At the center of Alfonso Cuarón’s harsh, sometimes powerful dystopian thriller Children of Men is a premise of stunning force that speaks directly to the malaise of our post-everything age. Very loosely adapted from a nearly prophetic 1992 novel by P. D. James, the film proposes a world in which, for reasons unknown, babies are no longer being born.
Set in 2027, the story opens with television coverage of a public tragedy incalculably more shattering the death of Diana or even the 9/11 attacks: A young man, a media celebrity for no other reason than that he was the last baby born and the youngest human being on the planet, has been killed. The television coverage of this harbinger of the extinction of the human race is one of the most haunting icons of hopelessness I can remember from any film.
It is a truism that every childbirth is a miracle. Children of Men sets that truism in sharp relief, envisioning a world in which a single ordinary conception, pregnancy and childbirth seems almost as miraculous — and portentous — as a virgin birth.
Remarkably, James envisioned this world some 15 years ago, long before the depopulation of Europe was a major topic of conversation among pundits and culture critics. Whatever else Cuarón does or doesn’t do, the nightmarish prescience of James’s premise runs through Children of Men like an icy finger.
In a world descending into chaos, Britain has contrived to maintain a semblance of civilization under a totalitarian government that polices its borders with brutal efficiency, at once evoking contemporary debates over immigration and military prisons. (In a bit of heavy-handed topical color-coding, the book’s “State Security Police” has been replaced in the film with a “Homeland Security” department.) Government-distributed suicide kits are advertised on television.
The film gets rolling with a proverbial literal bang as a terrorist bomb strikes a quiet London street just half a block from Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned former political activist who now sticks his neck out for nobody. Not long afterward, Theo is abruptly snatched off the street by masked members of a dissident group called the Fishes. The same terrorists responsible for the bombing?
No, says the Fishes’ leader, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), here Theo’s ex-wife. (The Fishes gave up violence “after Liverpool,” Julian says.) The kidnapping was simply to deliver a message: Julian wants Theo to use his government ties (his cousin is a high-ranking official) to help them acquire nearly unobtainable transit papers to get a young African girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, Beyond the Gates) out of the country.
If the Fishes weren’t responsible for the bomb, who was? Theo’s friend Jasper (Michael Caine), here a reclusive anti-establishment relic with weaknesses for lame jokes and specialty strains of pot, offers the movie’s best guess: “Every time one of our politicians is in trouble, a bomb goes off.”
Okay, government bad. This, though, doesn’t mean that the Fishes are to be trusted, at least all of them. Trust seems to be an elusive commodity. When Theo asks Julian why she came to him for the transit papers rather than seeking them another way, she answers, “I trust you.” Later, Kee tells Theo in a moment of crisis that Julian instructed her to “trust only you.”
There is no way to discuss the film without touching on Kee’s dangerous secret, which is that she is wondrously, inexplicably pregnant. Julian wants to spirit Kee out of Britain to a secretive group called the Human Project, apparently a scientific think tank that may or may not exist. Theo suggests going public with Kee’s baby, but the Fishes reject this: Kee is a “fugee” (short for refugee, but pronounced like Fuji), and, given the government’s draconian policy on fugees, they would never acknowledge a fugee as the mother of the first human baby in 18 years, since that would be admitting that fugees are human.
Several questions pose themselves at this point. Why is the Human Project under such deep cover? It’s not like their goals are controversial or something, like the Manhattan Project. They’re trying to save humanity from extinction. That’s about as universal as it gets. You’d think they’d be everyone’s favorite charity and any government’s top funding priority.
Are Britain’s dictators really so far gone that they would deliberately suppress a ray of hope for mankind’s survival on the grounds of the mother’s nationality? Surely, the business about the government not wanting to admit the fugees’ “humanity” can’t be meant literally, can it? The movie can’t really be asking us to accept that a mere two decades from now, the actual biological humanity of non-British people could be a point of serious dispute? But if not, surely the immediate crisis of the propogation of the species trumps all political concerns, even for fascist regimes. We aren’t talking about space-race nationalism here, and anyway, even in the 1950s we were pretty clear the Commies were human.
For that matter, is there no way two decades from now to get the word out on something like this even if a totalitarian regime wants to suppress it? Maybe in 2027 the British government controls the media, but surely technology has passed the tipping point where mass communication can really be totally controlled.
