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Children of Men

It's less and less enjoyable to watch movies that follow in the Blade Runner tradition of offering us a bleak post-apocalyptic view of the near future, because the present shows signs of becoming pretty apocalyptic itself. Still, it's an interesting exercise, especially if the story gives us something to consider about how or why the world has changed. In 12 Monkeys, it was a virus that decimated humanity; in V for Vendetta, aggressive political responses to terrorism; in Minority Report, technology.

In Children of Men, the new film from Alfonso Cuarón (touted ingeniously by the trailer as the director of Y Tu Mamá También and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the root cause is either terrorism or the fact that humans stopped being able to have babies sometime in 2009. It's never made clear whether either factor created the other, or just exacerbated an already bad situation. Clive Owen, characteristically laconic and steadfast as the main character Theo, mentions at the start of the film that things were already bad before women stopped having babies – from that point on, the whole idea just fades into the background.

It's 2027 now, and the world is in shambles. Seemingly the only still-viable society is that of England, which has responded with intense isolationism. Once a great empire that spanned the globe, Britain has now shut itself off from the world, rounding up illegal immigrants and shipping them off the island. There's a resistance force of freedom fighters (there always is, except in real life where we really need one) and they're hiding out in safe houses, wearing drab tones, and bickering amongst themselves. It's not specified why they're fighting (rejecting totalitarianism, probably, but is the totalitarianism in response to the infertility or the terrorism – or just the freedom fighters?). When the species has just 50-60 years left to live, there's no need to fight over resources, so why all the killing?

It's not a bad movie. It presents an interesting view of the future – in the short few years since Minority Report, the ubiquitous LCD screens of the imagined future have transitioned from primarily advertising to primarily news content – and obviously it's a story concept with tremendous potential. There are fantastic performances from Clive Owen and newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey, some very good work from Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and probably my favorite performance in Julianne Moore's career. However, the film is simply oversold. It bills itself as a thoughtful discussion about humanity (its power struggles, self-preservation instinct, and innate militaristic tendencies) but it skips over all that discussion. Instead, it's a suspense thriller about protecting valuable cargo against insurmountable odds and many villains with guns. Theo is a regular guy, and he's called upon to transport a young woman. There's something very special about her – I won't say what it is, although they tell you in the trailer and you can probably guess anyway – and he has to get her to safety amidst government thugs and revolutionaries who may not always be acting in her best interest. But she could just as easily be a big bag of coke in a drug movie or a top secret file in a CIA movie – the fascinating world infertility situation just never enters into the story after the first act.

Last year I read Steffan Postaer's The Last Generation, a novel which also takes place in an infertile future, and I was disappointed at its narrow focus on the story of a charismatic cult leader who tries to convince women to live on his compound and try to get pregnant. If you're going to set a story in a global infertility epidemic, I think you have a responsibility to go into the social and political repercussions of that, as well as the personal ones. What do you spend the rest of your life doing, when you know it won't amount to anything? How do you convince people to keep going to work? How do doctors and scientists respond? How does a government retain any authority? Would anyone stay in Detroit? (If there's an island that suddenly finds itself forced to defend its borders vigorously, I'm imagining it's Hawaii.) Maybe Children of Men brushes on some of these issues (the totalitarianism is in response to something, after all) but it doesn't spend as much time investigating them as it spends running from bullets. And you can run from bullets in any movie. This is a movie that should be answering questions like, with the population declining, once the fascists deport everyone, who's left for them to boss around, and what happens then? Children of Men goes so far as to offer a commercially available home suicide-in-a-box and a revolutionary faction with less cohesiveness than most Survivor alliances, but aside from that it's just The Transporter with a doughier British guy.

It's an interesting idea, and there are some very nice directorial decisions (cribbed from Spielberg's handheld-equals-visceral school) but I think, like Charlotte's Web, the more rewarding experience would be to read the book.

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