Science-fiction dystopias tend to be based on the present-day’s reality, taking the least palatable aspects of our world and extending them to the bleakest extreme. There’s little point, after all, in issuing stern warnings about something that doesn’t seem particularly likely. Few unhappy futures, however, are as uncomfortably believable as the one depicted in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.
The central conceit of the film and P.D James’s source novel—global sterility that reduces the birth rate to zero—may not be particularly plausible, and indeed Cuarón, more than James, uses this apparent extinction event primarily as a justification for his 2027’s broader dystopian facets rather than a topic of interest in itself. But it’s easy to see it as a stand-in for environmental or other disasters. And the society Cuarón portrays in this context—an England of riot police and caged refugees, Abu Ghraib hoods, and ‘Jobs for the Brit’ posters—is all too credible. As US political economist Francis Fukuyama said, “[Children of Men] should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump”, and of course the arguments over civil liberties and government emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic lend it further verisimilitude.
Predictably, it wasn’t a commercial success. Even if the ambiguous ending could be seen as uplifting, what goes before is too consistently downbeat to be washed away by that climax, and the future in a film described by its director as “anti-Blade Runner” is resolutely unglamorous and unexotic. It remains the least-known of Cuarón’s later works, overshadowed by Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Gravity (2013) and Roma (2018). But while it’s not a perfect movie—in particular, it suffers from over-frequent allusions to a Christian metaphor which is never adequately developed, and which feels like an awkward leftover from James’s clearly theological novel—it’s utterly convincing. (In few films has a baby’s crying had such tremendous significance.) And while it’s impossible to ignore the polemical aspects, it also manages to work as a straightforward thriller.
In the first line of the movie, a newsreader announces that it’s “day one thousand of the Siege of Seattle.” We never learn what this conflict involves, and we’re rarely given expository background at all (“were your parents in New York when it happened?” one character asks another, and it remains undefined, yet sufficiently sinister). Cuarón and his co-writing team do a great job of explaining the context in the first few minutes, even seconds, of the movie. It’s 2027 and mankind’s last baby was born 18 years, four months, and 20 days ago; but that young man has just been murdered by a fan in Buenos Aires.
Theo (Clive Owen) learns this from the television he’s watching in a coffee shop. Soon after his exit, the café is destroyed by a bomb. He’s shaken by the close call—we can tell from his demeanour, standing there on the streets of a slightly grimier, more decrepit version of London, rubbish piled up around him—but we’re already getting the impression that none of this is unusual. Things are falling apart. “The world has collapsed—only Britain soldiers on” proclaims a propaganda announcement on a train. The realisation that humans will most likely wither away within a few decades must be fuelling some of this unrest, but although the full story’s never explicitly explained, there are hints of other factors too. “It was too late before the infertility thing happened,” Theo says later.
Still, we don’t have too long to ponder on any of this, because Cuarón’s film moves quickly. Not long after the coffee shop bombing, Theo’s kidnapped by the Fishes, an underground group fighting for immigrant rights. He once had a child himself with their leader, Julian (Julianne Moore), but the toddler died in the great flu pandemic of 2008. Now the Fishes want him to escort another woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), to England’s south coast and deliver her to the shadowy Human Project group, reputedly working on a solution to the infertility issue. As a refugee (or “fugee” in the film’s slang) Kee is officially a member of the country’s most despised class, but does she hold a secret that might return the prospect of a future to mankind?
The rest of Children of Men details Theo and Kee’s odyssey through southern England along with hippyish midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris), dodging the attentions of the authorities and revolutionaries alike. It’s often genuinely exciting, most notably in two set-pieces: a road ambush that culminates in a car chase in reverse, and later a long trek through a besieged building, with handheld camerawork and lengthy takes by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki giving the film an immersive, quasi-documentary texture.
But more than action or storyline, it’s the imagined world of Children of Men that compels.
Cuarón’s film departs from James’s novel not only in the plot (it’s similar only in rough outline) but also in the setting. The book’s childless future is only just starting to fray at the edges, with Britain still holding together rather comfortably. In the film, however, things are far worse, and we’re never allowed to forget this. While the situation isn’t directly discussed too often, there are constant indications in the background, even in the small details of the set design. Britain now has a quasi-military Department of Homeland Security; buses advertise suicide pills (Quietus) and happiness pills (Bliss); dogs appear constantly throughout the film (James referring overtly to them as child substitutes, Cuarón leaving it to us to make the connection); cults flourish; deer wander through overgrown, rain-flooded schools.
All this is presented in gloomy earth tones reminiscent of modern World War II movies (Bexhill-on-Sea has never looked so much like Stalingrad), light years away from the brilliance and smoothness of so much sci-fi, yet equally lacking in the baroque flourishes of cyberpunk. It’s simply depressing, and what’s doubly depressing is the way that in mankind’s final years, the species’ least attractive traits seem to be winning out. Jarvis Cocker’s “Running the World” over the credits makes Cuarón’s views amply clear.
