I'm not a huge fan of it, to be honest. Yes, I realise it was Oscar-nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (as well as for cinematography and film editing), but for me there's something unsatisfactory about it.
It's a near-future SF British dystopia movie, based on the P.D. James novel and in no way reminding its audience of the previous year's V for Vendetta adaptation. Ahem. (I couldn't stop wondering if Bexhill was a V for Vendetta reference. What's the name of that story's concentration camp? Oh, it's Larkhill.) Anyway, the human race has stopped producing babies. Women can't get pregnant. Society is falling apart, the government has become crushingly authoritarian and essentially we've become a species without hope.
This is realised brilliantly, but stupidly. Cuaron uses a documentary, newsreel style that makes visual reference to Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay detention camp and The Maze. Horrors are seen at arm's length, which sometimes falls flat (e.g. our heroes trying to escape in a car that won't start) but is sometimes shocking (e.g. when someone gets dragged off a bus). This appalling near-future Britain (2027) looks all too convincing. The police, the thugs, the Mexican-inspired slum-like London streets (but still completely recognisable)... it's a scary, scary world and you'll be glad you don't live there.
It looks fantastic, but of course in a horrible way.
It's very different from the novel, though, and the changes make anti-sense. It's just borrowing horrible things from the real world with no thought as to how they fit together. Cuaron's dystopia, for instance, turns the UK into a virulently immigrant-bashing police state, with all foreigners being illegal and hence carted off to the worst imaginable refugee camps. Why? I'm all for the sentiment being expressed, yes, but what's it doing in this film? This dystopia's problem is a shortage of people! The original novel has foreign workers being lured into the country and then exploited, which makes more sense. Admittedly this dystopia should be suffering from a shortage of children, not of working-age adults, but even getting this far requires analysis of the socioeconomic situation to which the film's actively hostile.
This was deliberate from Cuaron. To quote him: "There's a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations."
What's going on in the government? What are these terrorist groups actually trying to achieve? What's happening to old people, given that the world's facing the worst imaginable demographic time bomb? (Again, to learn the answer, read the novel.) What exactly are our heroes are trying to flee to? What exactly are their reasons for trying to flee Britain? (Admittedly the place is a hellhole and I'd probably be trying to flee from there too, but no reasons for anything are articulated and there's certainly no suggestion that anywhere else is better.) What's the situation in other countries? We can assume it's bad, but we know no more. "The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on." The novel's main character happens to be the cousin of the dictator of England, who's an important character, but there's nothing like that in the film. Any examination of politics has been excised... and so on.
Satire has been removed. Intelligence has been removed. Cuaron's just showing us a horrible world and going "look, it's horrible." He does it brilliantly, because he's a talented filmmaker, but what he's saying is a mess. The government's reaction to a catastrophic population crash is to impose draconian restrictions on the easy, obvious way to increase the population.
I'm not saying that ALL intelligence has been removed, of course. That would be silly. However if something that makes sense has been replaced with something that doesn't, I think it's reasonable to suggest that there's been an acceptance of some stupidity. Mind you, that said, I don't mind so much the film's blanket of ignorance about the Human Project. We know bugger all about it beyond the name and the fact that our heroes are trying to get there, for reasons which they don't communicate to us. That's not such a problem, though. It's merely another example of the film's hostility to giving the audience information. In itself, I don't mind characters doing things that might easily be self-destructive. The ending, for instance, is deliberately ambiguous and it's up to the audience to decide what they think the odds are of that being (for instance) a rogue pirate ship that's going to rape, kill, eat and/or sell into slavery everyone that crosses their path.
Then there's Clive Owen. I don't hate Clive Owen, but here I don't really get much from him. The character's emotional journey, what he wants, what drives him... nope, sorry. I still don't know why his character makes his choices. He emotes a few times and the script makes it clear that he's been quietly scarred for years by the loss of his wife and child, but even so he's a hole at the heart of the film.
That's the stuff I didn't like, but other parts are great. It has themes. (It's about what people do in the face of a non-future. Everything's going to end. Mankind and human civilisation will be gone in about eighty years time. How do they respond to that? Hope? Faith? That art collector who simply "doesn't think about it"?) There are Biblical references. I love the viciousness with which it's bashing anti-immigrant politics. I enjoy the even-handed savagery of its portrayal of all sides in the conflict, from the Terrorists Of Ill-Defined Motivation to the police state. "I bet it was the government. Every time one of our politicians is in trouble, a bomb explodes." For all of its lack of interest in exploring its world and how it came to be, the film's bloody brilliant at making it seem so real that you want to lock your doors and think hard about who you vote for. The horrors are all the worse for feeling so plausible. It's comparable with Saving Private Ryan for reinventing the idea of the cinematic battle scene and making you see it with new eyes. The film isn't trying to make you think, but it's masterful in how it makes you walk these mean streets and breathe their polluted air.
It also has Michael Caine as a 21st century hippy, basing his performance on John Lennon. I wanted him to have a bigger role, but it's any Caine at all is always good.
It's a cinematic achievement. It's doing what SF's always done, which is to use its tale of the future to say things about the real world of the present, often very loudly. It's bleak and sly. The tears and public flowers for Baby Diego, for instance, made me think of the similar displays for Lady Diana. It makes you feel ashamed and dirty. Its world is merely an exaggeration of ours, often stolen directly, rather than something made of whole cloth. It's impressive... but I don't think it's intellectually coherent.