Dystopian visions aren’t generally known for their appreciation of great art. Concerned with apocalyptic decay and murderous mayhem, the genre doesn’t usually have time for the finer aspects of painting or sculpture. Yet in Alfonso Cuarón’s thrilling adaptation of PD James’ 1992 novel about a world in which mankind is infertile, Battersea Power Station has become the Ark Of Arts – a vast repository for the last remaining masterworks (‘David’, ‘Guernica’, erm, Pink Floyd’s pig) salvaged from a planet gone to pot.
It’s this sense of the dislocated familiar that lies at the heart of Cuarón’s film. Clive Owen’s reluctant hero Theo is a former radical turned civil servant, living and working in a London of 2027 that’s disquietingly similar to the capital today. There are the same grey skies, the same red buses, the same litter-strewn streets. People live cheek-by-jowl with illegal immigrants, under the constant threat of terrorist attack.
But the flip comes from the fact that it’s a world into which no child has been born for over 18 years – a situation greeted by the government with a mixture of indifference and heavy-handedness. ‘Homeland Security’ rounds up unwanted migrants at gunpoint, herds them into cages and tortures those who don’t cooperate. From Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, Cuarón’s vision of the future doesn’t flinch from mirroring images of the present.
But for all its socio-political comment, Children Of Men never forgets it’s a thriller – and a cracking one at that. Shooting documentary-style, using complex, continuous takes of up to 10 minutes to reap the “advantage of real time”, Cuarón and his regular cinematographer, fellow Mexican Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow, The New World) follow Owen into a war-torn refugee camp. Bullets tear at walls and shells explode around him, creating a poetic vision of chaos that takes the breath away.
Children Of Men concludes with, if not a ‘happy’ ending, then at least something nudging at optimism. Perhaps Cuarón is saying that we can stop this from happening (even if he never really explains why everyone is childless); perhaps he’s just giving us something, anything to cling to... Either way, the film leaves you – as few other future-set thrillers do – scared, and caring. What’s more, the director has his hero running around for most of the film in flip-flops. How many other panicky dystopian thrillers have the balls to do that?