A compelling and haunting look at a dystopian England, Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" doesn't entirely gel as a whole - but its various parts paint an exquisite and yet bleak picture. Using one of the few non-murder mystery novels from famed writer P.D. James (though departing significantly from the source material), 'Children' delivers one of the most convincing portrayals of a crumbling society ever to be committed to screen.
With the rest of the world having fallen under despair and terrorism due to sudden infertility, the UK has become a closed off police state. A grim, dirty London is often plagued by acts of violence, gangs run rampant, immigrants are penned into shanty towns and the countryside is riddled with hoarders happy to kill or rob travellers for supplies.
Our point of entry into this world is Clive Owen, a former activist turned numbed civil servant who gave up after his child's death. Thrust back into it, he finds himself taking one innocent woman and the baby she's carrying across the country towards what they hope will be safety. Along the way though are not just threats but potential allies more than willing to exploit the unborn child and what it represents for their own means.
It's familiar stuff, yet in many ways that's where Cuaron surprises us. At various points along the way he has the chance to take the material along paths well-trodden by Hollywood hacks, and yet in almost every case he avoids those pitfalls with ease. The result is a multi-genre blend of character drama, war movie, socio-political commentary and action thriller.
Characters are given breathing room to establish not just themselves but the world around them - one of the best scenes involving reflection on an empty playground. It's a convincing world, one never really shown of late as the glossy studio visuals of the likes of "Equilibrium" and "V for Vendetta" have become the standard norm for these kinds of films.
Also in spite of its sci-fi trappings and 2027 setting, it's really only a few understated holographic newspapers, computer monitors and billboards in the background of a handful of shots that betray this as anytime beyond our present. It is this gritty real approach, modern society with a slight tweak, that grounds the picture far more into the realm of a drama than sci-fi.
Helping is Owen whose gruff, resigned style of acting very much suits the role. Here he's portrayed as a believable ordinary guy thrust into circumstance rather than some gun-toting action hero who can take anyone down. Julianne Moore pops up to help initiate events in the film with her usual level of smart determination, whilst Clare-Hope Ashitey does well in her debut as the mother-to-be.
Aside from Owen though it's Michael Caine who really steals the show as this very bleak film's sole source of warmth and respite, a pot-smoking ex-cartoonist turned hermit and friend of Owen. Danny Huston has a good cameo with his somewhat awkwardly inserted vignette showing off the wealthier side of this current culture.
Emmanuel Lubezki's all handheld cinematography, combined with superb production design and costuming make this world never less than believable throughout the film's runtime. Same goes for the film's action which resembles that brutal, on the ground and in the war zone approach of the likes of "Black Hawk Down" or "Saving Private Ryan".
Several one-take action sequences will be remembered long after the film's name fades from memory, most notably a gang assault on a car travelling down a highway. The sequence is astonishingly filmed from a technical viewpoint, and yet very natural, suspenseful and exciting in terms of sheer action. Similarly near the end is a harrowing sequence set in a bombed out city with explosions all round and the actors right in there trying to make their way out.
The filmmaking is so stylish, inventive and clever that the film's few niggling flaws can be relatively easy to overlook.
Like it or not this is an unremittingly bleak picture, overbearing in its oppressiveness the way that only genre movies and certain arthouse dramas can be. Thus its appeal will not only be limited, but the idea of a return journey to this world a daunting prospect to even those who were enraptured by it.
Armed with four writers adapting the story, the script is jarringly clunky at times too with various important questions left unanswered, characters being sketchily drawn (Owen's backstory involving the dead child is rather weak), and some political allegories brought up more than once but never examined or explored in the way the story demands they should be.
Ultimately it is a real cautionary tale for the already jaded 21st century. Often the words "an uncompromising vision of the future" is thrown around in regards to assorted science-fiction movies but this is one of those times where the sales pitch is very true. 'Children' may be only a chase/road movie, but it's one crafted with meticulous care and filled with some quite clever thought-provoking themes that compliment rather than overwhelm the story. One of the year's truly exceptional films.