The Britain of 2027 depicted in Children of Men, adapted from the P D James novel, is a bit too close for comfort. Bombs are detonated with increasing regularity in London's streets while gangs hurl petrol bombs at passing trains. Propaganda campaigns promise "Jobs for the Brits", and illegal immigrants are caged on the streets before being hauled off to a refugee camp. There, they are arranged in Abu Ghraib poses as they await deportation. It's as though the country is being run along the lines of Daily Mail editorial policy.
Theo (Clive Owen), an office drone whose child died in the 2008 flu pandemic, is seen wearing a faded "London 2012" sweatshirt, though we don't discover whether the Olympics were a success, or if Wembley Stadium was ever completed. But the most striking thing about this vision of the future is the absence of children. Civilisation is in the grip of a fertility crisis; it has been nearly 20 years since a baby was born. No wonder a band of freedom fighters is prepared to go to extreme lengths to ensure the survival of humanity.
The group is led by Theo's ex-partner Julian (Julianne Moore); the estranged couple have possibly the weirdest kiss in modern cinema, in which each person takes turns blowing a ping-pong ball into the other's mouth before they lock lips for a smooch. Something tells me this won't scrape into the list of most romantic scenes in film history.
Maybe it's the ping-pong ball that swings it, but Theo overcomes his reluctance and agrees to help Julian transport a young immigrant, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), out of the country. Along the way, the group encounters various oddballs, including Theo's mentor, Jasper (Michael Caine), an ageing hippie with a penchant for mind-blowing dope and even more mind-blowing cardigans. Eventually Theo learns the full significance of his mission: Kee is eight months pregnant. The future of mankind rests on the shoulders of this black, teenaged single mum, which will come as a blow for all those Mail types. What's more, she is suggesting some dreadful names for the baby - "Bazooka", anyone?
The group realises that the best way to get Kee out of Britain is to smuggle her in to the camp so that she can be deported along with the other "fugees".
The film offers no satisfactory explanation for why Kee is escaping. With the rest of the world in tatters ("Apocalypse begins: Kazakhstan annihilated" is one headline we glimpse), it seems unlikely that other countries will be any safer. But the picture gathers enough momentum to keep such questions at bay, at least until you leave the cinema. The action sequences are exciting: a terrifying roadside ambush in the Kent countryside is straight out of a Mad Max film, and there's a nail-biting moment when Theo's vehicle has to be jump-started as his pursuers are gaining on him - a uniquely British start to a car chase.
Once Theo and Kee reach the refugee camp, Children of Men makes silly errors in its treatment of non-English-speaking cultures. The film uses an exaggerated vision of the future to criticise the current treatment of immigrants, yet it never gets round to finding any part for those persecuted foreigners to play in the story. Imprisoned in cages, they become a collective symbol of suffering, milked for emotional impact, but they are never portrayed as actual human beings. The camera lingers over the deaths of white characters, yet non-Caucasians rank no higher than cannon fodder.
It's a disappointing oversight in a film that has much to recommend it, not least the proof it offers, as if any more were needed, that Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most visually inspired directors working today. His past two full-length feature films - the sex comedy Y tu mamá también (2001) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) - were feasts for the eyes. The dystopian landscape of Children of Men may not be as appetising as Mexico or Hogwarts. But the hand-held cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki has a vivid early-morning zing, from the brutal combat scenes, in which the lens becomes dotted with blood, to the moving image of Theo teaching Kee how to make her baby burp as they await salvation in a rickety rowboat.
Pick of the week
The Black Dahlia (15)
dir: Brian de Palma
Stylish pulp thriller about murder of an actress in 1940s LA.
Clerks II (15)
dir: Kevin Smith
Entertaining sequel to 1994 cult comedy: think Men Behaving Badly with better gags.
Three shorts about love and sex, by Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni.