We saw Children of Men nearly three weeks ago, and I've attempted a couple of passes at writing about it, with little success. The short version is that it was the most visceral movie-going experience I've had in many years. I was emotionally affected by this film to an extent not at all typical for me. (In what follows, there may be some spoilers, if you're worried about that kind of thing, but not too many, I hope.)
Matt Zoller Seitz, in his mixed review at The House Next Door , wrote that the movie is "superbly crafted and compelling throughout, and filled with note-perfect performances", but that, finally, "it stops being about what it purports to be about and becomes a paean to its own proficiency". Needless to say, I disagree with the latter. But I bring up Seitz's review because he also describes the movie as "not so much an allegory as a depressive leftist projection". There is some truth to this. The movie, as any preview will tell you, takes place 20 years in the future, in a fascist Britain and a condition of world-wide (and unexplained) longterm infertility. Immigrants and political prisoners are rounded up and kept in camps or ghettoes. City bombings are so routine as to be virtually ignored. People go about their business while the world around them has already fallen to pieces. There are references to disasters: nuclear attack in Africa, "catastrophe" in New York, a flu pandemic. England itself looks like a constant warzone.
In various ways, then, the movie seems to embody many of the worst fears and nightmares we on the left (myself included) often have about "the way things are going". Economic instability, environmental degradation, political imbecility, current and projected resource shortages: all of these and much else contribute to a sense of hopelessness, that the problems the world faces are simply too huge, and the political will too lacking and elite power too overwhelming, to do much of anything.
The movie is often said to be about a "dystopian future", but my first instinct in describing the images is to refer to those we can see on the news or internet every day. In a comment to this Lenin's Tomb post (which is not about the movie but about "the death of liberalism" and is excellent; I highly recommend reading it), Richard Estes invoked the movie, writing that the post "highlights a curious aspect about the way the film has been reviewed. Critics consistently describe it as a dystopian vision of the future, while it is fairly evident that there are many people around the world who live in such conditions right now. [emphasis in original comment]" Indeed. Instead of merely being a "leftist projection"--except insofar as most of the privileged West largely does not currently face the conditions shown in the film--the film is about the problems of the world today. Images of prisoners with black hoods over their heads, of checkpoints, of references to "homeland security", make this point more explicit (too explicit for some).
So, the movie is political, but not in the sense that it attempts to articulate a coherent program for change.
A brief run-through of the story: Former activist Theo (Clive Owen), now largely apathetic, gets dragged into a plot by his ex-lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), who works with a group called the Fishes. They want him to procure travel papers for a young woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who it turns out is pregnant. There hasn't been a live birth in more than 18 years, so this is huge. Julian's plan is to get Kee to a shadowy group called The Human Project, which may or may not exist. The Fishes as a group have their own plans. Intrigue and action ensues.
As I mentioned, the movie appears to nod in the direction of present-day left-wing concerns, but its images of left-wing activity are problematic. The Fishes are just as murderous as the government, just as bad as the fascists. They are depicted as nothing more than an extreme radical faction, willing to use Kee and her baby for whatever political aims they may have, which are never really articulated. We don't know what their aims are, and it doesn't appear that we're meant to care. The apolitical Theo--the former activist, now a successful professional--emerges, with the death of Julian, as the only character with a functioning moral compass and the strength to take any positive action. So the film appears to scoff at the notion of any kind of collective solution to anything. Also, Kee's guardian is a woman named Miriam (Pam Ferris), who is a figure of ridicule, spouting New Age mumbo jumbo about everything happening for a reason, mocked in a scene where she stumbles trying to do T'ai Chi. And yet, she does sacrifice herself for Kee and the baby.
Some critics have complained that no explanation is given for the inability to procreate. Others have taken issue with some of the logic of the film. If the population is dwindling, for example, what reason would the government have to lock up immigrants? Would there not then be an excess of resources? (See this thread at Cinemarati). I don't think questions like these ultimately matter (though they are interesting). The movie makes no attempt to answer the many questions that it raises. It offers the idea of hope, in a world that appears utterly hopeless (in which people believe, with reason, that there is literally no future), but this hope is tentative, potentially illusory. For all we know, the much-anticipated Human Project doesn't exist.
A minor closing observation: all the music in the movie is "oldies", from 50 years ago to today. We clearly hear radio stations refer to classics from 2003, for example. I wondered about the role of music in a society and nostalgia. The society of the movie has no future, so nostalgia for the music of the past (when the future existed) is strong. Who makes art when there is no future? Does the question make sense? In the movie, the character who Theo visits to obtain the travel papers collects famous art or artifacts (Picasso's Guernica is on one wall; the floating pig from Pink Floyd's Animals tour can be seen outside the window). He seems to be protecting it from destruction (if memory serves), as if society no longer had any use for it. All the pop music, anyway, is old. Obviously, even those songs that are new now would be old then, but the movie seems to treat all of the music as nostalgia. No youth, no pop music, it's all looking back.