“Last one to die, please turn out the light.”
The tenth anniversary of Children Of Men came at the end of a tumultuous year in politics. You don’t have to look far on the web for thinkpieces about how the results of the Brexit referendum or the election of Donald Trump as US President have brought us closer to the grim forecast of Alfonso Cuarón’s superb dystopian thriller, but rewatching it now, the film feels a triumph of preparation rather than prescience.
Based on PD James’ novel, the film takes place in the year 2027, in the midst of a global epidemic of infertility. Britain has closed its doors to immigrants and refuses to acknowledge the status of ‘fugees’ as human beings. The day after the youngest person on Earth dies aged 18, a disillusioned bureaucrat named Theo (Clive Owen) becomes entangled in a desperate mission to save Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), an immigrant who has somehow become pregnant.
The film was released ten years ago and is set ten years from now – at this midway point, the film really holds up, thanks to the research that went into updating James’ 1992 novel for the 21st century, and the BAFTA-winning production design.
“We didn’t want to do a science fiction movie,” Cuarón told the Los Angeles Times, “We wanted to do a movie about the state of things.”
The studio’s option on the rights to James’ novel included a contractual obligation for any film adaptation to be set in Britain, so the experience of filming Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban in the UK while rewriting the script was an instructive insight into “the British psyche” for Cuarón, which is shown especially well in the establishing scenes set in London.
However, in design terms, the director’s goal was to make “the anti-Blade Runner”, referencing the present rather than creating the future. For every concept that the art department presented to him, Cuarón challenged them to show him an example of it reflected in real life. By including as much contemporary iconography as possible, the result is a film that is not so much futuristic as it is future-proof.
‘Fugees’: the role of politics
One of the most striking aspects of Children Of Men ten years on is the way in which the British government is engaged in all-out war on refugees from other countries. Politically, even in a world where no new children have been born for 18 years, over-population is still a concern because of the depressed economic reality, and ‘fugees’ as a contraction of refugees is as dehumanising a term as, say, ‘migrants’.
On Theo’s walk to work near the beginning of the film, we see that immigrants are detained in cages on the street, before they’re shipped off to an internment camp in Bexhill, where the film’s climactic scenes are set. In the absence of a rational scientific explanation for female infertility (switched from male infertility in the novel), the ‘other’ once again becomes the widely shunned scapegoat.
This sets up high stakes for Kee too. She’s hiding out with the Fishes, a group of religious militants who perform terrorist attacks in protest against government policy towards immigrants, as in the opening Fleet Street bomb attack that nearly finishes Theo in the opening tracking shot. The Fishes don’t believe that the government would acknowledge an immigrant as the mother of the first child in almost two decades.
The Fishes are led by Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo’s estranged wife, who wants to get Kee to the Human Project, a scientific group of activists overseas, and enlists her ex’s help for his government connections. When they first abduct Theo, he’s taken to a room wallpapered with ‘old’ newspapers. These all had to be created from scratch by the production team, and watching in 2017, headlines like ‘Boats Of Tears’ depicting immigrants at sea are horribly familiar.
Cuarón elaborated upon this representation in The Possibility Of Hope, which he reportedly commissioned himself for a special two-disc DVD of the film, after being disappointed by the initial bare bones disc in Woolworths (he’s a man after our hearts, that Alfonso Cuarón). Supported by input from academics, the short documentary posits that global warming and the impact of capitalism will lead to political conditions like those portrayed in the film, in which the infertility crisis serves as a metaphor for human impotence in the face of an environmental and economic decline that may be irreversible.
When Julian is assassinated at the behest of Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a more radical member of the Fishes who wants to use Kee’s baby as a political tool in their revolution, Theo resolves to take Kee and her midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) to the Human Project by himself. He doesn’t dare to hope, but he definitely doesn’t trust the insurgents or the establishment either.
‘Pull my finger’: the role of pop culture
The only representative of the British government that we meet in the film is Nigel (Danny Huston), Theo’s cousin. His role in the story is to get transit papers for Theo and Kee, but his job is to maintain a state-sponsored gallery of salvaged art, a seemingly futile mission that speaks to the role of pop culture in making this dystopia recognisable.
