I can count the instances on one hand where I left the movie theater shocked and moved to the core of my being. Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket. Some of the most powerful movies ever filmed. Add another to this list. Children of Men takes you by the throat from the opening moments and tightens its grip, slowly, inexorably, holding you enthralled, tense, and utterly in its grip for the next two hours of your life. Emerging from the theater both shocked and feeling as if something had shifted within me, I’ve spent the last several hours digesting this movie.
Unlike the other movies I mentioned, Children of Men is not a war movie, but the film is visceral and bleak and pregnant with images and themes wrenched straight out of the present day world. A world on the brink of a collapse so profound that the human race is tumbling toward extinction.
The film is set in the U.K. in 2027, but this is not a science fiction film. It is a film about the human race’s talent for horror and destruction, isolation and selfishness. In 2009, the entire human female population of the world becomes sterile. By 2027, not a single child has been born in 18 years. This has brought about the near complete collapse of human civilization across the world. The last bastion where civilization still exists, held together only by the iron fist of a fascist police state, is Great Britain. The time-frame mirrors the collapse of Germany’s post-WWI Weimar Republic into Nazism. People from around the world flock to the U.K. as refugees, fleeing wars and atrocities. Britain seals its borders and all illegal aliens are rounded up like dogs and thrown into internment camps. The government spikes food rations with anti-depressants and offers suicide kits to its citizens who want a painless way out. In fifty years, the human race will be gone.
The movie opens with Theo, played by Clive Owen (King Arthur, Sin City) on his way to work, when a terrorist bombing blows up a restaurant he just came out of. The rest of London is more concerned with the murder of a celebrity, the “youngest man in the world,” than the bombing and loss of dozens of lives just down the street. Baghdad, meet Laci Peterson. Sarajevo, meet Jon Benet Ramsey. Darfur, meet just about anything else in the U.S. news media.
An underground resistance movement, made up of mostly illegal aliens “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” depending on your point of view, kidnaps Theo and asks him to use his political connections to help transport a lone young woman out of the country. One must wonder, at the brink of extinction, what “freedom” is there to be had? Freedom like the anarchy that has engulfed the rest of the planet? The resistance is led by Theo’s ex-wife, Julian, played by Julianne Moore (Evolution, Boogie Nights, Hannibal) who convinces Theo to help them.
In the midst of chaos, fleeing from government troops and enraged “freedom fighters” alike, Theo discovers that the young African woman, Kee, played by Claire-Hope Ashitey, is nine months pregnant with the first baby to be born in almost twenty years. Theo must now save Kee and her unborn child from government troops who would kill them all for fleeing custody, and from the freedom fighters who seek to use Kee and her child to unite the resistance and start a revolution.
Imagine all the troubles and hatreds and fears in our world today, terrorism, fascism, environmental degradation, famine, wars, biological weapons, racism, prejudice, all distilled into a thick, concentrated paste, as if all those things, if allowed to continue, will continue to their inevitable end. The end of the human race. And there you have this movie. The movie steers clear of serious blood and gore, a la the opening D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan, but it is not for the faint of heart. It is most shocking in the way it simply never lets up.
But not for one second is it preachy or shlocky or any of the ridiculous tripe that so often gets weaseled into “movies with a message.” It has a documentary feel, with startling hand-held camera work and scenes that rarely let you breathe. In fact, if there is one thing about this movie that I would question, it’s that it rarely lets you relax to expel the emotion and tension that just keeps building and building and building without release. I lost track of how many scenes were just one long continuous shot, complete with blood droplets in your face.
The use of music is spare and masterful. The utter silence of some scenes helps build the tension, where inserting music would have made it artificial. And other instances where music appears evoke the deepest of emotions.
Like the real world, there are few black hats and white hats to be found. There are no simple issues, no absolute “good guys” or “bad guys.” All humanity is capable of great kindness and goodness, deserving of redemption, as exemplified by Kee and by Michael Caine’s character, Jasper, a close friend of Theo. Jasper is a dope-growing hippie grown old and eccentric, living in a forest cabin with his vegetative wife, content to get high, be happy, and wait for the world to end. And all humanity is capable of boundless cruelty and selfishness, as exemplified by nearly everyone else.
The bleakness and the portrayed lack of faith in human nature assault one’s sensibilities, and make one wonder, “Are we really that bad?” The answer is both “Yes” and “No.” And that is what, I believe, this film is trying to say. You may not like what the movie has to say, but you will be moved. There are no simple answers in the film except for one. Kee and her child must survive, or the entire human race is doomed. They are hope itself. If they die, humanity itself will die. By the end of the film, I was wondering if that would be such a bad thing.
This is the most stunning film experience I have had in years. And I’m not sure I ever want to see it again.