“Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.” Psalm 90:3
A truly fascinating film, Children of Men is an unusual spin on the dystopian genre: mirroring the Nativity story in “a world without children’s voices”. The year is 2027 and the world has gone to shit: for a mysterious and inexplicable reason, the world’s women have become barren and no child has been born for over eighteen years. Unlike in many other films, there is no single apocalyptic event that threatens mankind; there is only the more frightening prospect of extinction by infertility: the world is to end, as T. S. Eliot might say “not with a bang, but a whimper”.
But the movie itself opens with a bang. The protagonist, Theo, witnesses a terrorist bombing following a news report detailing the stabbing of the world’s youngest person, the last person to be born. There is very little exposition of the setting in which the film is placed but for some news reports:
Newsreader: Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle.
Newsreader: The Muslim community demands an end to the Army’s occupation of mosques.
Newsreader: The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning. Our lead story.
Later, another news report shows the state of the rest of the world and the collapse of (apparently) all other societies. As a result, millions of refugees have flooded Britain, which has become a police state. For me, one of the best things about Children of Men is that there is a refreshingly small amount of exposition. Nothing of the world situation or the reasons behind the infertility is revealed, unlike in other movies in which the viewers are given a priviliged position, told information that the movie’s characters do not know. I feel this enables the viewer a greater deal of connection and empathy with the characters. Director Alfonso Cuarón says in an interview with the Seattle Times:
“There’s a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations. Cinema has become now a medium — well a lot of mainstream, and even indie sometimes — it’s become now what I call a medium for lazy readers. It’s illustrated stories. You can close your eyes and you can follow the movie. What’s the point of seeing the movie? Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I’m very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema.”
The film centres on Theo’s journey to get the first pregnant woman in eighteen years, a refugee named Kee, to safety, facing danger both from the government and the activist movement intending to use her baby for political reasons. The journey takes them to a refugee ghetto reminiscent of Schindler’s List and into a firefight which freezes at the sound of the baby’s cry. Without giving the ending away, it is possible to say that, consistent with the rest of the film, it departs from mainstream film and does not have a definitive ending which gives the audience closure. Instead, Cuarón says that he “wanted the end to be a glimpse of a possibility of hope, for the audience to invest their own sense of hope into that ending”.
The theme of hope is developed along with the parallels to the Nativity story: Theo as the protector (but not father) escorting the mother and the child for which the world is waiting on a perilous journey. This mystical religious sense is highlighted by contributions to the soundtrack by Eastern Orthodox composer John Taverner. In addition, the film contains several elements of social criticism: including depiction of extreme anti-immigrant sentiments, human rights abuse, totalitarian government. The use of newsreel footage is particularly effective, as it draws parallels with contemporary society and acts as a warning: referencing detention camps such as Guantanamo, the War on Terror, the PATRIOT Act, etc… The round-up of the refugees is reminiscent of Nazi images (such as Schindler’s List mentioned before) but the idea of allowing the government to take such radical measures in response to crises resonates with a post 9/11 audience: “It shows what people can become when the government orchestrates their fears for its own advantage” says commentator Richard Blake.
The visual aspects of the film are particularly appealing: namely its lengthy single-shot sequences. One apparently single-shot scene goes for over seven minutes and is set in the middle of a fierce urban battle. Although it seems like a single shot, scenes like these were actually filmed in several parts and stitched together using CGI. However, they are still extraordinarily effective, and according to the director, notoriously difficult to film. The visuals are wonderful and the decision not to make the future terribly futuristic makes the film look not too much different from our own world. Another visual aspect is the pervading bleakness throughout the film’s urban settings, originally in East London and then in the refugees’ ghetto. Here, as in the other visual aspects, special effects were used and to much greater effect than they normally are. Whereas most action films use special effects as a technological crutch, often as a trick to distract the audience from a lacklustre plot, Children of Men utilizes them excellently, in a way that it is not obvious they are being used at all. Colin Covert of Star Tribune says: “In most sci-fi epics, special effects substitute for story. Here they seamlessly advance it”.
Children of Men is a most effective film, combining an refreshingly unconventional approach to the dystopian futurist genre with themes of both social criticism and hope. Plot, acting, cinematography and soundtrack are all excellent. A compelling and emotionally powerful film. 4.5 stars.
An effective unofficial video synopsis of the film, with Muse‘s “Apocalypse Please“: