'Children of Men' — An exercise in fertility 

The world is grim, cold and anarchic in Alfonso Cuaron’s "Children of Men," and, sometimes, the same can be said for this barely sci-fi, palpably bleak infertility thriller. But when the movie dazzles, and it often does, inaccessibility crumbles. When it hits on human truths, and it often does, itapproaches glory.

Like writer-director Cuaron’s best-known films, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Y tu mama tambien," "Children" takes familiar story elements and freshens them with extra spark and undercurrent. It turns a plot that could easily have played out ridiculously into something credible and affecting.

Loosely based on P.D. James’ novel, the 2027-set story transpires in a violence-ravaged world where Britain alone has maintained stability, and, fascist and decaying, it’s a sorry place. Infertility, meanwhile — the last baby was born 18 years ago — threatens to eliminate humankind.

Clive Owen plays Theo, a weary civil servant who is kidnapped by activists whose leader, his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore), persuades him to help a refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) escape the xenophobic country. Something epic rides on this mission: Kee, miraculously, is pregnant. Experiencing a surge of purpose, Theo goes on a treacherous journey and learns to trust nobody — activists and authorities alike would exploit Kee’s condition for political gain — as he strives to get Kee to safety and give the species hope.

Initially, the movie’s slow-going. The landscape’s bleak, Theo’s chilly, and five credited writers dish up dystopian ingredients that sometimes amount to loose ends. Julian doesn’t come across as a committed revolutionary. Her bitter interactions with Theo, with whom she shares a child-related tragedy, have a routine, contrived ring.

But Cuaron, by keeping things focused, intense and thoughtful, eventually delivers a film whose meaningfulness as well as entertainment value you can’t ignore. At times, it’s a morality drama with a pulse; at times, it’s an action flick with soul.

Visually, it’s extraordinary. A deadly attack on a car and a war-zone battle amid which Theo frantically searches for Kee are spectacular. Resonantly, the naturalistic London setting suggests not a futuristic fantasyland, but a blighted universe just a couple shades darker than our own.

With the exception of screenplay-hampered Moore, the cast clicks. Owen’s noir gene proves ideal for the story’s cynicism. Among the supporting cast, Michael Caine stands out, providing fabulous comic relief as Theo’s friend Jasper, an old hippie.

Credits

Children Of Men ***

Starring Clive Owen, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine

Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; based on P.D. James’ book

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 49 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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