I'm late to this party, and I still have not read the PD James novel yet, but I really enjoyed this film. I liked the sense of all wars being filtered through one futuristic conflict, and while it felt a little obvious at the start I thought the film managed to build up considerable power using this conceit. There were elements of IRA and ETA-esque terrorist bombings; Julian's group felt a little like those groups of animal rights extremists - paradoxically killing to save life, and with different factions within their group with different agendas and different reasons for being involved; allusions to Abu Ghraib; groups of Eastern Europeans being rounded up and herded onto buses by guards with German Shepherds (I sort of hoped for one of the guards to shout "Raus!" but that might have been too
obvious!); the Kosovo-style civilians running for cover across rubble strewn streets; planes flying past to make 'surgical strikes' at their targets etc.
I wasn't too sure whether the ending was entirely happy - I didn't really find much consolation in Cuaron's explanation of needing to become travellers rather than tie ourselves to modes of life, as symbolised by the boat 'Tomorrow'. I can understand that if they get too powerful these modes of life can become repressive and dangerous, but they can be useful in giving people a structure in which to live. The problem in the film comes because the world is in transition from one structure to the next, with an obvious rather than slow break from one to the other, as usually happens outside of a wartime situation.
In that sense the two children, Baby Diego and Kee's child represent the change. Baby Diego, despite being the youngest person in the world was also the last representative of the old world and his ironic death, killed not to make any particular statement, but just at the hands of a disgruntled autograph hunter, underlines his tragedy and shows that instead of caring for this youngest person he was turned into a freakshow, a celebrity famous for being famous, loved and hated for what he represented rather than for having any particular talent. It makes the Princess Di-style outpouring of grief for this stranger, who most would have only ever seen on television screens rather than in person, after his death seem particularly appropriate - and the more we see of the world, the more we realise how many people are being killed every day.
The infertility problem, rather than making people realise that they have to cherish the people currently alive (rather than feeling easier with the death toll because they know the birth rate will keep the population up!), seems to have had completely the opposite effect, caused major problems of genocide and made the psychological barriers between people into much more physical concrete ones. It is almost as if different factions and governments are trying to wipe out other populations before their own numbers get so low they cannot mount a major assault any more.
It is quite a bleak picture, but seems horribly apt with current events - even the visit to the world's art treasures kept in storage for the lucky few to see is a disturbing extrapolation from current practices of keeping collections locked away from general view. I'd hope that if the world was to collapse for any reason that the worlds art treasures would at least be opened up for anyone to visit and give people a last view of some of humanity's greatest creations. Instead in this 'futuristic' world, again the opposite has happened and the rulers of these societies are keeping these artefacts locked away for private pleasure and presumably with comments that they are "saving them from the anarchy of the outside world". However they can't be "protecting them for future generations" as for all they know there is not going to be any future generations, so instead they become less philanthropic and seem much more like Pharaohs, plundering their world for its most beautiful objects to adorn their pyramids - it shows how they are living in the past and also that the most powerful in this doomed society are going to be the last to feel the effects of total collapse as they have already almost hermetically sealed themselves off from the rest of the world. They might not survive any more that the rest of the world, but they'll die in comfort and style, and isn't that the most important thing?(!)
I get the impression that Kee's child however, rather than being the representative of the last of a dying society as Baby Diego was, will be the rebirth of a new generation of humanity (I guess a male baby will also have to be born at around the same time I suppose!), and the gap between one generation and the other has just been made more explicit by the infertility crisis. She'll be able to witness the old world passing from a position of never having known what it was like to live there and therefore will be able to take a more dispassionate view of the society that the characters in this film are struggling through the remnants of.
It could be thought of in religious terms as well, with instead of a flood God sending infertility to destroy human society and then funnelling all humanity back down into this child, thereby giving humanity another chance to redeem itself.
It makes the final image of Theo and Kee drifting in their boat cut off from all sight of land quite apt!
