Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian opus is the highlight of TIFF's Countdown to Armageddon.
DIRECTED BY ALFONSO CUARÓN
With the purported date of the Mayan apocalypse rapidly approaching, TIFF’s programmers have prepared a fitting cinematic send-off to civilization as we know it. Entitled Countdown to Armageddon, the series runs December 14 to 21 (after which, presumably, our fair city will be rendered a desolate wasteland), and serves as a handy 10-film survey of the ever-popular end-of-the-world subgenre.
Though there are arguably more “essential” choices (Dr. Strangelove is perhaps cinema’s definitive political satire), and, certainly, more exotic ones (John Boorman’s Zardoz is an epic post-apocalyptic oddity, to put it mildly), the selection we’re most eager to endorse is Alfonso Cuarón’s end-of-days tour de force Children of Men.
Despite its abundant echoes of the Christian gospel, Cuarón’s loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel—about a near-future dystopia in which a global epidemic of infertility has precipitated society’s collapse—is decidedly lacking in Holiday cheer, and duly slumped at the box office upon its Christmas Day release in 2006. Three years later, however, the film’s potent, poignant mixture of technical virtuosity, textured storytelling, and frightening plausibility made it a deservedly ubiquitous presence among critics’ best-of-the-decade polls.
A further three years on, Cuarón’s dire diagnosis of early-21st-century ills—ecological, geopolitical, and economic—has lost none of its relevance, while his breathless re-imagining of the nativity narrative—punctuated by a pair of astonishing single-take set pieces, courtesy of gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—remains every bit as riveting.
Leading a formidable cast that also includes Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and an affably affecting Michael Caine, Clive Owen plays a former radical turned petty bureaucrat, wearily resigned to humanity’s desperate fate. Initially inured to the bomb blasts and cries of caged refugees that are fixtures of life in the film’s fascist future Britain, he’s given urgent new purpose when his access to transit papers results in a request to aid in the smuggling of a miraculous secret cargo: the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years.
The ensuing journey is both harrowing and haunting, but Cuarón also suggests the possibility of hope. Even as Children of Men draws on present-day crises to plot a decidedly grim trajectory, we can’t think of another cinematic representation of the end times that culminates in such a spellbinding moment of grace.