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Christmas movies are usually a mix of silly kids films, light-hearted comedies, and Oscar fare involving costume dramas and bio-pics. Children of Men, which opens Christmas day, doesn’t fit into any of those categories. My friend Garth saw the trailer and assumed it was some sort of shoot-em-up flick. It’s true that Children of Men has a couple of shootouts and several explosions, but the tone and depth couldn’t be further from a Michael Bay action extravaganza. Instead director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien), working from a P.D. James novel, has fashioned an intense, exceedingly intelligent thriller that mines present-day concerns and reminds us of the power of cinema.

The film is set in London in 2027. For reasons unclear, women around the world have become infertile, and no baby has been born in 18 years. For that and other reasons, the world has fallen apart, and Britain, as a last island of civilization, is doing everything in its power to keep out immigrants and others unwanted. Not that London is necessarily worth saving. Commericals on tv advertise do-it-yourself suicide kits, and a fascist government rules with guards on every corner.

owenmoore.jpgTheodore Faron is a cynical man going about his day. Even a terrorist bomb fifty feet away hardly fazes him, though he uses it as an excuse to take off work and visit old friend Jasper (the wonderfully funny Michael Caine). He comes in much closer contact with the terrorists when they kidnap him and take him to their leader (the welcome Julianne Moore), who also happens to be his ex-wife. She has a mission for him: to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman named Kee to a boat off the coast, which will take her to a mysterious group called The Human Project. He declines at first, but the possibility of money and exit visas is too tempting to pass up.

Children of Men stars the always superlative Clive Owen (Inside Man). As far as I’m concerned, Owen should be the new James Bond, but if getting passed over allows him to do films like this, I certainly won’t complain. Unlike Daniel Craig, who seems absolutely unstoppable in Casino Royale, Owen exhibits a vulnerability that serves him well. We believe this is a regular guy caught up in a most unregular situation. So as he tries to help Kee reach the boat, we both sympathize with him and legitimately wonder whether he can pull this off. That the film brazenly shocks its audience in the first act (I won’t spoil anything, but I haven’t been so surprised by a movie all year) lets us know that almost anything is possible.

tate-modern.jpgThat sense of possibility extends to the movie’s technique. Three incredible set pieces–one at the film’s outset, one towards the middle, and one spectacular sequence near the end–anchor the plot. They use intricately choreographed long takes, sometimes using hundreds of extras, and riveting Doggicam photography that’s able to walk or crawl along with our characters. I could single out the cinematography and convincing production design for special praise–never has dystopia looked so realistic–but I want to draw your attention to the work of camera operators George Richmond and Frank Buono, who make us feel like we’re part of the surroundings, that we too are desperately trying to get Kee to her destination. That intimacy is critical for grounding what might otherwise be an overwhelming story.

explosion-resized.jpgI hope award voters won’t be blown away by the violence (which is stark and brutal) and overlook the film’s rich thematic content. Some film critics have complained that the cultural motifs are too vague to be compelling, while others have argued the opposite, that the allegory is too closely tied to today’s political situation. I’d argue that the film is just right, that it reminds us of how legitimate crises can be used by governments eager to grab power and that the “simple” answer of closing our borders is a false solution. Even if you’re not a political junkie, the story of Faron and Kee on the run, along with the various people they meet along the way (including yet another brilliant turn from Peter Mullan), is gripping entertainment. And allusions to another miraculously pregnant young woman make Children of Men an appropriate Christmas film after all.

Children of Men: four 1/2, out of five