At the same time I do not feel the ending is entirely happy. The new children we hear playing over the end credits are entering a world without any older people to guide them - in the good way of not being trapped by a crumbling and frightened society run by corrupt rulers, but also in a bad way of not having anyone more experienced to turn to for advice and guidance. They will be on their own and have to figure out what to do, and one of the saddest things about the film is that is seems that humanity has been taken back to a 'year zero' point, where all the knowledge and wisdom accumulated has been completely lost and people are going to have to go back and relearn it all again, with no guarantee they will do it any differently the next time! So that is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the whole film, although I'm not sure whether the filmmakers themselves intended it to be! I assume their message was meant to be more positive at the end and suggest the possibilities rather than emphasise the loss. I suppose a case could be made that the kids couldn't mess things up worse than they already had been, but I hope a copy of the Bible isn't left lying around otherwise they could become like those kids from the Children of the Corn!
Was anyone else reminded of the ending of Dark City with Theo and Kee taking the boat through the sewers and then out of the edge of the world and into the open sea? OK, in Dark City William Hurt's character dies by being thrown out of the city into space but there does seem to be a similar sense of passing beyond the boundaries of what is known, looking back and realising what exactly it was you were part of and marvelling at how you were once in that place
I also like the way that although the film seems to be portraying a very right wing world full of ID cards and surveillance, it also directs some cynicism towards the left wingers. Whether it is Julian and her terrorist/freedom fighters seeming to give the authorities the excuse through their actions to be even more brutal in their response, or Jasper's 60s hippie living in isolation and the past which is the only way to keep his way of life and worldview intact, or Miriam's new age style, it all seems futile once reality intrudes. It seems as if the film is trying to shed itself of all these previous left wing constructs that do not seem to bear much relevance any more by showing the representatives of each branch being killed off, often without mercy (with Jasper's death being particularly ironic at the hands of the members of Julian's group). Theo seems to stand for the 'ordinary' man being surrounded and pushed from pillar to post by all these different competing ideologies, both within the left wing itself as well as the more obvious right wing dominant society.
I thought the acting was good all round but I thought the casting of Pam Ferris was a particularly nice and subversive touch. I don't know how American viewers will react but it was brilliantly shocking to see someone who played the epitome of the jolly English countrywoman in The Darling Buds of May get dragged from the bus, hooded and presumably immediately executed on the spot! Looking back it makes sense, both for the reason I talk about above and in order to whittle down the cast to just the two main protagonists for the final journey.
I guess Cuaron must be an animal lover! He has filled this film with dogs and I think it is obvious that they have not been affected by fertility problems as humanity has (which perhaps adds weight to the argument that this is a targeted, purposeful sterilisation of a religious nature).
I was reminded of the saying about dogs being like their owners. It seems that everyone has their own canine companion from Marichka and her nosey, excitable little dog pushing Theo and Kee on to the next level and Jasper's faithful companion following his master into death. Dogs are also linked to their masters in bad ways too, such as the guard dogs used to round people up and attack them. There are also constant howls and barks of dogs throughout the film, most obviously in the scene where Kee gives birth which cements the link between dog and man.
However there is also an interesting use of cats in the film as well. The use of cats twice in the film seems to be to create a sense of security - that if cats have chosen to be there this is a safe place to be. However I think there is also the suggestion that their presence suggests only a limited period of safety, not that the characters can relax and think they have finished their mission. A cat appears climbing up Theo's leg in the farmhouse after Julian is killed, and the image of it clawing its way up Theo's leg and his slight 'ouch' is followed by the scene when he overhears the conversation that makes it necessary to escape what had seemed to be their friends in the group.
Another cat appears in the Bexhill ghetto, and watches the tanks rolling by in the street below with Theo as Kee manages to briefly relax and enjoy feeding her daughter for the first time.
I also thought the Jarvis Cocker song at the end of the film was very funny! I didn't think the 'c' word was allowed to be spoken, let alone sung with anger, in a 15-rated film. Did the bbfc change their policy, let it by as a special case, or are their examiners like most of the public and don't bother to watch the end credits?