I saw Children of Men the other night, and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s easily my favorite movie of the past year.

Children of Men

The basic plot is: a numb and disillusioned ex-activist lives in London, 18 years after a sudden, unexplained worldwide epidemic of infertility. There are no children. The rest of the world is in chaos; the U.K. is held together by a brutal, authoritarian police state that rounds up and deports illegal immigrants. Through his still-activist ex-wife, he is given charge of a pregnant girl. He must get the girl to safety and her child into the hands of the possibly mythical Human Project.

This is dystopian realism at its gut-punching best. There’s never a hint of "sci fi," just a raw, heightened version of our present world. It is resonant with philosophical and spiritual themes, but the main effect is relentless, unremitting tension. I swear my ass cheeks were sore from clinching. I could have eaten charcoal and shit diamonds during one scene, a car chase in which the car … never starts. It’s just rolling down a hill, occasionally boosted by Theo (Clive Owen) jumping out and pushing. It was nigh unbearable.

And there’s an urban-warfare scene toward the end that I’ll put up against anything in Saving Private Ryan. You really have to see it to believe it. I’m a huge fan of Alfonso Cuarón, who’s part of an extraordinary young generation of skilled Latino directors, but nothing in Y Tu Mama Tambien (much less friggin’ Harry Potter) could have prepared me for this.

The reason I mention it here is that it puts some flesh and feeling on the warnings of the doomers: the peak-oil doomers, climate-change doomers, nuclear-terrorism doomers, global-virus doomers, general-malaise doomers. The techno-optimist response to, say, peak oil, is hey, when oil starts to get expensive we’ll respond in an orderly fashion and shift to something else, right? It’s not like there’ll be riots in the streets. Right? But one thing Children of Men shows to visceral effect is just how shallow civilization is. Just how quickly the veneer can be ripped away and the lawlessness and brutality let loose. They’re always closer than we know.

I remember having a tiny shiver of that feeling during the "Brooks Brothers Riots" of 2000. It was slightly comical, of course, the doughy white guys in suits "rioting," but it shut down a vote recount. How far would it have escalated? How much holds the angry white men back from real mob violence? How many economic shocks or dislocations, how much constant provocation, will push them over the line? In the developed world, particularly in the U.S., we are so comfortable and insulated. Our bland, strip-malled, suburbanized landscape looks the same everywhere, and offers the illusion that history has stopped — that time and space have collapsed into one weightless, gluttonous now. What we don’t realize is that circumstances tip over into chaos all the time. Our own history is fresh with examples, and around the world it goes on as we speak. We read about wars, unrest, and famine, see the images on television, stridently debate foreign policy, but it all has a strangely disembodied feel, as though we’re just manipulating symbols. "I think the images on TV should do this! No, this!"

Children of Men brings it home. These are yuppie Londoners, still herding around dazed, now at the mercy of organized street gangs and heavy-handed government agents. The infertility has never been explained. Some sort of genetic disease? Pollution? God’s wrath? That rich symbolic space is left open for viewers to fill, but the wistful implication at several points is that humanity ended simply because it lost hope. As one character says early on: things went to shit well before the children stopped coming.

The story traces one man’s rediscovery of hope and his fierce, almost monomaniacal efforts to hold on to it.

Though some bits of exposition are clumsily delivered and the occasional bit part goes over the top, Children of Men is the most haunting, thought-provoking, feeling-provoking movie you’re likely to see this year. I can’t shake it. It gets a five out of five star Gristmill rating. Check it out.