Most future of doomy-doom movies take as their starting point the problem that the world is ending. Not so with Children of Men, or at least, not exactly - in this case, it's not the world that is ending, but humanity itself. The year is 2027 and humans have lost the ability to procreate. There hasn't been a new child born in over 18 years. Meanwhile, the world, apparently, has become a warzone. In the midst of all this, we have Clive Owens, our protagonist, who is on a mission to convey a young woman, who is miraculously pregnant, to the coast of England. The idea is that he will deliver her to The Human Project, which may or may not exist. Why is he doing that? What is The Human Project? Why is it so difficult to travel in these times? I haven't the foggiest idea.
An interesting feature of this film is that it doesn't do what most movies set in the future do - tell you what in the hell is going on. Generally, when you have a movie set in a totally alien time/landscape, there's some attempt to fill you in on the missing info. This actually spoils the "realism" of it, because people generally don't explain basic facts about their world and the time they're living in during quotidian conversation. So it's kind of refreshing to have a film set in the future that could actually have been made at the time; that pretends that the viewer knows what's going on. Of course, this lack of explanation is also a rather convenient feature that allows the creator of that world to avoid having to figure it all out, perhaps. Why is there all this political turmoil? Who's fighting who?
On the other hand, this makes it rather frustrating for the viewer, because it's a wholly disorienting experience. One has absolutely no idea why the world is the way it apparently is, and therefore, why certain characters behave the way that they do. Why, for instance, does Kee (the pregnant woman) have to be transported in secret to the coast? Why hasn't news of this miraculous pregnancy been made public? Well, one answer to that, perhaps, is that these are characters struggling to reclaim a basic kind of humanity in a world that has gone completely bonkers. Were Kee to make known her pregnancy, she would most likely become an object for science, politics, ideology, etc. But all she wants to do is have her baby - and this, in a way, is exactly what needs to happen for this topsyturvy world to get back on its feet. It's a struggle for normalcy against all odds - wasn't it Gandhi who said "Be the change you want to see in the world" ?
So in this sense, perhaps, this movie is actually about what makes us human. My friend Russ, who went to see the movie with me, saw it as illuminating the way in which "civilized" behavior depends upon the looming future being present in the form of children, not in some kind of sappy Hollywood way, but in a very tangible presence that makes people question their own behavior and its effect on others. I think that an interpretation of the film in terms of its views on ethics is a bit tricky, but I do agree that there's some evidence for it.
This sense of a fully real alternate world is made all the more convincing by the incredible cinematography and remarkably consistent and well thought-out visual component - there's a staggering amount of detail, also never explained (giant floating pigs?) that make the world seem both familiar and alien, but quite real. I think this is also a part of the narrative strategy - the movie is telling a story in a wholy different way. The way that information is organized is puzzling - one doesn't know how to read it. There is, for instance, a sort of subplot to do with feet. There are LOTS and LOTS of shots of feet. Characters keep losing shoes, finding new ones, stubbing toes, washing feet, etc. Why? What is it doing there? It's subtle, and it seems to have some kind of meaning, but lord only knows what it is. Likewise, there's a lot of darkly absurdist dialogue that is quite funny, but again, confusing. And certain recurring repetitions, bits of dialogue that seem like they ought to be important because they keep coming up, and yet I have no idea why.
All in all, a very intriguing film, but an utterly baffling one.