For all the acclaim for his other films, including a Best Director Oscar for Gravity and likely another coming for Roma later this month, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian thriller, Children of Men operates on a much higher level, both cinematically and spiritually as well as in terms of lasting importance. Set in 2027, in a world where humans have become mysteriously infertile and mass migration and catastrophic climate change have become endemic world issues, sadly, the film feels far more relevant today than the day it premiered over 12 years ago.*
I love near-future films because they are easily digested by a much wider demographic of viewers than most science fiction and because, the best ones, tie the problems of today neatly to potential outcomes that feel eerily close, creating an urgency that, say, something as abstract as rising sea levels (a few inches over a century) or rising global temperatures (1.5 degree over a century) can not. Children of Men portrays a future where the socio-political problems of developing nations pushes that crisis literally onto the door steps of the rich, developed nations, in this case England (though the UK clearly stands in for America, Europe and the rest of the fully industrialized world). Global endemics (as well as national and local crises) hit the poor first and hardest. And that’s easy for the rich and powerful to ignore. But in a globalized world, it has become increasingly easy to see where all the wealth has been accumulated, more and more possible for the disenfranchised to come knocking, looking for their fair share. Not because it’s a birthright, but because the alternative is a loss of everything. In circumstances when everyone is threatened, people cling to all they have and vilify anyone trying to share in that, even if the vilified have far less, even when there is plenty to go around.
Children of Men succeeds in typical, great film ways: smart writing, unique, sympathetic characters, an intriguing setting and unusual story, intricate sets and interesting, believable world building. And it succeeds in exceptional ways too: elaborate camera work within haunting cinematography and coordinated action sequences that are at once logistically dazzling and emotionally stirring. Ultimately a genre film, you can watch and not know you’re ingesting the politics of environmentalism, socialism and social justice or the values of Christianity until the credits roll because you are so engrossed by the story and breathtaking visual design. But it’s all there and then some. And it hardly gives you moment to breathe. Every instance of hopeful human connection is followed immediately by a desperate struggle to survive. The most obvious example of this is the famous car raid chase where Theo (Clive Owen), Julian (Julianne Moore) and crew are attacked just instants into the couple’s apparent romantic reconciliation.
This sequence is famous for its camerawork (all one shot) with incredible action and stunts balanced perfectly with emotionally gut wrenching performances from all involved. But it’s only one example of the many times the film shows the beauty of humanity in stark contrast to its frailty and corruption from one frame to the very next.
Life is precious, not one life more so than any other. Though there are good people and bad people in this film, ultimately they are all fighting for survival of the human race. Some are simply selfish and see the survival of their own specific tribe as the goal while others value all life equally. The message of which side the filmmaker takes here is not hard to decipher, but the way in which he portrays it most subtly is what makes the film inherently beautiful. Watch the animals and whom they choose sides with. Even the guard dogs are taken with Clive Owen. The kittens cling to his leg. Animals know who stands for life and who stand only for their own selfish survival.
There’s a religious aspect of Children of Men too and it’s not hard to decipher either. Hope. Redemption. Faith. All three, key themes that drive the movie forward via a nativity story of sorts that certainly leans heavy on Catholic myths and Christian symbols. Cuarón has not been shy in asserting that he leans heavily on them in the film, but he does not go so far as the P.D. James book on which the film is based, which portrays the rise of Christian values specifically over nihilistic greed and corruption. As an atheist who sees the importance of spirituality and recognizes the power of faith in the world today, I love this aspect of the film because I think it makes the film’s message all the further reaching, and therefore all the more powerful.**
(Spoiler) The fact that the character who is chosen to bring the first human life in a generation back into the world is African and a dispossessed immigrant is not a coincidence. Humans originally sprang from Africa. And in a world where the rich and powerful have taken over, where greed has driven people to the brink of extinction, what better person(s) than the meek and disenfranchised, from which humanity to be reborn for a shot at redemption? This key choice in the film links evolution and the single origin hypothesis with Christian theology and, I believe, asks both sides to look objectively at the great problems facing humanity and work together to solve them.
The lasting importance of Children of Men is not only that it is a cinematic achievement unlike any we have seen before, but that the real world problems the film portrays look less and less like science fiction and more like reality as each day passes. In politics today, most notably in the U.S. and across Europe, but in places all around the globe, there is a fear of the immigrant. As resources appear low (jobs, food, water, oil, land), there is a natural fear that there is not enough to go around (a fear that perhaps explains why 1,300 billionaires cling to 94% of the world’s wealth). So, we debate putting up walls to keep others out. We debate all the ways to keep the world divided so our single tribe can hold on to its own previous resources, as if they’ve always been ours exclusively. We turn away the other knocking at the door and make excuses as to why, relegating them to a lower class of human, ignoring the circumstances unto which they were born or how hard they have worked, not for a hand out, but for the opportunity to work for something more than that with which they were born. We build walls around our fertile gardens instead of sharing the soil even if sharing the soil would solve the problem of the wall. In a globalized world, it’s time to realize that global problems are created by global entities such as international corporations and super power nations. The problems that emerge affect the dispossessed first and foremost, and make no mistake, they will come knocking. They’re already here, in search of, not charity, but economic justice. You can only sweep billions of people under the rug for so long before that rug bulges into an unstable mountain set to crumble and bring the whole world down with it.
Ultimately though, Children of Men is a reminder of the beauty and kindness of humankind. It’s a testament of faith and a portrait of hope rising in direst of times. Despite all our differences, it believes that together, we will prevail.
*This is the first in a series revisiting classic films that appear more important today than the day they were made. If you have suggestions for other films you’d like me to revisit, please comment below.
**Quick tangent: Any person of faith would consider God to play a key role, perhaps the only role, in any (hypothetical) threat to the entire human race. Some might pass it off as judgment day, but I’d call B.S. on anyone who lets the world go to hell because a better “life” is waiting for the righteous after this one ends. If God sends tests to humans (something of a motif throughout the bible), then a worldwide epidemic such as the refugee crisis or catastrophic climate change are nothing less. It’s time for the religious leaders of the world to rise up and unite in a global effort to save the planet. We need their support, not their excuses that some better world lays in wait. Have faith in the afterlife if you want to, but that leap of faith is awful risky. If God is testing us, who are the truly righteous?