The film opens in the year 2027, where activist-turned-civil-servant Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) is making a routine stop for a cup of coffee. As he pauses outside to mix his cup of joe, a bomb destroys the building he's just left. Shaken and dazed, he walks through the carnage, which includes a woman holding her severed arm. He probably wishes he had brewed at home.
Cuarón's nightmarish vision of the future (based on the novel by P.D. James) sees a world overrun by military governments, a world where women are unable to have babies. It's been 18 years since the last birth of a baby, and Earth's youngest human inhabitant has just been assassinated by a crazed fan. This event sparks unholy violence, brought on by the reality that mankind doesn't seem to have much time left.
Theodore finds himself thrust back into a political movement fronted by his former lover (Julianne Moore), trying to find safe haven for Kee, the world's first pregnant woman in nearly two decades (Claire-Hope Ashitey). The journey takes him through a devastated Great Britain, where soldiers occupy the countryside, and firefights are a regular occurrence. One remarkable scene involves a car in which Theodore is traveling being attacked by motorcycling marauders. The sequence is terrifying, a depiction of raw violence that fuels Cuarón's atmosphere of hopelessness. The hero of the film isn't even safe in a speeding car.
As heroes go, Owen's Theodore isn't prototypical. He's not particularly smart or brave, getting friends killed along the way and getting by on luck more than skill. Owen plays the character with an equal amount of cowardice and bravery, a sort of everyman with no distinctive features, other than he looks and talks like Clive Owen. When guns and bombs go off, he cowers. He doesn't pick up artillery and blaze away.
Michael Caine (in a very distracting wig) plays his philosophical friend who hides out at home smoking pot and taking care of his handicapped wife. The moments spent with Caine are goofy; while the dialogue is meant to be comic relief, it was Caine's silly wig that had me giggling.
Other good supporting performances come from Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor (easily the hardest name to spell in the business) as a member of her militant group. Each of their characters supplies surprises, some of them downright shocking. Also shocking would be "Running the World," the morose song by Jarvis Cocker (formerly of Pulp) that plays over the film's end credits. The chorus is one to be remembered.
With the arrival of Children of Men, it can be said, definitively, that director Cuarón is making some of the better-looking movies of the last five years. His Harry Potter installment was a masterpiece, and even his minimalist Y Tu Mamá También has a visual style all its own. This time out, he uses cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, his cohort on Y Tu Mamá, and Lubezki has shot a major work of art. Everything is washed out with a blue tint, creating a world that sometimes looks suspiciously like war-torn Iraq.
Cuarón doesn't treat his future world like fictitious science fiction; he seems to be saying that our current paths will lead to an apocalypse. His world is so ugly that infertility seems to be a blessing, because no child should occupy it.
The final shot of the film can be taken two ways. I think the sinister one is the vibe Cuarón intended.