In Children of Men, the future itself is coming to an end when, twenty years from now, women have become infertile and society is shutting down. Weary civil servant Theo (an effortless Clive Owen) becomes embroiled in a secret struggle to protect humanity's last pregnant woman.
Somehow, most of the compelling dystopias are British. It is only natural that we should look for the end of the world in the birthplace of modernity. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's wholehearted embrace of the setting, with its abundance of pre- and post-industrial architecture — visual shorthand for the gamut of human civilization — is just one of the many things he gets right. His cinematographer and production designers nail everything; they even use Gill Sans in a way that evokes London far more convincingly than that V for Vendetta hack job.
The film is light on explanation; instead Cuarón lets his camera do the talking. Rather than contrive elaborate backstories, it is understood that doomsday is better experienced than explained. The details in the margins say as much as the talking heads in the middle of the frame.
It's hard to see how they're going to sell this film outside Europe. Owen's character isn't allowed to solve problems by waving guns around, even in his terminally violent world. I have to hand it to Cuarón for making a film which not only has extraordinary visual integrity, but in which the adults talk and act like adults, not 14-year-olds in grown-up bodies. At the same time Cuarón has shown himself adept at making superior kids' films; he transformed the Harry Potter series from a complete laughing stock into the showcase for storytelling and art direction that it has become. The director's flair for action is evident here as well, as Children of Men builds to its climax of full-metal-jacket chaos.
If at the very end we feel let down, and too much remains unsaid, it's because getting there has been such an impressive journey. For me, though, the most frightening part takes place in a moment of calm, as Theo asks a top government official: "How do you get by?" The response, "By not thinking about it", we can only wish was science fiction.