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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Pregnant pause
Children of Men imagines a world with no babies
Owen and Ashitey flee Big Brother.
Owen and Ashitey flee Big Brother.

What happens when an entire planet has nothing to look forward to? That's the question posed by Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of P.D. James' 1992 novel, which imagined a world, otherwise much like our own, where women have stopped having babies. We're never told why this has occurred. It could have been some genetic-engineering scheme gone bad. Or environmental pollution. Or some other inconvenient truth we're currently not facing. But the lack of a future, once represented by the pitter-patter of little feet, has cast a dark shadow over the present, where the world's youngest person, an Argentinean boy still known as Baby Diego, was just murdered at age 18. He'd refused to sign an autograph.

James, an English mystery writer, attempted to solve one of the greatest mysteries of them all: Why do we behave the way we do? Is it because we want to make a better world for our children? And if there were no children, would we behave even worse than we do now? Her answer was a resounding yes. And the movie, which is rather freely adapted, seconds that motion. It's set in England, the land of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, but we're told that, although the rest of the world has succumbed to chaos, the Sceptre'd Isle "soldiers on," the country having slipped into an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance and incarceration. Foreigners, known as Fugees (short for "refugees"), are the bugaboos, racial impurities infecting the body politic.

Or something like that. One might think that, with the population explosion having given way to a population implosion, illegal immigrants would be among the last things to worry about. But the issue is timely (isn't it always?), and Children of Men tears right into it. On the streets of London, people have been corralled into cages, from which they will be transported to Guantanamo-like detention centers for processing, deportation or worse. And what's so harrowing about these curbside holding pens is how non-harrowing they are. People walk by, oblivious to the wailing and flailing. Along with his set designers, Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland, Cuarón has captured the look and feel of a police state, the sense of normality that sets in. Big Brother, have a seat.

Into this urban jungle strides Theo (Clive Owen), a government bureaucrat who was once an anti-government activist. Did I say "strides"? Owen, with that hangdog expression weighing him down, never strides anywhere. He lopes. And, if anything, he's lost a step this time around. Theo dropped out of political activism 20 years ago, shortly after his young son died of the flu. But he's lured back in by his ex-wife, a rebel leader (the slightly miscast Julianne Moore). She's a pacifist, but her compatriots, who don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, are ready for some good old "Burn, baby, burn." And they've gotten hold of an African woman who, miracle of miracles, is eight months pregnant. They want Theo to escort her to safety.

Or do they? Let's just say nothing works out the way they planned. And Theo, whose very name suggests the divine path he's on, finds himself on the lam, the world's only expectant mother at his side. Her name is Kee (newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey), and it's no accident that she's draped in a cloak straight out of the New Testament. The movie rather overplays the biblical overtones. "Jesus Christ!" Theo gasps when he sees Kee's swollen belly for the first time. They're in a barn that, I venture to say, has no crib for a bed. And we're supposed to see them as a Joseph and Mary for the new millennium - unmarried, multi-culti, agnostic. Thus does the movie reaffirm the role that religion might play in our lives. Without a nativity story, we're banished from Eden.

Hence, everything's gun-metal gray. England, not exactly known for its sunshine, seems permanently overcast, as if a bank of fog had rolled in and stubbornly refused to budge. There's trash everywhere, society no longer bothering to pick up after itself. And there are enough video screens to keep Big Brother watching forever. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has leached the color out of everything; even the English countryside seems cold and clammy. And he's turned Robin Hood's old stomping grounds into a barren wilderness, fires smoldering long after anyone remembers who started them or why - dark ages, indeed. When a horde of rowdies ambushes our heroes on a lonely stretch of highway, it's like we're watching the Visigoths descend upon Rome.

Cuarón stages that scene in a single shot that seems to go on for an hour. And it's as if we're trapped in the car as well. Directors are so quick to cut to a different angle these days that we've forgotten how vulnerable we are to the camera's unblinking eye. Cuarón makes use of long takes throughout, and it allows us to soak up the atmosphere. You notice little things in the corners of the frame - "You Decide When," for example, the tagline for the government-approved suicide kit, Quietus. Overall, there's a nice sense of everything having been thoroughly worked out, a world in full. Children of Men has the density of detail that Steven Spielberg brought to Minority Report, but without all the sci-fi gadgetry.

Speaking of Spielberg, Cuarón takes a Schindler's List-like plunge into the abyss toward the end as Theo and Kee are put through the deportation process in the midst of an armed rebellion. The detention center evokes everything from the Warsaw ghetto to Abu Ghraib, and the movie derives its power from the fact that, however far-fetched it all seems, it also seems entirely plausible. We're not really given a side to pull for, the rebels proving to be just as likely as the government troops to shoot first, ask questions later. But who couldn't get behind a woman who carries within her the future of mankind? Or should I say "womankind"? From its title on down, Children of Men suggests that, left to their own devices, men will screw everything up.

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