At the Worst of Times, the Worst of Us: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is, simply, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Repeat viewings never fail to overwhelm me with some of the strongest gut-level emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. I can only talk about it in superlatives: it’s a near-religious experience. One of the movies that makes me love movies.

Children of Men is set in a near-future dystopia, two decades after the last human birth. The sci-fi premise of mass infertility has only become more terrifyingly plausible in recent years, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of globally contagious diseases like SARS and Zika. A few lines of dialogue allude to a flu pandemic, but the screenplay wisely doesn’t get lost in the weeds over the origins of the crisis.

Clive Owens and P.D. James in Children of Men
Clive Owens and author P.D. James in Children of Men

Even the best science fiction sometimes can’t avoid fanciful pseudo-science that tends not to date well (q.v. the notorious “enhance” scene in Blade Runner). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and while other reproductive technologies like cloning and artificial insemination aren’t mentioned, we can assume all avenues have failed. It’s evidence of great restraint and respect for the audience’s intelligence that the origin remains unexplained. It’s beside the point.

So by the time the film opens, the harsh fact that the human race is doomed to slowly die out is a given, and has reduced the world’s societies into chaos. Great Britain remains nominally functional, but only under the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda glimpsed throughout, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is mere survival worth the price?

Children of Men
European refugees seeking asylum in the fascistic United Kingdom

Immigrants flood the only country with some semblance of stability, fleeing unspecified atrocities abroad. All we learn of the United States is of a vague catastrophe in New York City alarmingly referred to only as “it.” Immigrants are demonized as “fugis” (for “fugitives,” perhaps punning on the derogatory British slang “paki” for any and all Middle Easterners) and penned in ghettos and concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. I doubt it’s incidental that several of the fugitive voices we hear are German, causing one to wonder just what exactly may have happened in Germany, and if it may have been something we have seen before in living human memory. My German is non-existent, but if I’m not mistaken, we overhear one captive German woman bitterly complain to her guard for being locked up in a detention cell with black people. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature; at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.

It’s not usually a good sign for a movie to have five credited screenwriters, but these do extraordinary job of adapting the original novel by P.D. James (who, according to IMDB, has an uncredited cameo in the café bombed in the opening moments of the film). I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the movie is “better” than its source material, but it is certainly more visceral and emotionally affecting to a post 9/11 audience. As an adaptation, the many changes are justified and benefit the translation to a different medium and time. Most significantly, the chronology is condensed from months to days, and the relatively polite insurrectionist group The Five Fish has become a full-fledged terrorist organization called simply The Fish.

Danny Huston in Children of Men
Danny Huston as the guardian of the Ark of the Arts in Children of Men. Among the artistic achievements of humanity selected for eternal preservation: Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig

Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, without the life of wealthy ease his novel counterpart enjoys. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his initial motivation to collaborate with The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England as in the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. The Ark is a pointless quest to archive the world’s great works of art, including everything from Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, to Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig. King Crimson’s dramatic Mellotron dirge “In the Court of the Crimson King” fittingly accompanies Theo as he visits Nigel, passing into a walled city that separates the privileged elite from the working masses outside. Naomi Klein predicts the future dominance of such places in Cuarón’s short documentary “The Possibility of Hope”, apprehensive of the very near and very real future of countries closing themselves off to refugees.

Julianne Moore in Children of Men
Julianne Moore as Julian in Children of Men: “What do the police know about justice?”

Several mind-bendingly impossible tracking shots grace the film, so fluid and justified by the action that the mind barely registers a lack of cutting. There is an incredible level of detail in the art direction, but as Cuarón declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Technology has barely progressed in the decades since humanity began dying out. What’s the point of innovation in fashion, automobiles, and consumer electronics when the human race is doomed to extinction? Eerie sights include fields of burning cattle corpses (possibly due to mad cow disease, or more likely the simple fact that the agriculture system has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer healthy young people every day.

Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen in Children of Men
Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen in the ruins of a school

Children of Men may be a punishingly bleak vision of the future, but there is hope to be had. Theo is a broken man resolved to a slow death, both his own and of his species. But there is something special within him; his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) trusts him over everyone else to do the right thing when presented with a gift of hope: the first human child in two decades. Even animals are drawn to him, including dogs, kittens, and deer. His friend Jasper (Michael Caine) praises the Hindu Peace Mantra, which also appears as an epigram after the credits (over the sound of children playing), and bears repeating here:

Shantih Shantih Shantih


Must view: Daily Film Dose’s Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema, including Children of Men.

Must view: a reel of fake adverts made for the film by Foreign Office Design (via Kottke.org)

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