When director Christopher Columbus retired from the Harry Potter movies, he and the other producers picked a visionary to direct the third film: Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican-born director of Y tu mamá también . The sensibilities were a mismatch; but having done his apprenticeship to big-budget filmmaking, Cuarón, a Prometheus, has stolen the secrets. Now, using cutting edge visual effects and a huge canvas, he has created an apology for Harry Potter , a grand romantic gesture called Children of Men .
Children of Men takes its story from a nominally science fiction book by P.D. James. Thirty years from now, wars and pestilence have caused the collapse of every industrialized nation except Britain. All humans have been infertile for 18 of those years. Avian flu might have done this, but no one knows for sure. In a nod to Kurt Vonnegut's story "Welcome to the Monkey House," the despondent population is issued free suicide kits. The ubiquitous holographic ads for "Quietus" are all mixed up with government propaganda. The world is winding down.
What's left of Britain is held together by a fascistic government that rounds up illegal immigrants - called "'fugees," short for "refugees" - under the guise of the Department of Homeland Security. If that sounds eerily familiar, there's a lot more where that came from; a friend is sure he saw, in the background of one scene, a restaging of the photographs from Abu Ghraib. As a political rabble-rouser, Cuarón's anger is genuine, if sometimes scattershot.
The protagonist, Theo, played by a very subtle Clive Owen, is a former radical. The death of his son led to a divorce from his wife Julien, played by Juianne Moore. He is now a hardened cynic who believes the Universe is run by blind chance. Julien comes back into his life; she is now a leader in an armed insurgency. Under her care is a young black woman who happens to be pregnant. Julian asks Theo to obtain forged travel papers to smuggle the woman to the mythical "human project," which is supposedly working on the infertility problem.
The film starts out as a rekindling of Theo and Julien's lost love, but in a sudden shock to the system, becomes something much more ambitious. You'll know the scene when you see it, an extraordinary nine-minute-long single take. British special effects house Framestore-CFC used digital trickery to stitch together seamlessly six different shots into a single one. Even more impressive, late in the film, there is a computer graphics effect by Double Negative that is so convincing, you will have trouble believing it's not real. I dare say no more.
In fact, Cuarón shows a command of transparent special effects and visceral filmmaking matched only by Stephen Speilberg - a figure about whom I'm ambivalent; and he is determined to zig where Speilberg has zagged, to mark his own territory. Spielberg's recent movies are more satisfying than Cuarón's more complex and unsettling work. But the filmmaking here is so powerful, if you're at all interested in the career of a director who is sure to be important, Children of Men is not to be missed.