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Children of Men

The word "utopia," when translated from the original Greek, literally means "no place" — Utopia, Sir Thomas Moore's idyllic vision of a peaceful island nation, offered the play on words as a bit of a puzzle. After all, if "eutopia" literally means "good place," why would he insist that his land of religious tolerance and shared property was nowhere to be found? Scholars will debate Moore's true intentions for some time yet, but since then the idea of Utopia has informed political ideals large and small, from various Marxist governments to isolated religious communes. However, it's gained far less traction in the world of fiction — for writers and filmmakers, dystopia is the lingua franca of speculative sci-fi. Not that utopias don't appear from time to time. Frank Capra's Lost Horizon and Powell & Pressburger's 49th Parallel offer visions of them, but they only become interesting when they are disrupted by outsiders. On the other hand, dystopic scenarios (in books and/or films) are simply too numerous to list — 1984, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Soylent Green, Brazil, and The Matrix merely scratch the surface. It would seem that writers would prefer to talk about how much of a mess the world is likely to become rather than how nice everything could be; either that, or a lot of folks prefer a bit of a scare to a sermon. The variances are seemingly infinite, but the dystopian template is remarkably formulaic: A near-future world has succumbed to authoritarianism thanks to unrestrained governments and/or corporations, while a lone hero is forced into conflict with shadowy forces and must struggle not only for his freedom, but somehow his very identity. We can safely add Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006) to any list of dystopic masterpieces, although his future-world will soon become "no place" simply because it appears that there will not be anyone left.

The year is 2027, the location England, the last nation on earth that has not descended into anarchy. The influx of illegal refugees has caused the government to round up all suspects and herd them into concentration camps, but the real crisis affecting the planet is far more distressing: No child has been born since 2009. Female infertility remains a mystery, and while a good portion of the earth's population has fragmented into various groups — everything from the mysterious, high-minded "Human Project" to religious fanatics and terrorists — those like Theo Faron (Clive Owen) appear to have given up hope entirely. The world's in upheaval now, but, as Faron is quick to point out to his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), it was going to hell well before infertility took hold. Jasper's secret home in the English countryside is Faron's only respite in an otherwise dreary existence, but after he's kidnapped by the terrorist group "The Fishes," he learns that his ex-wife Jillian (Julianne Moore) is one of their leaders, and she offers him £5,000 to use his family influence in order to gain transit papers for a refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Hard up for cash, Faron cooperates, but he can only obtain joint papers, forcing him to join the Fishes on a secret trip to the English coast. However, an attack on their car sends them to a safe farm, where Kee reveals her secret to Faron — she's pregnant, and the Fishes are hoping to take her to a hospital ship run by the Human Project. But Kee only trusts Faron to protect her. And Faron soon learns that he can't trust anyone.

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The challenge of any future-shock tale is to balance a vision of the future with known elements of our own reality — some sci-fi writers develop entire societies that function by brand-new rules, while lesser dystopias try to paint a sanitized future with ray-guns, glitter, and flashing lights (Logan's Run being just one example of cut-rate anti-utopianism). Effective futurism, on the other hand, blends the everyday with the extraordinary, and Children of Men takes place in an England very much like it is at present, just far more run down. London has coffee-shops and red double-decker buses, and the only update to the trains appears to be wire-clad windows to protect them from attack. Cars look like they were designed in Europe or Japan, but most are dirty and some are unreliable. The present remains remarkably persistent over time — our best visual clue that Children of Men takes place in an imagined world is the abundance of television screens, which are found everywhere from city streets to automobile dashboards. It's not appealing, but the utter reality of England in 2027 is what makes it so suggestive, and why we so readily accept Theo Faron as the soured idealist who's thrust into a new reality as the guardian of something akin to a virgin birth. The story (adapted from the novel by P.D. James) also reminds us that the world can change overnight — it's happened as recently as Sept. 11, 2001, when several nations found themselves on a new war footing; it happened in 1914, when the assassination of Franz Ferdinand plunged Europe into a ghastly mechanized war, leaving a generation of survivors "lost." Such thematic tension is Cuarón's canvas, and while the story never lags and the cinematography is pleasantly desaturated, his long takes are the film's technical signature. Audacious and frequently stunning, they are more than cinematic experimentation — instead, they eliminate the language of cinema from the movie itself, forcing us to follow the action in claustrophobic circumstances (that amazing car chase) and verité battle sequences (including a spattering of blood on the lens). Still, the film's grandest moment is its most intimate: the birth of Kee's child, which Cuarón's team renders with such remarkable realism that it's almost hard to believe that it's a special effect.

Universal's DVD release of Children of Men features an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include the featurette "The Possibilty of Hope" with comments from several futurist scholars (27 min.), "'Children of Men' comments by Slavoj Zizek," a philospher and cultural critic (5 min.), "Under Attack" with a look at the film's long takes (7 min.), "Theo and Julian" (4 min.), "Futuristic Design" (8 min.), "Visual Effects: Creating the Baby" (3 min.), and a deleted scenes reel (3 min.). Keep-case.
—JJB



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