If satire, as George S. Kaufman once said, is what closes on Saturday night, films of dystopia are what barely open at all. Certainly there was no particular public celebration of either movie version of 1984, or of Francois Truffaut's film of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, or of Volker Schlondorff's treatment of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, generally considered the Gold Standard for bleak cinematic visions of the future, was a hit only in retrospect. John Carpenter's Escape from New York had a certain success, but mainly for Kurt Russell's hard-boiled, breathy performance as antihero Snake Plissken. Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, probably was the biggest box-office draw of the bunch, and its ending was the happiest of all these films.
This background makes the success of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men all the more surprising. In the first week of January 2007, Children of Men placed a solid third in the box office race, behind only the fluffy family comedy Night at the Museum and the uplifting, five-hanky weeper The Pursuit of Happyness. That audiences should be flocking to Children of Men—a frightening vision of total societal collapse, set in the very near future, with an ending that is only qualifiedly hopeful—says something interesting about the mood of moviegoers today.
Cuaron, who proved himself a director of brilliance and daring with Y tu Mama Tambien, wastes no time with exposition in Children of Men. At the outset, he simply flashes the place and date—London, November 16, 2027—against a gray, ugly cityscape full of drab people, trash, and smoke-belching cars. In a crowded, dingy café, the weeping crowd watches a news report on the murder of eighteen-year-old Baby Diego, the youngest person on Earth. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a bored, cynical bureaucrat, grabs a black coffee from the clerk at the counter and stalks off down the street. Ten seconds later, an explosion shatters the café, sending debris and bodies hurling. (A little later, when Theo asks his boss for some unscheduled leave, he tells him it's because of his grief over the death of Baby Diego. Actually, Theo thinks Diego was a "wanker;" he's really upset about the café explosion, but such events are too common to warrant time off.)
As roving bands of thugs attack Theo's train, a TV monitor inside exults how Britain alone in all the world has maintained a stable government while anarchy reigns in New York, Seattle, Paris, Beijing, Buenos Aires. When Theo debarks from the train, he passes squads of machine-gun-wielding soldiers and enormous open cages stuffed with hundreds of refugees, or "fugees," from all over the world.
Thus, in the first few minutes, Cuaron tells us all the basic things we need to know about the world Theo inhabits. That world, only twenty years and a few notches of danger removed from our own, is so heinous and doomed that the most popular product is Quietus, an assisted-suicide drug.
It is under these circumstances that Theo has a surprise reunion with his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian now leads a radical group—including associates Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Patric (Charlie Hunnam) and Miriam (Pam Ferris)—dedicated to protecting the rights of fugees. Julian has a favor to ask the well-connected Theo: to obtain safe passage for Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young fugee, to a hospital ship off the southern coast of England. She refuses to tell him why Kee is so important, but Theo finds out soon enough: Kee is pregnant, the first woman in the world to conceive in eighteen years.
From there, the movie becomes a trip through a nightmare landscape that veers between tyranny and chaos. Julian's warning to Theo and Kee—that nothing and no one is to be trusted—becomes evident quickly and remains the operant truth during their flight. Government troops are transparently the agents of oppression and torture; the first glance of a government detention center melds images of Abu Ghraib with those of Buchenwald. But the vast majority of protesters and opposition fighters prove just as murderous. Those who demur from either party line do so usually for personal gain. Occasionally, however, and when least expected, someone performs an act of courage, kindness, or self-sacrifice to speed Theo and Kee on their way. In those acts, and in the baby Kee carries, lie the film's fragile rays of hope for humanity.
Children of Men may be the most completely realized film of dystopia ever released; it is certainly the most terrifying, putting another 2006 British near-futurist movie, V for Vendetta, to abject shame. Working with a team of screenwriters to adapt P.D. James's novel, Cuaron creates a world that remains absolutely true to its own cutthroat rules. Children of Men's England is one huge battleground, with violent death exploding from every blighted forest or shattered building. Photographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designers Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland transform the rolling hills and quiet seaside towns of southern England into a vast, rotting prison camp, making the barbed-wire Manhattan of Escape from New York look gentrified.
