Monday, November 12, 2007

The Wages of Fear

Saw the most amazing movie this weekend, "Children of Men," based on a P.D. James novel and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Get yourself down to Fat Cats and rent the DVD.

Cuaron directed a bunch of Spanish-language stuff in his native Mexico, including "Y Tu Mama Tambien," his break-through 2001 movie, and then the Harry Potter chapter, "The Prisoner of Azkaban" in 2004. But nothing of his I've seen prepared me for the raw power of his visual style in "Children of Men." A battle scene near the end rivals Spielberg's opening sequences in "Saving Private Ryan" for kinetic violence and dread, and one amazing single shot of a car chase runs for something like 12 unbroken minutes. I've never seen anything as exciting that didn't rely on computer-generated imagery.

"Children of Men" is a futuristic action movie without an action hero. Star Clive Owen never picks up a gun and makes it very clear he wouldn't know what to do with one if he had it. He's just an ordinary working schlub, a bit of a drunk, an avoider of responsibility.

He's got every reason to drink and avoid. The world's gone to hell. It's 2027, and women world-wide have become infertile. Although there are plenty of suspected culprits for this devastating sterility -- toxins in the environment, scientific experiments run amuck -- no one knows why. With no live births for 18 years, western civilization is simply winding down. Everything has the look of a city undergoing a decades-long garbage strike. The machinery of advanced capitalism has grown rusty and decrepit.

But for all the decay of impending doom -- one piece of graffiti starkly proclaims, "Last one to die please turn out the lights" -- the military state of England, where the story is set, has grown new authoritarian muscle. All government now seems fueled by one emotion only -- fear, particularly the fear of alien immigrants (and although the setting is England, there's plenty here to remind us of the present state of the U.S.A. in the grip of the Patriot Act, haunted by Abu Ghraib, and obsessed with dark-skinned interlopers in our midst).

In "Children of Men," alien refugees are being brutally rounded up and imprisoned in over-crowded and appalling camps. It's one possible future and the logical conclusion that xenophobic fear produces.

Our unlikely non gun-wielding hero comes to be the guardian and protector of the hope of mankind, a newly pregnant woman, who for irony's sake and in the face of all the surrounding racial fear, is black. The delivery of her baby, and then the delivery of her and her baby from the middle of a pitched urban battle, offer a moving form of redemption in what is otherwise a bleak glimpse of a future that seems all too possible and all too close.

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