The first words we hear in "Children of Men" come from a broadcast news announcer, who blandly reports on "day 1,000 of the siege of Seattle." The startling offhandedness with which tidings of the apocalypse are delivered is the keynote of this bracing, sometimes shocking new film directed by Alfonso Cuar¢n.
Based on the novel by P.D. James, the film takes us to a dingy, strife-torn England of 2027, whose people struggle to absorb a stunning fact: For 18 years, and for reasons no one has learned, no woman on the planet has been able to conceive. Making the most of what, in less skilled hands, might be a typically bogus sci-fi premise, "Children of Men" is both an engrossing personal drama and a stark register of contemporary political fears and compulsions.
At the center of the story is a bedraggled, desk-bound Londoner, Theo (Clive Owen). Like a down-at-the-heels version of Bogart's Rick in "Casablanca," he's shut himself off from the disasters engulfing the world, dedicated only to getting through the day by spiking his morning coffee with hooch and smoking pot with his eccentric ex-hippy friend Jasper (Michael Caine). In the film's opening moments, he narrowly avoids getting blown to bits by a terrorist bomb. Moments later he's trudging past a bus stop, barely registering the makeshift wire cages where dozens of illegal immigrants await deportation.
Like many a Hitchcock protagonist, he's suddenly embroiled in a momentous conflict between shadowy adversaries. He's kidnapped by men working with a lover from long ago, Julian (Julianne Moore), now leader of "the Fishes," a subversive group harboring what turns out to be the miracle the world has been waiting for: a pregnant woman, who just happens to be a black refugee. Theo's job is to secure the letters of transit (shades of "Casablanca" again) that will allow the expectant mother to escape the now authoritarian island nation and join up with "the Human Project," a resistance movement rumored to be holed up in the Azores.
The first hour or so is more grimly exhilarating than any dystopian film of recent years, precisely because it seems to show us what our world could become, given a few sufficiently horrendous disasters, natural or man-made. "Were your parents in New York when it happened?" Theo asks Julian. Although we're never told exactly what "it" is, we can guess from a half-second piece of news footage that seems to show a mushroom cloud rising over the Manhattan skyline, part of a public service announcement that concludes with the words: "The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on."
At what cost? In an image meant to recall the iconography of the Holocaust, illegals stare blankly out of bus windows as they're carted off to an uncertain future. Numbed into submission, no one on the outside bats an eye, and the camera, too, behaves with a chilling, purposeful indifference, letting the bus drift slowly out of the frame without attempting to follow it or zoom in on the suffering.
Instead of resisting, most people retreat into various brilliantly sketched modes of avoidance. A governmental minister awaits the extinction of the species in palatial apartments decorated with art salvaged from the ruins, including Michelangelo's "David" (one blown-off calf replaced by a steel strut) and Picasso's "Guernica." Jasper, rousingly incarnated by Caine, has retreated to a wooded hideaway, listening to '60s anthems and hoarding a supply of Quietus, a suicide drug whose cheesy ads proclaim, "You decide when."
One senses a certain falling-off once the film settles down to the business of spiriting the pregnant woman (a bracingly willful Claire-Hope Ashitey) out of the country, a job made all but impossible by power struggles within the resistance and what seems the final uprising of refugees whom despair has made bold at last. Scenes of shocking violence and dire house-to-house combat, of a kind all too familiar, threaten to overwhelm the film's beautifully established preoccupations. But strong performances by Owen and the supporting cast, along with Cuar¢n's skillful control of the action, keep us riveted and moved to the end.
It's been said that fiction shows us a world different from our own, but one to which we feel a tie. Few movies live up to that claim more thrillingly than "Children of Men." (R) 109 min. ***** S