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Life force Who carries the torch of hope when the world is without children?

The title of Alfonso Cuaron's powerful sci-fi nightmare "Children of Men" is ironic. It's about a not-very-distant world where there are, in fact, no such things.

The last child to be born anywhere on the planet -- a kid named Diego -- was 18. And reports of his death reach the film's anti-heroic hero Theo (Clive Owen) in the movie's opening minutes.

But then so does a terrorist bomb that explodes about five doors away as he's just ambling down the street.

Don't ask me what the cataclysm was that set off this reproductive apocalypse because I'm a little fuzzy on that. Truth be told, I haven't the foggiest. Eventually, though, this dystopian horror tale becomes so good that I simply suspended belief as any good post-Aristotelian should and took it on faith.

All right, I concluded, no babies are being born and none are surviving. What does that mean for the story?

In a world imploding from the absence of youth and hope and future, a very gray and dirty-looking Britain is in a state of perpetual turmoil. Its relative prosperity is both maintained and threatened by an unmanageable influx of "fugees" i.e. refugees from the European underclass and the Third World. They do the jobs nobody wants, true, but there are so many of them that they are rounded up, stuffed into internment camps and then deported. (It's the very near future, remember.)

The Brit terrorists who secretly rally and act to protect the "fugees'" rights are called "Fishes," a reference to the earliest Christians that is just one of the movie's more commonplace literate niceties.

And, lo and behold, what does our hero's old flame (Julianne Moore) -- and the mother of his long-dead child -- discover but a "fugee" who is eight months pregnant? So she enlists Theo in the cause for a very simple reason: Whatever the non-state of their union, he remains the one man in this total terrorist world that she can trust to protect the expectant mother.

And now a brief word from the nightmare ninny-world of Hollywood chatter: Advance word was that this movie was coming down the pike a bit of an industrial orphan -- all but abandoned by its studio Universal, ordinarily one of those studios that can be trusted to stick by excellence that's off the beaten path. And you can see how those who line the narrow channels of cloudland groupthink would believe that.

"Children of Men" presents little to the possibility of big box office but its own excellence. Owen is a terrific actor -- and, encouragingly, a man in a movie world afflicted by affectless boys -- and there's a good chunky part in the film for Michael Caine, as an aging, long-haired ex-hippie recluse who lives in the woods with his paralyzed wife, his weed and his memories. It also has a small, marginally glamorous part for Julianne Moore, as "a rebel with a lot of cause" (as Caine puts it, with all the charm in the world).

And that's it for "star power" -- not exactly "The Departed" or "The Holiday" or "Dreamgirls."

Dystopic visions don't exactly make for blockbusters, "A Clockwork Orange" notwithstanding 35 years ago. Demanding and discerning audiences can be awed (by, say, "Blade Runner"). Popcorn gobblers usually prefer to be elsewhere.

Nor is "Children of Men" the only film in the honorable class of Wayward Excellence opening tomorrow. Tom Tykwer's wild, gorgeous and fascinating "Perfume" -- about a 18th century serial killer who is also the virtuoso perfume inventor of his time -- also opens tomorrow and falls roughly into the category of maverick excellence and marketing perplexity, even if, in that case, it was based on an international best seller by Patrick Suskind (albeit one that was written 20 some years ago.)

Those who love and care about movies will simply ignore all that industrial fol-de-rol and simply reward themselves with the films, and rewarding films they are.

Both films get better and more absorbing with each passing minute and have bang-up finales.

In "Children of Men," there is one of the more remarkable scenes of any at the multiplex as the "fugee" Madonna (played by Claire-Hope Ashitey) and crying infant suddenly silence a raging war zone, as if the Annunciation had suddenly happened in the middle of the Battle of Actium.

It's a film about life itself as a primal force for peace -- a nice idea, of course, but not one that would likely convince the colleagues of Dr. Barnett Slepian.

It is, nevertheless, brilliantly conceived and carried off in every particular. Alfonso Cuaron is, when he wants to be, a great action director. The action scenes rock you (far more than those in, say, "Blood Diamond"). And Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's vision of a gray, congested future is -- if you can stand the oxymoron -- excitingly dismal.

This is a world, as Caine says, where antidepressants are everywhere, suicide drugs are in every home but "ganja is still illegal." It's a world where the epochal Madonna is no holy innocent but a young street roughneck who toys with the idea of naming her baby "Bazooka."

It's a world where our hero Theo's predilection for carrying a pint of Bell's Scotch everywhere he goes eventually comes in very handy in a way he'd never have imagined.

It's a movie with visionary power and no small brilliance and a reverence for life that is -- whatever else it may be -- never cheap.

Life itself is clearly a miracle to anyone who thinks about it at all.

So, in a vastly lesser but important sense, are movies like this in our era.



>Movie Review

Children of Men
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Clive Owen, Michael Caine and Julianne Moore in Alfonso Cuaron's fantasy of a near future where no children have been born in 18 years. Rated R for language, violence and a little nudity. Opening Friday in area theaters.

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