Children of Men (2006)
Written by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
It’s been approximately ten years since I sat down to watch Children of Men, the film I put as my favorite film of the last decade, the 00s. A decade later, with a thousand plus more movies watched, I can see the cracks in the picture better now, but it still holds up as a significant technical achievement and vision of a very potential future on the horizon. Since Children of Men first came out, we have had global tumult including, but not limited to, the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which have been frightening signifiers as to the direction our planet is taking. Climate change has worsened, which lead to an influx of refugees and creates the very circumstances under which Children of Men’s future is born. All we are missing is the sudden, unexplained infertility.
The year is 2027, and after eighteen years of global infertility, humanity is contemplating the end of itself. Home suicide kits are advertised as one peaceful way out. Others, like Theo Faron, have resigned themselves to misanthropy and the drudgery of daily life, a march into the end. His life is disrupted with the return of his estranged wife, Julian. She has joined with the Fishes, a resistance movement intent on protecting refugees from the brutality of the U.K. government. Julian informs Theo they have a woman, Kee, that is pregnant, and they need to rendezvous with the legendary Human Project. It’s never been proven if the Human Project, a scientific outfit devoted to solving the infertility problem, exists or not, but they see this as their last hope. It ends up falling on Julian to escort Kee into the heart of darkness to deliver her and her child into what may ultimately save humanity.
The situation the film drops us into is a profoundly difficult one to contemplate. Culturally we see children as signifiers or hope, the inevitable victory that will happen someday in the distant future. Cuarón has stated how much he detests character exposition to explain the backstory, so there are many elements of this world that the audience is expected to extrapolate from details around the scenes. I personally find that type of worldbuilding more immersive, and it cuts past the plot beats and gets right to the characters and the themes. Cuarón is so deft with the camera that he communicates two decades of history on a single train ride from the London city center to the country or in a car ride from the outer edges of the city to the aristocratic center.
There is a concerted effort to show how all factions in this bleak and hopeless world have compromised principles for maintaining or gaining power. Theo visits his wealthy cousin, a high-ranking government official who is hoarding the world’s art under the auspices of creating a protective “ark.” When Theo asks why he gathers all these artifacts knowing that in a hundred years, no one will be around to even see them, his cousin responds with a smile, “I just don’t think about it.” The Fishes quickly succumb to the desire of usurping the U.K. government when they learn about a child being born. They see the child as a potential tool for propaganda against the torture of refugees. While their sentiments are noble, they see no problem in executing anyone that gets in the way of their agenda, even innocent bystanders who are the very refugees they claim to want to liberate.
Cuarón was influenced by the writings of Slavoj Zizek in the pre-production stages as the details of the script were worked out, and you can clearly see the philosopher’s influence on the final product to the extent that this is an excellent introduction into Zizek’s ideas. Zizek himself has commented on the realism of the picture, saying that Children of Men is a film that doesn’t posit an alternate future but merely heightens the circumstances of our own time.
Zizek goes on to say that infertility in the film is a metaphor for our current lack of historical meaninglessness. This is the idea that one of the reasons for the blanket of cultural ennui seen through the suicide rates of youth or explosions of violence in a multitude of ways is because we are intentionally positioned to not think about our place in an ongoing historical narrative. This is a powerful tool used by corporations and governments to displace people, keep them from thinking critically. We’re constantly inundated with messages that our primary focus should be simply to feel good. Think of the last Coke or Apple ad you saw. Consume and be happy. What has fallen by the wayside is the contemplation of broad existential concepts such as Justice and Equality. Language has been distorted, so that precise political labels are thrown around completely without justification or understanding that those terms are defining.
This is the horror of late-stage capitalism played out on screen. History is distorted into patriotic nationalism, manufactured to give the populace the New Age sense of feeling good and never guilty about our history. One of the tenents of potential reparations to the descendants of slaves would be that the multi-century practice of slavery would be thoroughly taught in schools. This is something the German government decided was a necessity when it came to atoning culturally for the Holocaust. When CNN does its periodic questioning of diner customers in “Trump country,” they always spit out resentful answers when asked about the ongoing refugee concentration camps on America’s southern border. One patron, I recall, said defiantly that he would not be made to feel guilty about what was happening to the refugees. Gore Vidal summed it up when he said, “We are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” Or paraphrased more accurately now, “We learn nothing because to remember would be to confront ourselves and our crimes.”
Children of Men has proven to be a woefully prophetic film, a prophesy I am sure the filmmakers would have preferred remained in the realm of fiction. As with all great science fiction, it is more reflective of our present than any timeline we may go down. The core message of the picture is that even amid despair when it feels like an apocalypse, whether it be material or spiritual, is occurring, we must find objects of hope to cling to. When we are unmoored from a sense of what has come before and cannot imagine anything that could happen after, we will indeed be defeated by not having a light to follow. Here’s hoping that in another decade, we will have learned, and the world of Children of Men will be a distant memory.