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Friday, Nov. 10, 2006

A shadowy future and all too real

In "Children of Men" the world of 2027 isn't about alien invasion or nuclear annihilation. Instead, it proffers the worst of worst-case scenarios: Women can no longer bear children and the youngest person on the planet, aged 18, is killed one morning by a psychotic fan who asked for his autograph.

Children of Men Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
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Children of Men
Clive Owen and Julianne Moore in "Children of Men"

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 18, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Adapted from the novel by Britain's treasured detective novelist P.D. James (in a rare departure from her usual genre), "Children of Men" grips from the very first scenes, with a pace and momentum that never flags for a single frame.

Director Alfonso Cuaron ("Y tu mama tambien," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") is in total command of the material -- and watching this you're struck by the realization that on-screen adaptations, once invariably crushing disappointments, are now often turning out to be wildly brilliant works that blow away both expectations and imaginations such as "The Chronicles of Narnia."

"Children of Men" ("Tomorrow World" in Japan) takes us right into James' pages and beyond; a fiery, uncompromising realism fuels the story and burns through our eyes and minds. This is a film that stays and haunts, fragments of the scenery and dialogue flitting through your consciousness like five-second nightmares.

It opens with a dreary morning in London, the streets mired in filth and with military trucks rolling past piles of rubble. Theo (Clive Owen) is a 40-ish government clerk fighting his way into a crowded coffee shop whose TV is blasting the news that "Baby Diego," the globe's youngest citizen, has just been murdered by a wacko fan. Theo orders a coffee to go, steps outside and settles his paper cup on the top of a mailbox to put some sugar in. At that instant a bomb detonates inside the coffee shop. Panic and screams ensue. Theo is shocked, but not very much -- acts of terrorism have become too much of a daily occurrence to instigate real alarm.

Theo leads a bored, miserable existence. His one source of joy comes from visiting old friend Jasper (a hilarious Michael Caine): a permanently stoned, ganja-growing hippie who lives in a log cabin hidden in a forest. Jasper invites Theo to come live with him, but the latter declines as "then I won't have anything to look forward to."

Indeed, there's very little that gives anyone hope for anything. The globe has been ruined by pollution and warfare, governments have collapsed, terrorists have all but destroyed urban infrastructure, the fertility rate is a flat zero and the streets are full of frightened senior citizens. In Britain, the militarist government has enforced rigid laws of deportation (or more often, outright execution) for all refugees, aka "fugees," drawn to Britain's relative stability and prosperity.

Theo's main concerns now consist of avoiding bombs and getting so drunk so as to forget about them. But a visit from ex-girlfriend Julian (Julianne Moore), whom he hasn't seen in 20 years, injects a sense of purpose into his life. Julian now helms "Fish," an antigovernment terrorist group intent on helping fugees, and she asks Theo to procure transit papers for a young woman called Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). Theo agrees, partly because he still carries a torch for Julian and their baby son, who died two decades ago during an influenza pandemic, and partly because he's tired of living just for himself. Then, on the road trip to deliver Kee to a peace organization known as "Human Project," Julian is killed in a freak accident and Theo learns that Kee is 8 months pregnant.

What runs like an electrical charge through "Children of Men" is the credibility: Everything about the story is scarily, convincingly, believable. No explanation is given for why women have become infertile, nor how nations went belly-up in such a short time, but the very haziness of the premise lends it the ring of truth. Terrible things are never foreseen, and despite the subsequent media blitz, the reasons they happened are never made entirely clear -- surely that's a lesson modern society has learned the hard way.

Cuaron leaves a lot of things vague: The political feuding within Fish is only briefly referred to; and the real purpose of the Human Project (or whether such a thing exists at all). This withholding of information is also reflected in the way none of the characters use cellphones or computers, enhancing the dystopian feeling that, in a world as dark as this, no one really wants to know or hear too much.

And though bleakness is one of defining factors of this work, it's often skewed, sardonic and funny at its own expense. When Theo finds Jasper slouched in a chair, a box of a popular suicide drug (available at any supermarket) is at his side. Theo assumes the worst, and then Jasper wakes up from his nap and jovially explains that he uses the drug to poison rats: "They die quite peacefully you know. No pain whatsoever!" How's that for exuberance during the end of the world.

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