My most recent Netflix viewings are like a film festival of movies that make me say, "That was pretty good, but I'd better watch it again sometime." Since watching Zodiac, my rentals have been Chinatown, A History of Violence, and, most recently, Children of Men. Other people more eloquent than I am have praised that film, but I'd like to just point out the things about it that kept me enthralled.
1. The Cinematography - Much has been written about two jaw-dropping sequences in the film: a long, single shot from inside a crowded car as it is attacked by a mob of people and an even longer shot of a brutal gun battle. The first is astounding in its technical prowess (it was shot using a specially-designed remote control camera rig), and the latter is as visceral as the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan. Both are done so expertly that you can only really admire them once they're over and you've stopped biting your nails. Most of the movie is shot with those kinds of long shots, which gives it an almost documentary feel.
2. The Design - Here's a fun fact: the last time a non-period piece won an Oscar for Art Direction was 1989. It's a shame, since in a movie like Children of Men, the art direction contributes as much to the story as anything in the script. Much of the exposition is handled by propaganda posters, old newspaper headlines, and graffiti.
3. The World - Children of Men is a science fiction film, but it belongs to the tradition of films like Brazil, Blade Runner, and Minority Report in that, once you strip away the video billboards and high-tech cars, you're left with a scarily recognizable world. There are so many great visuals that aren't neatly explained: the smoldering remains of a pile of dead horses, a silent boy engrossed in a video game being told to take his pill, a discarded baby carriage in the corner of a stairwell. Perhaps my favorite conceit is the "Ark of the Arts," where masterpieces like Michelangelo's "David" and Picasso's "Guernica" are kept safely stored away from the chaos of the rest of the world. Animals are a near-constant presence in the movie, from a deer walking through an abandoned schoolhouse to a cameo appearance by the floating pig from the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals, perhaps to suggest that as in The World Without Us, nature is preparing to reclaim its old territory.
4. The Cast - If Clive Owen were to make a film which featured him sorting his laundry for two hours, I'd probably watch it: that's how magnetic the guy is. Even though he's playing your standard Rick Blaine reluctant hero role here, he's still mesmerizing. In the big climax, as he's essentially running through a war zone, he does something you rarely see in an action movie: he looks like he's scared shitless. As for the rest of the cast, I'm unaware of any movie in which Michael Caine was not a welcome addition to the cast, Julianne Moore is reliably great, and after seeing him in this and Inside Man, Chiwetel Ejiofor is quickly becoming my favorite actor whose name I cannot pronounce.
All together, this is a visually amazing film, the sort of thing I can imagine myself watching with the sound turned off and still being astounded by it (although, it should be mentioned, the sound design and song selection are excellent as well).
Early in the movie, Clive Owen's character remarks that, even if the infertility plaguing the world were to be cured, it would be no good: once humanity has resigned itself to its own extinction, things would break down so quickly that there would be no repairing them. It's a frequently bleak film, and I'm not really sure whether the ending is happy or not. In that way, Children of Men seems like an heir to Dr. Strangelove; it may look like humanity is doomed, but you know we'll meet again some sunny day.