What makes the political questions all the more pressing is that Children of Men is ultimately at least as interested in the politics of oppression and violent resistance as in its story about global sterility and the birth of a child. Some critics have gone so far as to describe Kee’s pregnancy as a MacGuffin, but that’s not really accurate. It would be more helpful to say that the fertility problem elements and the political elements haven’t really been successfully integrated in such a way that they are both necessary to the same story.
James, an Anglican, has described her novel as a “Christian fable.” Cuarón has openly acknowledged that he wasn’t interested in the religious dimension of the book, which he didn’t even read. “The P. D. James book is almost like a look at Christianity, and that wasn’t my interest,” the director told Filmmaker magazine. “I didn’t want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes but I wasn’t interested in dealing with Dogma.”
Presumably by “spiritual archetypes” Cuarón had in mind primarily echoes of the Nativity story. Theo must take the miraculously pregnant Kee on a cross-country trek, ultimately to give birth wherever he can find a place for her. (There’s a scene in a barn that echoes the stable at Bethlehem, although the baby isn’t born there. Even the flip-flops Theo is obliged to wear may be a wink to his Joseph-figure status.) There are clear parallels to the adoration of the shepherds and magi (probably the film’s most powerful sequence) and the flight into Egypt.
The substantial Christian element of James’s story, though, has been gutted. Believing characters like Julian and Luke have been entirely reimagined, and there is no longer anything remotely Christian about the Fishes. On the other hand, Cuarón apparently doesn’t mind touching on the religious lunatic fringe, which Theo refers to and which we see briefly in the film. (To be fair, signs of faith aren’t totally lacking in the film. Christian iconography appears in a scene toward the end in which Theo and Kee enjoy a brief respite from their flight, and while the repeated use of “Jesus Christ” in reaction to Kee’s baby is merely a profane double-entendre, the fugee who starts to say the Hail Mary really means it, as do the soldiers who cross themselves and even drop to their knees.)
Also omitted from the film are James’s explorations of the moral and emotional consequences of the childless world and the coming extinction of humanity. In James’s story, women deprived of maternity turn to infant-substitutes of various types. Dolls of various ages have become a hot commodity, and are welcomed with pseudo-birth mummery, and dispatched when broken with ceremonial burying in sacred ground. Cats and dogs are dressed up like children, and there are clergy willing to administer pseudo-baptisms on pets. The relevance of James’s bang-on critique of the banalities of post-human culture will continue long after Cuarón’s topical allusions to Abu Ghraib and the like have become patently dated.
While the themes of sterility and fertility do give the film a certain pro-life force (in the broad sense of the term), Cuarón softens and subverts the book’s more rigorous pro-life themes. The film’s government-distributed suicide kits represent a considerable weakening of the book’s coercive mass suicide/euthanasia/murder rituals. Then there’s the complete inversion of a selfish character’s consignment of an inconvenient spouse to the death ritual. In the film, this act becomes a loving and merciful choice by a caring spouse. This is obviously problematic in a way that goes beyond complaints about fidelity to source material.
Despite its shortcomings and drawbacks, Children of Men succeeds as a downbeat dystopian thriller with some intriguing themes, a film that treats sterility and the miracle of life in unexpected ways. “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson wrote, “how would men believe and adore.” Of course Children of Men can’t suspend the miracle of birth for a thousand years, or even a hundred, but the principle is the same.
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An excellent review as always, Mr. Greydanus. One note though on your response to the attitude that the Fishes have about whether or not fugees as human. You wrote:Are Britain’s dictators really so far gone that they would deliberately suppress a ray of hope for mankind’s survival on the grounds of the mother’s nationality? Surely, the business about the government not wanting to admit the fugees’ “humanity” can’t be meant literally, can it? The movie can’t really be asking us to accept that a mere two decades from now, the actual biological humanity of non-British people could be a point of serious dispute? But if not, surely the immediate crisis of the propagation of the species trumps all political concerns, even for fascist regimes. We aren’t talking about space-race nationalism here, and anyway, even in the 1950s we were pretty clear the Commies were human.
I believe that even though “fugees” are considered to be a lesser race by the government in story’s setting, their humanity is never in question. The Fish are ultra left-wing political activists/terrorists, and as such, just like extremists in real life, they have a tendency to overinflate the “importance of their struggle.” This includes taking a genuine miscarriage of injustice, the denial of civil rights to immigrants, and blowing it out of proportion into a fight against the “pigs.”
In a nutshell, the Fish, like many protesters, are whiners who try to make their goals seem far more noble then they actually are, and the best way to bring supporters to your cause is to convince people that your enemy wants to destroy everything you hold sacred, including your humanity.
Keep up the good work in your reviews.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.