Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian masterpiece explores themes of hope and faith in the face of overwhelming futility and despair — valuable lessons for any crisis stricken society.
Very few films capture the zeitgeist of their time so accurately. Even fewer films capture the zeitgeist of a time almost two decades later. In 2006, the release of Children of Men captured the paranoiac political sensibility of the early 2000s: post 9/11; peak Iraq War; the revelation of Abu Ghraib; the 7/7 bombings. Re-watching it now in 2023, this film from 17 years ago feels so boldly insightful on our world today.
The reason Children of Men resonates strongly after the COVID-19 pandemic (not just COVID but also the climate crisis, ISIS, the refugee crisis, Brexit, Donald Trump, widespread political polarisation, Russian invasion of Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis) is the universality of its vision. The film is unflinching, ruthless even, in its depiction of humanity’s fate; a hellish and delirious world where the rule is destruction and xenophobia, a world where human survival comes at the cost of our own humanity…
Adapted from P.D James’ 1992 novel of the same name, Children of Men is set in the Britain of 2027. Worldwide infertility has caused severe economic depression and society has turned into a kind of free for all. All other countries having collapsed, Britain is the only nation left standing due to the rise of an authoritarian, despotic government. Refugees the world over flee here, only to find the army waiting to arrest and imprison them in mercilessly disgusting camps, which are somewhat similar to the numerous migrant detention centres across the world today.
The government, though, isn’t so good at keeping everyone in line. A rebel group, the Fishes, kidnaps disgruntled civil servant Theo (Clive Owen in a career-best performance). The Fishes are led by Theo’s ex-partner (Julianne Moore) who he hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years after they lost their 2-year-old to an eerily COVID-like flu outbreak.
Theo is tasked with helping refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey who pursued this role on her gap year) reach a utopian group on the Portuguese coast, The Human Project, who research how to solve infertility. Kee has a supremely important secret: she holds the key to humanity’s future.
At first Theo is hesitant. He is not a hero; he is misanthropic, semi-alcoholic and basically just tired of it all. He is dressed in a 2012 Olympics hoody, a symbol of Britain’s former glory. But something comes over him and he rises to the task. The film doesn’t explain to us Theo’s change of heart. Neither are we told how this global infertility came about.
It is in this lack of narrative exposition where the plot’s brilliance lies; it has the beauty of a Hemingway story, in which it is up to us to join the dots with our limited knowledge. The film demands an analytic, questioning gaze of its audience. Combine this with the film’s spectacularly quickly paced tracking shots which it is now famous for, and it is not possible to just passively perceive the film.
This style has its roots in the cinematic vision of director Alfonso Cuarón who said: “There’s a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations […] It’s become now what I call a medium for lazy readers […] Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I’m very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema.”
Cuarón also described the film as ‘the anti-Blade Runner,’ reflecting the film’s mundane conception of future life as opposed to Blade Runner’s hyperbolic style. Gone are the hypersonic flight craft, futuristic skyscrapers and alien darkness. Why distract with all that? This is not what the film is about, which at its core is a story of humanity. Any predictions of the future are grounded, honest and stark. We see a kid glued to a video game screen, unable to register his father and uncle around him. We see billboards advertising suicide pills. Cuarón instructed his team to make the sets look more like Mexico. What he meant is he wanted a rundown, ugly, drained Britain, reflecting its unhealthy social climate.
“Children of Men uses a dystopian setting to analyse the ills of our world today, and that is why it is so resonant in the post-COVID, populist era of climate breakdown and growing inequality.”
Despite this portrayal of a dark world, Children of Men isn’t an espousal of pessimism, and importantly in 2022, this is what we should take from it. Theo and Kee’s world is full of horror — the Fishes casually murder Jasper (Michael Caine) and betray their leader, and soldiers raze down whole communities in single strokes. But Theo and Kee still find meaning in human connection, hope in the constructed communities of the camp, and joy in the birth of her baby. Later, in the film’s best scene, the army cease fire, all bowing their heads to witness the birth of this baby — the first in 18 years. Some even make a sign of the cross. They are dazed, amazed and humbled. Maybe Theo was right earlier in the film; the Fishes should have made Kee’s pregnancy public. Its raw power — almost miracle like — had the potential to change the hearts of an army so repressive, totalitarian and wicked. Are we also in need of some sort of miracle today?
These scenes are shown to us in a distinctly Alfonso Cuarón vernacular. They are sleek, continuous and never boring. The film also contains arguably the greatest set of single-shot sequences ever done in cinema. Though made with the aid of CGI, the absolute audacity to carry out such a task is a testament to the team’s dedication to produce a film of profundity in not just content but form also. Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki finely set himself up for Birdman’s ground-breaking single-shot style.
There is no outright message to the film. It is not as if we are being warned of what will come of humanity. Rather, Children of Men uses a dystopian setting to analyse the ills of our world today, and that is why it is so resonant in the post-COVID, populist era of climate breakdown and growing inequality. It will undoubtedly resonate in all crisis-stricken societies for years to come.
At the core of the film is hope and faith — if Theo can do it, so can we. It is a resolutely optimistic film, one that revives your faith in humanity. And in these unstable and testing times, films like these are exactly what we need.