Children of Men is a film that makes clear political commentary. In recent times there have been more dramatic political films, but they are often very heavy-handed. Political commentary works well in dystopian or speculative fiction as we have discussed. Children of Men is a humanist work of art that helps viewers understand the world’s current political crisis through Theo Faron’s moral evolution.
Let’s recap the situation when the film begins … we are in London in the year 2027, 18 years after women became infertile. Nuclear wars have ravaged the world; this has made Africa and Afghanistan uninhabitable. A flu pandemic has wiped out a significant portion of the world’s population. Terrorism is everywhere. The environment is destroyed by pollution and toxic waste. Drugs (Quietus) used to commit suicide are a part of everyday life. The government seems Orwellian –note the posters that declare: “Only Britain Soldiers On”. People hoping for a better life try to immigrate to England and are detained in cages or internment camps that evoke the Holocaust (and Schindler’s List) and the imprisonment of Japanese citizens in the USA during the World War Two and scenes from Sarajevo.
This vision of the future created by Cuarón and the film’s production designers is so frightening because it’s so foreseeable. We have seen Blade Runner and we discussed in what ways it could be a realistic idea of the future. However, the future prophesied by Children of Men may be more terrifying because it only slightly exaggerates the present to create its dystopian world. The world of the film is not one with hover cars and replicant humans but one in which technology seems only a little more advanced than now. In 2027 society is descending into hell and it seems a lot like now. If we take Theo as an example the only aspect of life that has really progressed is apathy.
Theo Faron is noticeably indifferent in the beginning of the film. A scene that demonstrates this is the one when he gets coffee and he ignores the grief of others on hearing of the death of Baby Diego. He just doesn’t care- he won’t buy into the mass mourning. He can’t understand why people would cry for someone they didn’t know (the film’s depiction of people grief is reminiscent of the mourning of Princess Diana). He leaves just before the café is rocked by a violent explosion but again he seems little affected by the event. Theo still goes to his work at the Ministry of Energy, passing caged immigrants as he goes, but yet again it doesn’t seem to register.
To Theo, life has become meaningless and he seems unable to connect with other people. In discussions with his dearest friend Jasper about the state of the world he would rather smoke marijuana then really engage in lively debate. He just doesn’t care anymore.
What wakes Theo from his apathy from is his abduction by The Fishes. His ex-wife Julian (named for Julia from 1984) leads the group. Julian needs Theo now because she wants letters of transit for African immigrant Kee. Although Theo used to be an activist he has lost hope in any cause and he has to be paid to help. Theo gets the papers from his cousin a curator for the “Ark of the Arts” and we note that that has salvaged Michelangelo’s damaged “David” and Picasso’s “Guernica”.
Theo learns Kee is pregnant and the only place where she’ll be safe is with the “Human Project.” (Why do you think Cuarón’s decided to make women instead of men incapable of reproduction and then makes a black female immigrant — as opposed to a white male — humanity’s hope for survival?)
Theo’s decides to join Kee on her journey to board the Human Project’s ship the Tomorrow and he does this in part for self preservation at this stage. The film is as much about the fall and redemption of Theo as it is about the ruin and salvation of humanity. Theo is an anti-hero who must be shaken from his apathy to save Kee and himself. Cuarón cleverly conveys this by systematically stripping Theo of his clothes, shoes, coat and alcohol: he strips him of his ‘armour’ and they are used for good.
Critics see the film from this point as a quest across and make links to Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También”: as the Kee’s and Theo’s journey to the sea allows for a background commentary on the state of the world. As they travel Theo and Kee run into scenes and images that evoke Abu Ghraib prison, Guántanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Baghdad, Kosovo and riots in places like Los Angeles.
The moral and social chaos they encounter is shown through single takes that last three to 10 minutes. The long are not only very accomplished but they also thrust the viewers into the film’s world. We have no respite from the tension of Theo’s traumatic journey and this helps to underline the similarities between a near future and the present.
Cuarón’s dystopia is bleak but he does reveal a cautious faith in humanity in the characterisation of Theo as he comes to demonstrate man’s best attributes – compassion, self-sacrifice and hope. The film does give us a glimpse of a horrifying tomorrow but it also audaciously states that the future can still be fought and won.