In the olden, golden days of science fiction film, most cinematic versions of the future foresaw an antiseptic wonderland, streamlined in a neo-Cubist, art deco style, its cities soaring into the stratosphere, and citizens clothed in those Star Trek pajamas traveling in private flying vehicles, a fantasy that probably owed a good deal to both Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis, and the designs of the 1939 World's Fair, "The World of Tomorrow." In recent decades, however, the motion pictures regard the future as a dark, despairing place, smothered in smog, devastated by any one of several possible catastrophes, from plague to nuclear holocaust, in which tyranny and anarchy compete, and technology becomes the enemy rather than the servant of mankind --- Soylent Green, The Terminator, Road Warrior, Blade Runner, etc --- a more familiar place than those Hollywood fantasies.
The new movie Children of Men, set in 2027, subscribes to the dominating dystopianism of contemporary science fiction film, suggesting a future that looks very like the present, and like most such interpretations, actually reflects the world we know rather than the world to come. In the picture some unexplained series of disasters strikes all the great cities of the world, but as a headline boasts, "Britain Soldiers On." That self-congratulatory spirit grows out of a poisonous nationalism that results in the deportation of refugees from Europe as well as Africa and Asia, the establishment of concentration camps, and the practice of summary execution.
Even worse for the state of the entire world, a mysterious infertility affects women everywhere, so that no children have been born for almost 20 years. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), formerly an activist who protested the increasing authoritarianism of Britain's rulers, finds himself part of a plan to rescue mankind through a rumored organization called The Human Project. His ex-wife Jillian (Julianne Moore) coerces him into transporting a young African, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), to a Human Project vessel; the overpowering reason behind her action is that Kee is pregnant and therefore represents the future of the human race, but as a refugee ("fugee" in the dialogue of the day) her motherhood threatens the government's harsh program.
Because it lacks anything like an explanation for the bleak condition of society and the absence of any future for humanity, the picture must resolve itself into a familiar quest narrative. Theo accompanies Kee through a series of perilous situations, as they drive through the British countryside toward the coast where they hope a ship awaits them. They endure and somehow escape numerous attacks from soldiers, policemen, and insurgents, including traitorous members of his ex-wife's organization, which tends to turn the movie into a most familiar succession of scenes punctuated by extreme violence.
Children of Men frequently employs conscious allusions to a number of issues of the recent past, including the hippie counterculture, war protests, and environmental activism, with a good deal of exposition devoted to those subjects in conversations between Theo and an ancient friend, Jasper (Michael Caine). Its Biblical title, its protagonist's name, the whole sense of a child born to guarantee a new future, moreover, suggest the religious overtones that the director never quite works up the courage to explore; that failure, along with the lack of a coherent back story and some clumsy editing, undermines much of the film's potential meaning and power.
The director's constant reliance on the hand-held camera, with some really obvious sloppiness in the technique, betrays an amateurish reliance on artificial means of conveying the action in the frequent chases and gun battles. Clive Owen's pale passivity and choked diction make him a most unlikely and sometimes quite unacceptable choice for the savior of mankind, but like good old Britain, he soldiers on.
Despite its problems, Children of Men obviously reflects some relevant issues of our time, especially in its concept of a government's strong anti-immigration policies, the creation of concentration camps, the suppression of dissent, and the suspension of civil liberties, all currently either debated or already in place in both America and its staunchest ally, the United Kingdom. It often compensates for its clumsiness and vagueness with some strong and unsettling images of the world of today as well as the world of tomorrow.
Children of Men (R), directed by Alfonso CuarÃ³n, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Tinseltown, and Greece Ridge 12.