Film Diary: Children of Men And Dystopia

In the third of installment of our Film Diary series, Olivia deconstructs Children of Men (2006), using its themes and visual imagery to discuss the role of dystopian stories in modern times

Since time in memorial humanity has weaved tales of other worlds, lands full of phantasmagoria far removed from the monotony of the everyday. And yet from the core of these sweeping tales has risen the sub-genre of dystopia, a dark reflection of modern times often overlapping with the more harrowing themes of science fiction. Given what our country emerged from this past January, it is more evident than ever that we live in a time of great fear. We look around and we see distance. We look around and we still see masks. It’s no mystery why the audiences still crave that siren call of dystopia. 

Dystopian worlds are in some sense inherently removed from the audience. The issues of said societies are artful reconstructions of our own, with our struggles and joys and tears taking on new meaning in the text. But there is always that separation of allegory, the infinitesimal line between the story’s adaptation of reality and reality itself. And yet, director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 sci-fi/thriller Children of Men manages to nearly obliterate this line entirely.

The film is set in 2027 London, after a multinational societal collapse which occurred in the wake of an abrupt case of mass  infertility on a worldwide scale. Our protagonist Theo is a jaded bureaucrat, burdened both by personal loss and collective disillusionment. 

The film evokes a profound sense of intimacy which is grounded in both its tone and visual imagery. It is not the contrived upset of overpowering violin swells but instead the quiet melancholia of an idle and empty playground—a disenchantment conveyed in silence and absence. What’s most telling about Cuarón’s dystopia is there are no aliens, robots, or eldritch monsters. This is a sci-fi movie in which the only threat we face is ourselves. Aside from the null birth rate each character is caught in the grips of a human engineered sorrow.

Given all I’ve said, it will no doubt fail to surprise you that there are many who consider Children of Men a dour affair. But when you peel back the layers I think there’s something more. Films are really just capsules of audiovisual conversation between those behind the camera and those sat in the hushed darkness of the theater. It is on the blank slate of that darkness that I believe the best films scrawl not one definitive message, but all manner of things for you, the viewer, to do with as you will. So today, I’d like to examine just a few of the things Children of Men said to me. If it wasn’t obvious already there will be spoilers—so why not go and watch it right now?

The primary narrative sees Theo attempt to guide Kee, a young African refugee, to safety, as she is miraculously carrying the first live human fetus to be conceived in generations. First off, consider the seamless world-building demonstrated in Theo’s daily commute to work: on London streets, pedestrians are beset upon by policemen with savage dogs, dogs whose gnashing teeth urge Theo along past the cages of refugees clamoring to seek safe asylum in what is apparently the last vestige of stable society left. Detainment camps are commonplace. Immigration is forbidden. 

Children of Men—a film made in 2006—still functions as an eerie visual echo of our time; it’s as if 2021 and 2027 are inwardly facing mirrors standing opposite one another, projecting fractals of our lives within the other as the complex pattern stretches into infinity. Dystopia often feels foreign, and yet Cuarón’s vision of a failed state seems so intimately entwined with our own ongoing national struggle. It is our cultural climate in extremis.

Towards the middle of the film Kee’s nursemaid, a former schoolteacher, says “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.” Though our society thankfully still enjoys the fruits of fertility, these words really stuck with me, and today I see them in a bit of a different light. I’m always heartened to see even the incredibly young becoming change-makers, but something is undeniably lost when children’s voices are forced to morph and bear the weight of conviction required of activists so early in life. Children are naturally heralded as the hopes of the future, and yet how often now they are asked to contend with the sins, the fears, and failure of adults.

Perhaps the most provocative scene of the film comes during the falling action. Following some successive long takes, we find Theo and Kee hunkered down in the midst of a war torn refugee detainment zone, but as the newborn begins to cry, its sniffles steadily outweigh the sporadic gunshots in the background. 

The chaos which has followed this duo and the audience throughout the film finally stops, with gunshots giving way to silence. In the middle of a war zone all is still as our protagonists slowly make their ways through droves of people: refugees, bystanders and soldiers armed to the teeth are all frozen, looking on in awe, kneeling in prayer, or reaching out in reverence toward the garbled cries of the newborn child. It is a brief interlude, as a stray shot quickly causes the fighting to resume. And yet, one can’t help but be deeply moved, for it feels as if we’ve witnessed a miracle.

One thing I staunchly admire about Cuarón’s approach to this film is his respect for the agency of his audience. Despite the inherent intrigue of this dystopian premise Cuarón resists the temptation to create a narrative mystery box. There is no secret lore and no explanation for how society arrived at this state of displacement. Best of all, the film doesn’t tell you what to make of its questions—questions of faith and chance and purpose—but it does tell you one thing underneath it all: life is beautiful, and life will endure. 

Of course, these were just my takes on the film, and yes I’m well aware I may sound like that one raving english teacher we’ve all had at one point or another, always too quick to overreach. Do forgive a wistful, sleep deprived student for going on as I have. For me,  Children of Men is, above all, a celebration of the miracle of life, and I think we all might need a little bit of that right now. Cuarón created something both dourly enchanting and utterly hopeful. If you’d like to join me in this very emotional liminal space, get a few blankets, hunker down with some popcorn, and get ready to let yourself feel something that is not quite joy.

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