Dir: Alfonso Cuaron. US-UK. 2006. 108mins.

Unwrap the fascinating dystopian visionof the near-future in Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of Men- based on the sci-fi novel by British literary baroness PD James - and youfind a fairly ordinary movie with stock characters. But if its backdrop andstory never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole, the film is saved by itssheer imaginative verve and by the terrific chase and battle sequences, whichreplace the usual fantasy rhetoric of the genre with a sense of real, cine-verite danger.

Unusual in its rejection ofthe widescreen format and extensive use of handheld camera, this edgily urbanfuture vision is not obvious multiplex material, particularly in the US, where it is released on Dec 25 (Sept 22 forthe UK).It is also, with the exception of fairly brief appearances by Julianne Mooreand Michael Caine, a one-star vehicle - and lead CliveOwen is still only near the beginning of his transformation from arthouse attraction to marquee name.

But the controversy that maybe stirred by the film's clear political message about the dangers of 'homelandsecurity' should not trouble distributors, and may turn out to be apublicity-generating plus. Children Of Men is hardly going to be appeal anyway to the sort ofaudiences that would be bothered by its heavily-couched critique. The filmpremiered in competition at Venice.

The premise is neatly presentedvia an opening TV news bulletin about the death of the world's youngest person- who is over 18 years old. Women suddenly started becoming infertile somewherearound 2007, and soon stopped having babies altogether. The consequence, by theyear 2027, is a world without hope, in which anarchy is rife and most countriesare in a state of chaos. Only Britainresists, thanks to an aggressively pursued policy of isolationism, backed up bythe army's rounding up and deportation of illegal immigrants, or "fugees".

This is not the Orwellian dictatorshipof 1984 nor the neo-fascist regime ofV For Vendetta, but a more credibledegraded democracy in which London looks pretty much like today - except thatit's even dirtier, there are more soldiers around, desperate bands roam the streets,the rich live in gated compounds and the capital's black taxis have been replacedby moped-rickshaws. The government encourages citizens to report 'fugees' to the police and hands out suicide kits for anyonewho wants to take the quick way out.

Clive Owen plays Theo, a washed-outformer activist who now holds down a government job and drinks to forget. Contactedby a radical group known as the Fishes, which is led by his former lover, Julian(Julianne Moore), he is persuaded to arrange safe passes for - and eventually accompany- Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey),a black African 'fugee' who has somehow managed toget pregnant.

Though Theo is provided withsome backstory details intended to generate audience sympathy,he rarely rises much above the 'reluctant hero' cliche, and the other characters are even less rounded. Theone exception is the pot-smoking counter-culture hermit played by Michael Caine, who we begin to care about just before he leaves thescene.

The inventive use of UK locations, suchas Upper Heyford RAF barracks (which becomes a Guantanamo-style detention centre) or the Tate Modern artgallery grounds the parable in reality in a way that studio work would not. Theproduction design stresses Cuaron's vision of the futureas a washed-out, washed-up version of the present and in many respects, things havegone backward rather than forward: cars are patched-up models from 20 years ago(ie the present: if you never expected to see a Fiat Multipla in a sci-fi movie, think again) and characters dressin thrift shop cast-offs.

The quirky soundtrack mixes modernclassical requiems, such as a specially-composed theme oratory by John Tavener, with a raft of songs from The Libertines, Pink Floydand others.

But it's the photography andediting that impress above all else. ChildrenOf Men takes a leaf out of Paul Greengrass' book, proving, as in Bloody Sunday and United 93,that the long takes and mobile, handheld camera style of the TV newsdocumentary can be used to rack up the tension and the believabiltyof the thriller and action-adventure genres.

Strike Entertainment
Hit And Run Productions

US distribution
Universal Pictures

International distribution

Executive producers
Thomas A Bliss
Armyan Bernstein

Marc Abraham
Eric Newman
Hilary Shor
Tony Smith
Iain Smith

Alfonso Cuaron
Timothy J Sexton
David Arata
based on the novel by PD James

Emmanuel Lubezki

Production design
Geoffrey Kirkland
Jim Clay

Alex Rodriguez

John Tavener

Main cast
Clive Owen
Julianne Moore
Michael Caine
Clare Hope-Ashitey
Chiwetel Ejiofor