‘It is like things are now, but worse’

Alfonso Cuarón’s apocalyptic drama Children of Men may be set in 2027, but it is self-consciously 'about today'.

Patrick Hayes

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What would the world be like if conflicts couldn’t be resolved in the name of future generations? How would citizens across the globe react when threatened by total annihilation?

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is an apocalyptic vision of the world in 2027, where mankind is facing extinction because of global infertility. With the world literally falling apart, waves of immigrants pour into a relatively safe Britain only to be stuck in giant internment camps. London is a city ravaged by bombs and pollution, where it is illegal to avoid fertility tests and the government dishes out free suicide pills. Soon after the assassination of the world’s youngest citizen, 18-year-old ‘baby Diego’, Theo (Clive Owen), a political activist turned civil servant, is abducted by a guerrilla group called the Fishes, led by Theo’s ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). Theo is reluctantly drawn into a mission to smuggle a young woman out of Britain to the mysterious ‘human project’, a group of scientists trying to save mankind. Though nobody seems sure they actually exist, they are the last hope for the survival of man.

Cuarón’s thought-experiment amplifies our contemporary iconic images of suffering and projects them into a dystopian future. They are all there; from the Abu Ghraib poses to (unexplained) smouldering pyres of cattle and Diana-esque outpourings of grief over the death of baby Diego. With the number of terrorist bombs erupting around London, you would expect the horrific ‘everyman’ burn masks – now symbolic of 7/7 – to appear en masse. But surprisingly they don’t.

At the start of the film, we are introduced to Theo trundling through the gritty London streets of 2027 – where the only real technological development seems to be animated advertising space, largely displaying government propaganda: ‘only Britain solders on’. Theo has understandably turned to drink to blot out memories of his only son who died in a flu pandemic, heavy debts and the experience of keeping down a tedious office job in a world where art is considered worthless and DIY euthanasia kits are handed out over the counter.

Theo’s only consolation is going to a hideaway house in the woods for spliffs and metaphysical banters with aging hippy Jasper, played by Michael Caine, who effortlessly breathes just enough humanity into the role to avoid caricature. Returning to London in heavily-armoured transport through tight immigration checks after one such visit, Theo is abducted by the renegade Fishes, who are fighting for equal rights for persecuted immigrants.

Through force of circumstance, Theo is thrown onto a rollercoaster ride of events that leads him to become the trusted guardian of the first pregnant woman in decades. And Cuarón ensures that you’re strapped in the ride alongside him, body and soul.

Through nightmarish hairsbreadth escapes and Theo jump-starting old bangers down muddy slopes with no shoes on, to the Tarkovsky-esque sequence in an abandoned primary school, Cuarón cannot but captivate with his poetic imagery and masterful blend of tension permeated with a surprising sense of humour. In a romantic and humorous moment, Julian challenges Theo to a game of ping-pong ball kissing that they had perfected in happier times.

Unstrapping body and soul upon leaving the cinema, however, the mind kicks in. It is heartening to see Theo’s hardened cynicism dissolve into blind faith in the mysterious ‘human project’ – and seeing Clive Owen as the Hemingway-esque hero he was born to play – but Theo’s faith is always more religious than grounded in any kind of rationality.

With the notable exception of the thawing of smoking bans in pubs, Cuarón recognises that the government’s reaction to any future crisis is likely to be greater authoritarian measures. But he is equally disillusioned with those who may choose to rebel, portraying the Fishes as Machiavellian and blinded by infighting. Perhaps most disturbingly, Cuarón chooses to present those most likely to resist – the immigrants – largely as simple, mumbling gypsies. My East European friend, who was watching the film with me, thought it incredulous that Romania’s greatest actress Oana Pellea was reduced to playing a cheap stereotype.

Cuarón has said that he wanted to make a film that was ‘about today’ and he deliberately used familiar imagery. He did not feel the need to create futuristic film sets because he had enough real images ‘from Iraq, Palestine, from Bosnia, from Somalia, from Northern Ireland’ (1). Owen sees the film’s themes of mass immigration, terrorism, the environment and infertility as ‘things that we are scared and concerned and worried about now’, with the film turning them into a more critical reality. ‘It is like things are now, but worse’, says Owen. So if Children of Men is a vision of today as much as a vision of the future, Cuarón seems to have a rather bleak vision of both. Rather than locating any possibility of a resolution to this imagined conflict within society, Cuaron chooses instead to bottle out and locate the salvation of humanity in an idyllic utopia apart from the real world. How sad.

(1) Movie imagines world gone wrong, BBC, 20 September 2006

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