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MOVIE REVIEW

'Children'? Very, very good.

'Children of Men,' Alfonso Cuarón's vision of an infertile, war-torn future, is a grim masterpiece

In 2027 London, Theo (Clive Owen) helps the pregnant Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety. (jaap buitendijk/double negative/universal pictures)

The end of the world is upon us in the grim and grimy future-London of Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men." Illegal immigrants are locked in big cages that sit on sidewalks. The streets are war zones (it looks as if the Blitz came back). And even more urgent, women not too long ago lost the capacity to reproduce naturally. A child hasn't been born in 19 years and, in the film's harrowing opening minutes, it's reported that Earth's last-born son has died in a terrorist bombing. The world might go on, but it appears that we will not.

This is an extraordinary artistic breakthrough from a Mexican director who was already fearlessly good to begin with. His contribution to the "Harry Potter" franchise dared to mix an element of real-world wickedness into J.K. Rowling's fantasy. "Children of Men" uses science-fiction to show us what we stand to become, if not how we actually are.

Cuarón suggests that a planet mired in apocalypse is even more doomed without hope of children. It's dumber, too: Violence and hostility rage on, as if mankind is in a rush to finish itself off. Taken from a 14-year-old P.D. James book and brilliantly refashioned by the director and four other screenwriters (when have so many scribes ever produced a movie this good?), "Children of Men" pushes yesterday's and today's moral quagmires and human atrocities into the not-too-distant future. (The film is set in 2027, and that's closer than you think.)

In Cuarón's visionary refraction of now, this London is Camp X-Ray, Abu Ghraib , Baghdad, Beirut, Detroit, the seething id of a paranoid, polluted Western dystopia. In Cuarón's allegory, this is the sort of fascist nightmare that world leaders say they're trying to protect us from.

People still go to work, ride the bus, and throw away money at the dog tracks. Amid this bleak normalcy, there may be a glimmer of hope. One afternoon a gang of masked thugs plucks Theo (Clive Owen) off the streets and takes him to their leader, an imposing woman with pellucid skin and an opaque agenda. Her name is Julian, she is played by Julianne Moore, and she used to be Theo's girlfriend and partner in leftist crime. They were part of an activist human-rights organization called the Fishes, and they haven't seen each other in the two decades since their baby died in a flu pandemic. Now she needs his help. It seems a young black refugee named Kee ( Clare-Hope Ashitey) needs travel permits that Theo can help get her.

Owen plays his character as a gathering headwind of disbelief and determination. The film's fraught atmosphere intensifies as Theo finds himself drawn into a grand Fish cabal that includes the ever sturdy Chiwetel Ejiofor. And in one divine sequence we discover why. Kee summons Theo into a barn and reveals her pregnant belly. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera dotes on the image, and well it should. Cuarón has given us a live Renaissance painting by way of the Saatchi Gallery: Black Madonna with Child. Suddenly, the audience and Theo know what's at stake. A boat called the Tomorrow is arriving to take her to a group that's planning a new society, and it falls to Theo to get her there.

Before the breathtaking hell of that journey, there's a restorative layover at the woodland cottage of Theo's jaundice-haired stoner friend Jasper, who's played by Michael Caine in a splendid Richard Harris impersonation. Jasper is a New Age crackpot, but Cuarón is on his side, letting us see him care for his wife, who was left catatonic after being tortured by the police. "Shanti, shanti," he exclaims, at one point, invoking the Hindu word for peace.

Naturally, that's nowhere to be found. Theo's cousin (Danny Huston) has managed to get his hands on an assortment of art treasures. In a downright Kubrickian joke, Michelangelo's David stands in his foyer with a prosthetic leg, and outside his window floats Pink Floyd's flying pig, but the pièce-de-résistance is Picasso's enormous war-epic, "Guernica," which hovers in the background of a few shots. In the picture's last act, Cuarón builds his own version of Picasso's masterpiece in a bravura sequence set at a refugee camp that's as big and lethally harsh as some Third World countries. The place erupts into combat once the Fishes break in and ignite a revolt.

Throughout "Children of Men," Cuarón offers affectionate moments: the house pets that cling to Theo, Ashitey's inextinguishable jocularity, and the superb Peter Mullan as a friendly guard at that camp. But in that battle sequence, the violence grinds mercilessly on, so hard in fact that, during an extended sequence, dots of blood remain splattered on the camera lens. It's not simply Cuarón's ideas that make this movie great -- other filmmakers have been similarly dismayed by these times. It's the audaciousness of his execution.

"Children of Men" has a blistering immediacy that's singular in this age of rapid cutting. Along with Alex Rodríguez, Cuarón cut the picture himself, and while he uses digital effects as enrichment, he builds scenes within the camera's frame rather than just in an editing room. So the film is as theatrical as it is cinematic.

Filmed almost entirely with handheld cameras and desaturated of bright color, the movie looks and feels like something that was made decades ago: a gloomy rock opera or "A Clockwork Orange." For the occasion, Cuarón has even acquired Kubrick's appetite for dark materials -- up to a point. The film feels like a tribute to the late director's ruthlessness and delight in visual surprise. But Cuarón isn't the nihilist Kubrick was. Despite all the destruction in "Children of Men," he manages to say something Kubrick never had the heart to: Shanti, shanti!

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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