Children of Men (2006) Director: Alfonso Cuarón
“I can’t really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can’t remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what’s left to hope for?”
Ever since it came out in 2006 I have loved Children of Men. Like Blade Runner before it (despite being somewhat of an anti-Blade Runner), every single scene in Children of Men is beautifully crafted with long, realist world-building shots forcing the audience wonder if this brave new world is just around the corner from our present-day. Are we embarking upon a renewed era of nationalistic fervor and international recklessness? In Children of Men, we are taken on a wild adventure back to the most elemental form of civilization –the birth of a new generation. What happens when people are suddenly no longer fertile? The story for the film is based upon the 1992 novel The Children of Men by P.D. James.
The year is 2027 (in the novel it is 2021, the year in which I write this review) and the world has devolved into a dystopian nightmare. England is run by a barely functional government, soldiers march everywhere, a cloud of grey-ness hangs in the air, trash is piled up in the streets, and illegal immigrants are brutally hunted down like dogs as they pour into the country fleeing chaos in their native lands. Fear and paranoia runs rampant throughout the streets –but the greatest despair of all is that humans have simply stopped biologically producing babies. Why? Nobody knows but it has been a long 18 years of mass infertility. The absence of a future for humanity causes widespread looting and violence, in a word, mob mentality. We first meet our protagonist Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a cynical government bureaucrat and former activist who is estranged from his rebel wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) following their son’s death in a 2008 pandemic. One subtle note about Theo: he is beloved by dogs and cats everywhere he goes, perhaps a humanizing touch for our jaded, reluctant hero. In a world devoid of children, humanity doubly embraces its pet animals. At any rate, we first see Theo standing in a cafe watching news reports that the youngest person on earth was killed for refusing to grant an autograph. As he walks out onto the garbage-ridden streets of London a bomb suddenly explodes behind him and when he arrives at work, his colleagues are all emotionally distraught at the death of “Baby Diego.” In one of my favorite scenes early in the film, Theo visits his cousin who runs an art department, salvaging classic works of art from the degradation of the masses (we see a mostly complete statue of David standing and also Picasso’s “Guernica”).
While he is secretly reconnected with his ex-wife, Theo becomes entangled in a wild and risky plot to secure a young refugee or “fugee” transit papers from the government in exchange for money. Her name is Kee, or the “key” to the future (Clare-Hope Ashitey) but Theo soon discovers that Kee is in fact pregnant -an extraordinary anomaly. He realizes the truth: Julian was trying to get Kee safe passage to a secretive group called The Human Project so her baby can thrive away from the British police state, meanwhile there is turmoil within Julian’s own organization and she is assassinated. With nowhere left to turn, and few trustworthy allies, we travel along with Theo, Kee and her midwife from brutally intense scenes to brief moments of tranquility. They find temporary refuge at the forested home of a pot-smoking friend of Theo named Jasper and his invalid wife (Michael Caine based his show-stealing performance as Jasper on his friendship with the late John Lennon). However, violent rebels are chasing Theo and they hatch a far-fetched plot to escape to the coast via a “fugee” prison camp. Once there, Kee delivers her baby girl in a dilapidated upper flat amidst a violent uprising of refugees. In the middle of the chaos, and still being hunted by the rebels, Theo and Kee manage to escape in a dingy upon a foggy sea as a hazy, blinking beacon can be seen in the distance. Out here where the future is anything but certain, Theo dies of a bullet wound and Kee is saved by the boat “The Tomorrow” of The Human Project. The end leaves us with a sense of hope –humanity needs babies to inspire hope in life (as the credits roll we hear the innocent sounds of children playing).
In Children of Men we witness some of the finest cinematography of the 21st century. As is often the case, the camera rarely cuts during extended shots, but also the camera wanders away from our protagonist as we see gritty, realist scenes of this futuristic world –imprisoned refugees, homeless peasants, graffiti lined corridors, a mother embracing her dead son in homage to La Pieta (in fact classical artwork is often alluded to in scenes of hopeless people on the streets). The future of humanity depends upon some self-sacrificial form of heroism -Theo suddenly has hope once again after learning of a refugee’s surprise pregnancy. Instead of dying an ignoble death by government sponsored “Quietus” euthanasia (as so many others choose to do) Theo dies a hero’s death. In this grim world of the future, death is not the chief concern of life, but rather birth. Without birth our great art, religions, and civilization itself all crumble away.