What place is there for compassion in a world without a future?
Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ explores the interplay of cruelty and hopelessness by creating a future world in which human infertility has reigned supreme for eighteen years, and the remaining people are left to fight over the best bits of the cake.
The movie opens with the death of the youngest human “Baby Diego” being broadcast on TV, causing people to break down crying as their symbol of youth is lost.
The protagonist, Theo, seems mostly unaffected and leaves the London café where he watched the news not a minute too early. As he turns his back on it, the café explodes with a resounding crash and cloud of debris, leaving Theo with a sharp ringing sound in his ears while the title screen appears on black background. The first few minutes already set the tone for the rest of the film that will spiral into violence and desperation as Theo is approached by “the Fishes”, a terrorist group led by his estranged wife Julian, who’s fighting for the equal treatment of immigrants in Great Britain. She and Theo have lost their son Dylan to a flu pandemic years back, resulting in their separation and Theo’s detachment from the rest of the world. Now she offers him 5,000 pounds to get transit papers for a fugitive woman named “Kee”. Theo accepts to get the papers and to escort Kee, but what starts as a fun road trip between Theo, Julian, Kee, Fishes member Luke and midwife Miriam quickly turns dire as Julian is shot through the windshield of the car. The ringing sound is back, invoking Julian’s earlier words: “You hear that ringing in your ears, Theo? That’s the sound of the ear cells dying. Once it stops, you’ll never hear that frequency again.” The ringing becomes a constant theme throughout the film, appearing each time Theo loses someone dear to him.
The group escape to a safe house belonging to the Fishes, where Kee reveals to Theo the true reason of her need of transit papers: She’s pregnant. Having her standing amongst a bunch of cows inside a stable as she shows Theo her pregnant belly, the film draws a distinct connection to the Nativity scene (Kee later jokes about being a virgin and laughs at being able to fool Theo for a second). Kee tells Theo that Julian promised her to get her aboard a ship called “Tomorrow“ to take part in the “Human Project”, where someone might be able to figure out why Kee is fertile and save humanity.
The Fishes, now under leadership of Luke have other plans, intending to use Kee’s baby as a political facilitator to secure themselves influence and privilege.
Slowly, it becomes apparent that “Children of Men” isn’t about a world without children, but uncovering disturbing truths about human nature in the face of disaster.
“It was too late before the infertility thing happened” Theo comments, “the world was going to shit anyway”. The world without children in this case serves only to underline how futile the attempt to build a society is, if there is no future. All progress must be without meaning. Governments only aim to maintain the status quo, while people aim to get the biggest bite for the remainder of their life. This devil may care attitude is also evident in the heaps of garbage flying about the streets.
Once out of the city, Theo repeatedly passes piles of burning livestock, implying some sort of epidemic, but Great Britain still seems to be better off than most countries, resulting in a complete paranoia of immigrants.
Right at the beginning, we’re shown propaganda footage on a screen inside a London bus, a montage of contemporary TV footage from different cities burning, deserted, haunted by plagues and at war, followed by the slogan “Only Britain Soldiers On” and a warning to report “illegal immigrants”.
Theo passes some of the holding pens on his way to a friend, where immigrants are being held squished together like cattle. Later, when Theo, Miriam and Kee attempt to enter a refugee camp to get to the Human Project, the connection drawn between the refugee camps and Nazi Germany concentration camps is undeniable as people are pushed around, brought to their knees and have bags pulled over their heads.
This is further emphasised by having some of the refugees speak German. It’s also notable how many of the people inside the camp are of Arab descent, just as Syrian refugees of today are brought into camps in Europe and forced to live under inhumane conditions.
In contrast, when Theo drives to meet his cousin to get transit papers in the beginning, we’re shown a closed off area within derelict London which is reserved for the rich, much like a gated community, where people are frolicking in parks, walking their camels and listening to live orchestras. Theo’s cousin is minister of the “Ark of Arts”, a project that aims to rescue great works of art from the other countries that are torn apart by war. Theo’s cousin is depicted as living in complete luxury, waited upon for every meal, strolling through his large halls, admiring the paintings and sculptures.
“In a hundred years, who’s gonna look at all that?” Theo asks. “What makes you keep going.”
His cousin replies: “I just don’t think about it.”
Especially in light of recent events, the message and themes of “Children of Men” have gotten renewed traction. It doesn’t seem so far fetched that the Great Britain of 2027 will herd immigrants into detainment camps, as their policies of today already reveal a xenophobic, nationalist element and a complete refusal to accept refugees. The film shows excellent choice of setting, considering that Great Britain’s Colonial history renders the narrative even more meaningful by drawing on the fact that much of the country’s luxury was built upon the exploitation of other countries whose refugees they shun in the film, but whose artworks they readily pillage.
Children of men succeeds in pulling the audience completely into its desperate orbit, convincing with pointed cinematography, bleak mise en scène, and shaky-cam during action scenes that often appear to be shot in one take, with the camera following Theo through the war zone, blood spattering the lens.
It creates a poignant separation between Kee’s aides Theo and Miriam, both rendered useless and broken by infertility and the loss of children, while Kee still carries hope and future within her belly. While her baby is fought over as “the saviour”, a kind of Jesus figure, it is Kee, the Mary figure herself who holds the key to fertility.
The movie repeatedly draws on religious themes, depicting the return to faith of those in desperation.
But faith alone can’t save the world, it can only supply the hope to get through the horror.
I was inspired to write this review by the course “Beyond Star Wars” where many of the themes of this movie were discussed, so credit goes partially to Dr. Schmeink and the participants. You may find Dr. Schmeink’s work on http://larsschmeink.de/