At first, Children of Men is less a fantasy film than a toe-curling dystopian landscape: a latter-day Hieronymus Bosch panel depicting a world come apart at the seams. Everywhere you look in this gray, concrete world, there’s another expression of human distress, from noxious sentimentality to hysterical self-recrimination, from violence to paralysis and everything in between. The plot is part allegory, part political complaint, reveling in human weakness, and packed with all manner of scattershot allusions to Christianity—though any ultimate meaning (apart from the bromide “hold on to hope for the future”) is difficult to discern. Luckily, moral lessons are largely irrelevant in an action thriller, and when Children of Men gets going, about halfway through, you’ll be more concerned about catching your breath than figuring things out. It’s just about the future of the human race, okay?

Political chaos is crumbling every nation and municipality (the morning the film begins marks Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle, though it’s unclear who’s laying siege and to whom). In sheltered Britain, where the action takes place, thousands of desperate refugees arrive daily by the boatload, only to be corralled in cages and herded toward concentration camps for deportation. The propaganda efforts of the new totalitarian government are not subtle: “The world has collapsed / Only Britain soldiers on,” glowers a television spot. But then, neither is director Alfonso Cuarón’s pointed, and often quite beautiful, mise-en-scène: Above a horrific immigrant camp at Bexhill-on-Sea, a large sign reads “Homeland Security.”

The cause of this universal distress is ascribed, generally, to a plague of infertility that has afflicted every one of the world’s women (with a spike in Middle Eastern terrorism to nudge things along). In a quiet bit of exposition, a nurse, huddled in an abandoned elementary school, remembers how her ward simply stopped hearing from new mothers; when she checked in with another hospital in Australia, the story was the same. But the movie doesn’t waste time with etiology. It’s clear the screenwriters have no idea how generalized despair and blocked maternal impulses turn into riots and revolution—only that they must. Even before the trailing edge of children reaches majority, economies have had plenty of time to collapse.

Clive Owen plays Theo, the kind of shuffling antihero who eyes roadside flagellation cults with the same impassive gaze he turns on the incessant television commercials for Quietus, a government-approved suicide pill. He isn’t much of a character, but he’ll do for a guide. One of the first places he brings us is the home of an old hippie named Jasper (Michael Caine, delightful), a cannabis-laced oasis in the English countryside. Then Theo runs into an old activist flame (Julianne Moore, in one of her less interesting performances—but to be fair, she isn’t allowed to live very long). He’s pulled into a militant immigrant-rights group called the Fishes, who introduce him to a young refugee named Kee (the perfectly petulant Clare-Hope Ashitey). Kee impulsively places her trust in Theo, and in a humble barn, she reveals her secret: She’s pregnant. The thriller begins.

Children of Men has drawn attention for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. But much-discussed stunts like a single, quarter-hour shot of an intricate battle sequence are impressive less for their circus-trick virtuosity than how well they serve the scene. Is anything tenser and quicker and more agile and less oxygenated than a shot that hundreds of extras and cast and crew cannot fuck up? You can feel how difficult the shot was to choreograph and this urgency gets sucked into the picture. You can’t sit back and admire Lubezki’s skill. You’ll be struck dumb. He isn’t aiming for elegance—it’s all throttle.

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When Children of Men winds down, it’s an artificial sort of relief. Theo and Kee are aiming for a floating Valhalla called The Human Project, and what was permissibly vague in the realm of etiology begins to look lazy toward the end—why is she pregnant? What is the Project? We never find out, but no one ever said hope was anchored to facts. Try to make a movie about the most precious and least rational of human emotions, and it’s bound to turn out a little wispy in the end.