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A New Hope


Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2006

Rating: 5.0


Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006

Rating: 4.6



Posted: January 29, 2007

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The frightening thing about Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's vivid re-imagining of the P.D. James novel of the same name, is the tactile plausibility of its nightmare vision of an embattled Britain in the year 2027. Although its central premise -- that the human race, having been infertile for the last 18 years, has descended into international chaos in the face of its imminent extinction -- is technically science fiction, the film is rooted firmly in a world immediately recognizable as our own -- just uglier, more aggressive and resigned to its fate.

As the last major nation to maintain a semblance of stability (an early snippet of a news report about Seattle tells us all we need to know about the U.S.), Britain has clamped down hard on immigration: It rounds up miserable detainees in makeshift mass cells lining regular city streets before herding them to military camps that are little more than shelled, burned-out dumping grounds. Watching defeated bureaucrat Theo Faron (Clive Owen) pass one of those streetside cages filled with desperate, confused foreigners, with armed guards barking at citizens to move along, it's impossible not to be reminded of any number of present-day social concerns: America's own ugly immigration woes; the plight of the homeless; even the war in Iraq. Such evocations may not be subtle, but they're nonetheless brutally effective, almost sickeningly conceivable: There but for the loss of all hope go we.

As the film opens, eighteen-year-old "Baby Diego," the youngest living human, has just died, underscoring the grim reality that the race is dying out. But Theo gets a brief shot at a new hope when he is kidnapped off the street by the "Fishes," an underground resistance movement led by his ex-girlfriend Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian hopes there's enough of Theo's old activist heart left to help the group score "transit papers" for a young woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey); for his part, Theo just seems to want another chance to connect with Julian, despite (or perhaps because of) their shared lingering sense of loss over the death of their child.

And so he does as the Fishes ask, enjoying a lighthearted but all-too-brief respite with his former lover before the harsh reality of life (and death) intrudes. In short order, Theo learns Kee's incredible secret: She's miraculously pregnant with the first human child in almost two decades. And so the two of them are forced to run from the political agendas of friend and foe alike, trusting no one save for Kee's devoted midwife and Theo's aging hippie friend Jasper (a funny and heartbreaking Michael Caine) with underground connections of his own.

Kee's coming child, of course, is a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of a species all but devoid of same, and also for Theo's own lost humanity. But Cuarón never beats us over the head with the symbolism (try to overlook the fact that in order to deliver Kee safely into the hands of a scientific group called the Human Project, he must get her to a ship called Tomorrow), if only because he's too busy ratcheting up the tension and suspense, battering us with a powerfully convincing vision of this strife-torn reality. Limned largely in a cloudy gray haze that gives even wide-open forests and open country roads a desolate air of claustrophobia, Children of Men presents a disconcertingly authentic, if exaggerated, world that, if it isn't quite a mirror to our own, is nonetheless chillingly accurate, and thus far more compelling than the broad strokes of a dystopian fantasy like V for Vendetta.

The war-torn environment that gives Pan's Labyrinth its own convincing atmosphere of dread is all too real: The setting is Madrid, just after the Spanish Civil War, where young Ofelia (Ivana Basquero) and her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) have come to live with Carmen's new husband, Captain Vidal (a terrifically brutish Sergi López). Vidal is hunting straggling freedom-fighter in the nearby forests and mountains, a task he embraces with ruthless, sadistic efficiency.

The only other thing Vidal cares about is the heir pregnant Carmen is carrying -- needless to say, bookish Ofelia is an afterthought. So she's not much missed when she meets a sneering faun (Doug Jones) in a nearby labyrinth. The faun tells Ofelia she's the spirit of a fairy-tale princess, and dispatches her on a series of quests to prove her suitability to claim her destiny. These escapades only add to the distance between Ofelia and her ailing mother; her only real friend is Vidal's housekeeper, Mercedes (played by Maribel Verdu with a fierce bearing), who's in league with the rebel forces Vidal seeks to exterminate.

Where Children of Men builds a gut-wrenching atmosphere of bleak humanity in its setting, its action and in the vulnerable performances of Moore, Ashitey, Caine and especially Owen, Pan's Labyrinth plays with the more childlike tension between the worlds of fantasy and reality (the former brought to gorgeously baroque life by del Toro, production designer Eugenio Caballero and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro). The horned goat-man who dispatches Ofelia to snatch a key from a giant frog's belly or to sneak into the lair of the horrific Pale Man (also Jones), who inserts his detached eyeballs into the palms of his spindly hands, seems far more duplicitous than the straightforwardly violent and cruel Vidal.

Of course, the unpleasant real world and the subtly menacing fantasy one come head to head, the latter a distorted reflection of the former, with deadly results. Is Ofelia's fantastical journey just a figment of her imagination, a means of escape from an unrelentingly gloomy reality? Either way, as with Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth explores the survival of childlike innocence in a world of decidedly adult drama and violence. Diametrically different in tone and milieu, both films persuasively argue for the existence of hope against overwhelming odds.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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