There are no laser guns or flying cars in Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant and horrific Year 2027 thriller Children of Men. (In case you’re wondering, the film’s relationship to the P.D. James novel approaches absolute zero). Instead, our hero Theo (a craggy Clive Owen) drives a creaky hatchback and pads around in flip-flops. It’s all very normal and very, very frightening. Though it’s two decades from now, society hasn’t advanced—it’s been derailed by pandemics, war, pollution and infertility. The first three factors have killed the world’s happiness; worldwide sterility has killed off their hopes. The youngest human alive is 18 years and five months old, and the rest of our species is left checking their watches, waiting for extinction.
Londoner Theo is an activist gone disillusioned by the daily crush of bombings and dust. While the English media claims proudly that though “The world has collapsed, only Britain soldiers on,” it’s ghastly to imagine how bad off the rest of the globe is if the UK’s raging mobs and violence are the peak of civilization. Cuaron never slows down for exposition, but we glean that Seattle is gripped by a three-year siege and New York is off the map. England must be better than most because illegal refugees (i.e. all of them) are flocking to its shores like weary crows, only to be locked up in cages and abused (their black hoods provoke guilty shudders). Except for the flashy billboards and omnipresent security cameras, London has bombed itself back to the medieval ages. Cows burn in the fields and the streets are cluttered with rickshaws and religious flagellants. The wealthy continue to over-medicate their video game obsessed offspring while the teenagers of the poor run wild with bats and guns. And scariest of all is the grim awareness that this dystopia is just an exaggeration of our sins: over-consumption, xenophobia, terrorism. Plus, their music is terrible—all screams and thuds, it could almost make a fuddy-duddy long for the good old days of Good Charlotte.
But back to Theo. Theo grumpily believes that infertility didn’t come soon enough, as the globe had already hit the tipping point between peace and hell. This month, he’s twice narrowly escaped a café explosion, and is just trying to live gray and invisible between his office job and his small afternoons of joy in the woodland cabin of his friend Jasper (a wild-haired Michael Caine), who laments that although the government is touting a suicide pill named Quietus (the pitch-perfect commercial shows a beachcomber fading away peacefully into the sunset), weed—or “ganja,” as the old hippie prefers—is still verboten. But then, in a series of sucker-punches, Theo’s ex-wife (Julianne Moore), the leader of a besieged rebel gang, calls on him to get a young girl to freedom. A young refugee girl. Who’s pregnant.
What follows is a rare action flick that fires on all cylinders. It’s thrilling, scary, cerebral and emotional. Cuaron is a master of the subtle knife twist and the suffocating long take. His early daring escape scene drags out with two stalled cars rolling uselessly across a muddy field—at half the speed, it’s twice as nerve-wracking. His disorienting gun battles are painful to watch, as the pinging bullets and rubble and unorchestrated chaos and women cradling and crying over their wounded sons look less like science fiction than the evening news from Palestine.
As Theo, the realest action hero in decades, whose car is junk and nose runs and shoes don’t fit, struggles to get headstrong Kee (Clair-Hope Ashley) and her unborn child to safety, they limp through this evocatively familiar landscape. Even the graffiti on the walls feels resonant, ranging from chalked-up Guernicas (the original hangs in the mansion of Theo’s rich cousin) to spray-painted scrawls that, amidst all the destruction, recall prehistoric cave paintings, and testify to the frailty and longevity of humankind.
Ultimately, what cuts deeply about Children of Men is that in 2027—years after Christmas ’06, a period which has seen the world much divided into religions and soldiers—Cuaron asks us to find hope in a grim nativity story where scores of innocents die as another reluctant hero and scared, ignorant would-be mother try to find shelter in a land that so desperately needs a newborn savior.