All the performances are superb, though the film's harrowing mise-en-scene tends to draw attention away from the acting. The standout is Michael Caine as Jasper, a geriatric hippie pal of Theo's. Jasper has withdrawn successfully into his own little 1960s world of weed and Beatles music, but in the end he proves to be the bravest and most self-sacrificing of all the film's characters.
Mike Judge's Idiocracy is so wildly different in mood from Children of Men that reviewing the two in tandem seems like comparing The Killing Fields with Dumb and Dumber. But Judge's vision, in the end, is scarcely less mordant than Cuaron's. That may be why Twentieth Century Fox botched the film's release in September 2006; on Jan. 9, it became available to a wide audience for the first time, on DVD.
In Children of Men, the world nears extinction because of a lack of fertility. In Idiocracy, the world is dying from a surfeit of fertility, at least in certain quarters.
The movie's prologue is almost a lecture on eugenics; when humankind lacks natural predators, the narrator intones, the future belongs not to the fittest, but to those who reproduce the most. It then compares Trevor and Carol, smart yuppies who agonize over the decision to have a baby, with redneck Clevon, who spews his seed gleefully among a number of women both in and out of wedlock. Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butt-head, thus sets the stage for a future world comprised entirely of Beavises and Butt-heads.
In Idiocracy, the audience surrogates are Joe (Luke Wilson), an unambitious, average-guy soldier, and Rita (Maya Rudolph), a hooker whose pimp needs to make a deal with the government. Joe and Rita are forced into a one-year hibernation experiment that goes awry, leaving them in suspended animation for half a millennium. The Great Garbage Landslide of 2505 jars them awake into a world where a sports-drink conglomerate has owned the Food and Drug Administration for nearly two centuries; where Costco dispenses law degrees; and where the most popular TV program is "Ow, My Balls!" the content of which can be divined from the title.
Joe gets into trouble immediately. Language has devolved, according to the narrator, into "a combination of hillbilly, Valley Girl, inner-city slang, and various grunts." Joe's normal, everyday speech is considered "faggy," and everyone is scared of him because he lacks the bar code all citizens have tattooed on their arms. (The origin of the bar code is never explained; the populace hangs on to the remnants of its Orwellian past because it doesn't know how to do otherwise.) Street-smart Rita fares better, scamming sex-crazed johns too dumb to realize they're not getting sex for their money. But soon the results of a government-sponsored IQ test bring Joe and Rita to the White House, where President Camacho (Terry Alan Crews), a one-time pro wrestler and porn star, demands their advice as to why crops won't grow when watered with the aforementioned sports drink.
As with Beavis and Butt-head, the subtext of Idiocracy is that there is no subtext; the characters really are as stupid as they appear to be. The result is a future as cruel and dysfunctional as that of Children of Men, because it is a bread-and-circuses autocracy in which the autocrats have died out, leaving the rabble in charge. (The hallmark of the justice system is "Monday Night Rehabilitation," in which the crowd cheers as convicted felons are crushed under monster trucks.) The main excuse Idiocracy's denizens have is that, like H.G. Wells's Eloi, they're children waiting to be led. It is up to Joe—in his former life an expert shirker of all responsibility—to lead them.
Idiocracy is far from a refined cinematic experience, and it is far from perfect. Its worst flaw is its obtrusive narration, all of which except for the prologue could have been omitted. (Either Judge or Twentieth Century Fox, assuming the audience to be of Beavis-and-Butt-head mentality, didn't trust it to get the joke.) But its dystopia of a citizenry too lazy and dull-witted to solve its own problems has obvious applications to our own society. Also, the zesty fun Judge and his cast have in portraying a future ruled by morons is its own excuse. The standout moron is Frito (Dax Shepard), who is what passes for a defense attorney in his dumbed-down milieu. When Frito dances in childlike glee at the pyrotechnic spectacle of policemen blowing up his car, just like on TV, we know we're seeing a human type that has been all too prevalent throughout the ages.