1992 novel by British mystery writer P.D. James, is the least heavily publicized of the major studio releases opening in Los Angeles this holiday season, and maybe the least salable to audiences who get their dystopia fix from watching the evening news. But it’s also one of the year’s most imaginative and uniquely exciting pieces of cinema. Cuarón, whose interests as a filmmaker seem to know no boundaries — his previous credits include Y Tu Mamá También, the lyrical children’s picture A Little Princess and the best of the Harry Potter movies — has made that rarest of cinematic hybrids: a brilliant genre entertainment that channels the spirit of a 1960s protest picture (the influence of the British faux-documentarian Peter Watkins is keenly felt); a political thriller in which the politics are never permitted to overwhelm the narrative; and a human drama that is about nothing less than the survival of the species. It suggests what that other recent vision of neofuturistic London, V for Vendetta, might have been had it actually grappled with the issues it raised rather than devolving into a glittering recruitment poster for terrorist martyrdom.

None of which is adequate preparation for the visceral grip of Cuarón’s direction, which favors minutes-long, uninterrupted camera takes — some of them complex enough to make the opening shot of Touch of Evil look like amateur hour — and the kind of elaborate sound recording associated with directors like Altman and Godard. (The echoes and resonances of the dialogue and the effects change noticeably as the characters’ surroundings change, and Cuarón loves to home in on little eccentric details, like the smacking made by the pair of dime-store sandals Theo dons for much of the film.) During the Wagnerian climax, as London finally succumbs to the revolutionary tumult simmering in its streets, Children of Men immerses into the thick of a war zone with the nerve-shattering hyperrealism of The Battle of Algiers or Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday or the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. That sequence alone is assured a place in film-school classrooms for generations to come, not because of Cuarón’s technical mastery (which is considerable), but because the scale of his visual derring-do is matched by the force of his humanism. Only the promise of new life, it would seem, can bring peace to this land, though it may be Cuarón’s boldest and most resonant gesture that, when a baby’s cry is finally heard, the cease-fire proves fatally short-lived.

CHILDREN OF MEN | Directed by ALFONSO CUARÓN | Written by CUARÓN, TIMOTHY J. SEXTON, DAVID ARATA, MARK FERGUS and HAWK OSTBY, based on the book by P.D. JAMES | Produced by HILARY SHOR, MARC ABRAHAM, TONY SMITH, ERIC NEWMAN and IAIN SMITH | Released by Universal Pictures | The Grove and AMC Century City

Read Jim Ridley’s Web-exclusive interview with Alfonso Cuarón at www.laweekly.com/film.