Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón triumphs over studio indifference.

History repeats itself: Eleven Decembers ago, Universal had the season's strongest movie—a downbeat sci-fi flick freely adapted from a well-known source by a name director. With a bare minimum of advance screenings and a shocking absence of hype, the studio dumped it. This year, they've done it again.

The 1995 castoff was 12 Monkeys; this year's victim is Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's dank, hallucinated, shockingly immediate version of P.D. James' novel. Never mind that Cuarón saved the Harry Potter franchise and, with Y Tu Mamá También, directed the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie ever released in America, this superbly crafted action thriller is being treated like a communicable disease.

Even critics are steering clear. When the New York Film Critics Circle met last week, Children got only a handful of votes, mainly for Emmanuel Lubezki's sensational cinematography.

This despite the vivid Fleet Street terror bombing that establishes London 2027, the jolting, bloody car chase that eliminates one of the stars, and the year's most brilliantly choreographed action sequence. Children vaults into another dimension with one more long-shot tour de force as Clive Owen's protagonist dashes from a nightmare prison camp through an urban free-fire zone, cradling a newborn baby.

Children preserves yet enriches James' allegorical premise: Humanity is facing its own extinction—not through nuclear proliferation or global warming, but through the end of fertility. Like James' 1992 book, the movie opens with the violent death of the world's youngest person and imagines what might happen if the human race were granted a miraculous second chance. Universal may have deemed Children too grim for Christmas, but it is premised on a reverence for life that some might term religious.

The year is 2027, but the mood is late 1940. "The world has collapsed," a BBC newsreader explains. "Only Britain soldiers on"—barely. The U.K. is a mecca for illegal immigrants, as well as a bastion of neo-fascist homeland security. London's smog-shrouded smear of garbage, graffiti, and motorcycle rickshaws is the shabbiest of havens. Armed cops are ubiquitous, and refugees are locked up in curbside cages.

Enormously sympathetic, as always, Owen plays a wry and rumpled joker—less an actual character than a nexus of connections. His ex-wife (Julianne Moore) is an underground revolutionary; his buddy (Michael Caine) is a scene-stealing old hippie with a secret house in the woods. He has a well-off cousin in the government (Danny Huston) who lives in what looks like a South Bank power station amid recovered artworks. Owen's warmth is such that everyone trusts him, including animals and a mysterious young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who needs to be smuggled through the countryside.

It's a measure of Cuarón's directorial chops that Children functions equally well as fantasy and thriller. Like Spielberg's War of the Worlds and the Wachowski Brothers' V for Vendetta (and more consistently than either), the movie attempts to fuse contemporary life with pulp mythology. The war against terror and the battle in Iraq are most powerfully present in the aforementioned set piece where Owen escapes a nightmare Gitmo into the exploding rubble of an incipient Fallujah. Children doesn't entirely elude a sentimental tinge. (I've heard it called a disaster film for NPR subscribers.) But scenes that express the solace of solidarity or the fragility of human life are viscerally bleak, when not totally brutal.

Infertility is only a metaphor that enables Children to entertain the possibility of No Future. The only parents these days who assume their children will inhabit a better world are either those living in the gated communities of the superrich or the immigrants imported to tend their gardens. That these refugees are visualized as the persecuted rabble of a crumbling empire is only one of this movie's inconvenient truths.

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