The decrepitude, the sense of imminent collapse, extends to the character Theo himself; when he has to put the contents of his pockets through a metal detector we see they consist of cigarettes, whisky, and not much money. But though Theo’s very much an anti-hero, a man who’s withdrawn himself from political consciousness to bet on the greyhounds instead, we’re also left in no doubt there’s good in him and he’ll come through for Kee. Clive Owen—then a hot name after Closer (2004)—handles the grubbier, unshaven aspects of Theo well, but the transition to a man of action isn’t convincing, and it’s no surprise the actor since admitted he “… couldn’t see the character. I never really did.”
A more memorable performance, in a relatively small role, comes from a gnome-like Michael Caine as Theo’s old pal Jasper, living in the woods, growing weed and maintaining a jovial cynicism about the state of the world. Caine based his performance on John Lennon, and it shows, but he’s never just funny; indeed, one of the more moving sequences in the movie (involving the government-supplied Quietus euthanasia drug) is acted by him alone.
Ferris’s Miriam, meanwhile, is wholly believable (even if she’s lumbered with one of the movie’s few awkward lines, as nobody would actually say “as the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in” in conversation). Ashitey is given a tough job with the role of Kee, a character on whom an enormous burden of meaningfulness is placed by the screenplay, but she handles it effectively by making the young woman uncomplicated, open, honest, and almost childlike. Amongst the smaller parts, Peter Mullan stands out as Syd, an immigration officer whose friendliness belies his obvious violent potential, perhaps analogous to England himself.
All these strengths are, together, more than enough to overcome the niggling difficulty with Children of Men—its apparent indecision over the religious significance of the events it narrates. The references to Christianity and specifically to the story of the infant Jesus are too many to overlook, most glaringly a major plot revelation occurring in a barn surrounded by cattle, reinforced by many smaller touches (Theo’s name could mean “god” just as Kee’s naturally suggests she is a “key”; Syd turns up at one point in a kind of keffiyeh like a shepherd at the manger; the name of the Fishes recalls an early Christian symbol; the final scene, waiting for a boat called The Tomorrow on a misty, blue-green ocean, has a decidedly mythic quality).
And yet these don’t seem to be thought through. Kee might easily be read as the Virgin Mary, but Theo as Joseph doesn’t make much sense, and who would the Fishes represent, for example? It’s as if half a symbolic structure has been left in place while the rest was dismantled, and many critics picked up on this, even if the response was largely favourable.
As Christopher Orr wrote in The Atlantic: “While Cuarón’s changes add resonance to James’s story, they don’t offer meaning. Children of Men retains the shape of a parable, but lacks the message. Its failure is less one of plot than of something deeper, a composing idea to undergird the plot. The problem is that a world without children is clearly a metaphor, but Cuarón doesn’t quite seem to know for what. Much of his film seems disconnected from the central fact of a childless society, which for him serves as little more than an explanation for public lethargy in the face of a repressive police state.”
Roger Ebert, however, disagreed that this was an important flaw, rightly identifying the infertility crisis as a starting point for the movie rather than its principal subject (and it’s also worth noting that though its implications aren’t discussed in detail, plenty of conclusions about them can be drawn from things alluded to, such as the suicide drug). “The children-as-MacGuffin is simply a dramatic device to avoid actual politics while showing how the world is slipping away from civility and co-existence,” Ebert wrote. “The story… is secondary to the visual world we are given to regard. The action scenes seem rooted in sweat and desperation. Too many action scenes look like slick choreography, but Cuaron and Owen get the scent of fear and death.”
The film’s critical stock has, if anything, risen since its release. In 2007 it was nominated for only three Academy Awards and won none (although it did rightly pick up BAFTAs for ‘Cinematography’ and ‘Production Design’), but by 2016 it was in 13th place on a BBC list of the 21st-century’s 25 best movies! It has since gained more attention, and respect, for its apparent prescience.
It’s undoubtedly a powerful work, both despairing and hopeful, and ultimately leaving us to decide which view we favour. In one of its finest scenes, a large group of soldiers is firing on insurgents in a ruined townscape—and then they behold, for the first time in nearly two decades, something that suggests the end of the world might not be nigh after all.
They stop shooting, they fall silent, they gaze in awe. And then they start shooting again, and though there is children’s laughter on the soundtrack as the film closes, it’s not at all clear whether this is a distant memory or a renewed future.
USA • UK • JAPAN | 2006 | 109 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Alfonso Cuarón.
writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (based on the novel by P.D. James).
starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Clare-Hope Ashitey & Michael Caine.