What do you do when the world comes undone? Movies about the Apocalypse offer a variety of responses. You could be a hero, like Mad Max, or Kevin Costner (before The Postman). You could cringe in fear, like a disposable character, huddle with the masses and wait while The Hero decides what to do. Or you could be the reluctant hero, like Clive Owen in Children of Men, who gets to cringe in fear and to act heroic. Your only problem with option C: what if you come along too late?
The world is ending in Children of Men, and I’ve no faith that Owen puts things right by the movie’s end. The sense of dread that pervades the movie is soul-crushing, like looking at a downed passenger aircraft: even if there are one or two survivors, it’s the wreckage, and the dead, who lodge in the mind. The year is 2027. No new babies have been born since 2009. On the day the action opens, as a final irony, the youngest person on the planet has been murdered. Britain, stoic and plausibly bloody-minded to the last, appears to be the only nation on earth not in ruin.
Clive Owen plays an office drone who was once a political activist. He watches news of the youngest man in the world’s murder while buying coffee. He looks blank. Moments later (in the movie’s opening scene) the café he’s just left is bombed. There is silence. Then there is screaming. A woman emerges from the café carrying her severed arm. The title card intercedes before we can know what Owen does next.
What we are given to understand is that this bombing and Owen’s passivity are constants in Children of Men’s universe. Owen has chosen the path of least resistance in the face of imminent annihilation: like any Brit worth his salt, he has become a cynic. His only friend (that we are aware of) is Michael Caine, an aging hippie who lives in a forest. Caine is our only hint that Owen wasn’t always an empty vessel because Caine is so full of life; he couldn’t possibly have befriended the balance sheet-persona that present-day Owen exudes. And he didn’t. Owen has reasons for his reticence. He is a grieving parent and a divorcee. Julianne Moore was once his wife.
Moore is now a wanted terrorist. She heads a group called the Fishes, who seek to overthrow the government. The Fishes have come into possession of a pregnant girl. They want Owen to arrange safe passage for this girl to the British coast, where a group called the Human Project waits for her. Owen’s kidnap by the Fishes (and his agreement to help them) sets Children of Men in motion. He becomes a hero because he has access to the right paperwork. He is not heroic by disposition, or by choice.
The best part of Children of Men is also the part that’s hardest to watch: the way the world ends around Clive Owen. Every scene it’s like we climb one rung farther down into hell. Even in London, the city looks like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. The farther Owen travels from home, the more things fall apart around him. By the end, in a refugee camp that looks (intentionally) like Baghdad, Owen is so rattled and bludgeoned he looks like it’s only his suit holding him together. His cynicism can’t shield him.
Director Alfonso Cuarón could have made Children of Men as a sci-fi movie, or as a horror flick, but it’s neither. Clive Owen doesn’t pick up a gun and become an action hero. Nor is he eaten by zombies (this isn’t 28 Days Later). Children of Men might be set in 2027, but it draws its terror from 2007 (that’s why the refugee camp looks like Baghdad). Cuarón draws many parallels with Iraq (and U.S. misadventure) in this movie, but the movie doesn’t need a political dimension to work. It does well enough by dread. What stays with you – and why you watch, with morbid fascination – is the movie’s deathly character. What was is the heart of this film.