Cuarón uses that same singular point of view to amazing effect in Children of Men, expertly immersing the audience into its bleak world immediately, and through images and sound paints it so convincingly that the story emerges through this portrait rather than advanced via dialogue. Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) is Cuarón's anchor here, and as with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the film remains resolutely from his point of view. And while there are scenes of breathtaking complexity on display here, the style of the film doesn't so much call attention to oneself as it does concentrate on expressing what Theo is going through at any moment.
Owen is fantastic, brilliantly fusing an everyman demeanor with the mythic role that he plays out through the story; jailnurse pointed out upon our exit of the theater, it was interesting to see a character move from being Joseph, a New Testament allusion, to being Moses, from the Old Testament, but he never loses that audience identification. While the other performers all deliver fantastic work, the film rests on Owen's performance, and he makes the film work by being completely committed to making us completely believe in Theo and this reality.
A wave of infertility began eighteen years earlier, and the film opens with the news that eighteen year old "Baby Diego," the youngest person on the planet, ever resentful of his unwanted celebrity status, was stabbed to death by a fan in whose face he spat in (one of the film's many references to Pink Floyd). England has become a totalitarian state with rationed resources - which include 'Quietus,' a painless suicide kit. There are constant bombings the government insists are by terrorists. Pollution has darkened the skies and hopelessness has made many people desparate. But as shitty as England is, it seems to be better than anywhere else because there are massive waves of immigrants whom are being captured and sent off to "deportation camps" every day.
While Theo was an activist in his past, the film opens with him having given up hope and trying to live his life out as comfortably as possible after the death of his son in the flu epidemic of '09. His ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) resurfaces, still active in the immigrants' rights movement. She needs papers to smuggle somebody to the coast, and she needs Theo to get them. As it turns out, she has come across Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a 'fugee' who also happens to be - astoundingly - pregnant. Julian and midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) have allied with an activist group known as FISH to smuggle her to the elusive "Human Project," an organization existing outside of England determined to uncovering why women are infertile.
Theo discovers that some members of FISH have their own agenda, an "uprising" for which Luke (Serenity's Chiwetel Ejiofor) intends to use Kee and the baby for political ends, and so Theo finds himself on the run with Kee and Miriam. FISH is hunting them while the government, though ignorant of Kee's condition, have identified them in connection with FISH. Furthermore, were the government to find out that one of the fugees they've been rounding up (and executing, although that's not publicized) were pregnant, they would be most put-out. If this sounds complicated, it is, but all this information is conveyed very clearly by the film, and when fused with the realism of the discourse, the dangers they face become all the more frightening.
While the film would seem extremely bleak, it is ultimately hopeful, and there is also a certain amount of humor showing up (sometimes at surprising times) that also help to make the characters much more vivid. Michael Caine is clearly enjoying himself playing the former political cartoonist/activist turned marijuana harvester Jasper Palmer, who, despite the desolate state of the world, manages to maintain a hazy optimism. Ferris, who played Aunt Marge in Prisoner of Azkaban, is excellent as well; she has a character moment that is positively chilling, but also reveals much about how this world came to be.
The film has several complicated action sequences, including a tense escape followed by a shocking car chase towards the beginning and a trek through a war zone towards the end, that are photographed in one take, requiring a radical customization by Doggicam Systems of their Power Slide system. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his crew, including George and Jonathan Richmond and Frank Buono, deserve special credit for making these sequences work. Richard Beggs (whom also worked on Prisoner of Azkaban as well as the similarly styled Lost in Translation) created an incredibly holosonic soundfield (the print I saw was in DTS) that is amazingly detailed, down to the low hum of every florescent light. However, I can not stress enough how near-invisible all of these efforts are; they look completely unforced. What is important, and what all of these elements are marshalled by Cuarón in the employ of, is bringing the viewer into the diegesis and closer to the characters.
He succeeds admirably, and the audience's involvement in the film in the theater jailnurse and I saw it in was very apparent. This is excellent politically relevant science fiction, thought provoking and based on logical extrapolation, but the human drama that Cuarón melds this with creates an emotional investment in the characters and their fates that even the most bizarre situation - one of which occurs at during the battle at the end of the film and is among the most haunting scenes I've ever seen - seem plausible and are perfectly believable given the framework of the movie.
This is definitely one of the best films of the year, brilliantly concieved and executed. One should be forewarned however; this film is a very intense experience. An illustration of the power of this film is that jailnurse informed me as the credits came on that before we could get dinner, he had to swing by his house so he could see his children.
EDIT: I strongly recommend jailnurse's entry containing his reflections on the film for his discussion of the political, religious and social themes of the film from a parental perspective.