He runs the so-called Ark of the Arts, where works by Pablo Picasso and Banksy are displayed alongside one another inside Battersea Power Station. As a cheeky detail, a giant inflatable pig is tethered outside, as on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. We also see the statue of David, peglegged by a metal rod after it was apparently damaged before it could be rescued. As Theo asks Nigel why he preserves these works when no one will be around to enjoy them in another hundred years and he responds that he just doesn’t think about that, the visual metaphor of the crutch is a good one in this hall of recovered artworks.
A more pertinent site of pop culture in the film’s dystopia is the home of Theo’s friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an ageing hippy and retired journalist who lives in the country and cares for his catatonic wife. When Theo comes to visit as a respite from the misery in the city, Jasper regales him with bawdy topical jokes that are probably more than a decade old at the time the film is set, and even does the old ‘pull my finger’ joke, more for his own amusement than anybody else’s. He listens to The Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday and enthuses about Lennon and McCartney to Kee later on.
Going by his age in the script, 75-year-old Jasper would have been born in the 1950s, and from his rural hideaway, he carries the cultural cache of the 20th century forward into a world that has moved on. Though they’re not dwelt upon, the political cartoons and newspaper cuttings (again, created from scratch by the production team) are likely as important to him as Picasso’s Guernica is to Nigel.
Though Children Of Men is characterised as a grim film, many of the more optimistic cinematic visions of the future fail to imagine that any culture between the 20th century and now will endure for long, save for the odd clichéd line about not being in Kansas any more, or using a Beastie Boys track to defeat an alien fleet. Here, it’s significant that society has stalled and entertainment falls to curators rather than creators.
For another example, look at the technology in the film. Some of the initial concept art for the film included hovercars, which Cuarón firmly rejected. There are different models of cars in the film compared to what was actually around in 2006, but they definitely don’t look any more advanced. In the absence of new developments, the prevalent pop culture and design are all that have endured in the future.
Baby Diego: the role of media and communications
More relevantly, communications have stalled too. It’s as if contact between people has been severed, in a way that has consequences for the drama as well as establishing the dystopia. If you’ve noticed how Facebook and Instagram are primarily engines for your friends to post pictures of their children and young relatives, it makes sense that it’s not really the fixture here that it is in our 2017.
Instead, in a world without children, morale is low, schools lay deserted and dilapidated and there’s a mass market suicide treatment that appeals to people’s comfort needs by making the prospect of ending it all look marketable. In a world where entertainment and all of the lovely geeky stuff we cover on this site has gone away, all that’s left is the news and the adverts.
There’s far more to the film’s pointed use of news tactics than the much celebrated tracking shots by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, intended to echo footage captured in warzones. In addition to the newspaper cuttings, our introduction to the film is a news report about the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest man alive. It’s the only part of the film that tells us more than it shows, but the use of ‘Baby Diego’ as an honorific throughout the report and the Princess Diana-levels of national mourning that follows the news is very telling indeed.
Apparently, the circumstances of Diego’s death, aged ’18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes’, came when he was stabbed by a fan for refusing to give an autograph. In a very short space of time, we learn that Baby Diego was a reluctant celebrity and that BCC has already moved on by naming the new youngest person alive.
This detail is incidental in the grand scheme of things, but the recognisable rolling news culture is disturbing when that is shown to be the only major means of communication that’s still going. There has been much consternation about how the news has somehow gotten worse over the last 12 months, but imagine if the news was all you got. What effect would that have on social life and communications?
Significantly, much of the film’s conflict comes out of what is not communicated. Cynically, Theo only agrees to help for a large sum of money and doesn’t find out that Kee is pregnant until after Julian is dead. The government’s antipathy towards immigrants is what leads Luke and the Fishes to keep Kee’s pregnancy a secret and take reckless action in trying to recover her from Theo. And yet, when Kee’s newborn baby is finally revealed in the midst of a warzone, there’s an immediate, albeit momentary ceasefire as the combatants are overawed.
The characters might not always be communicating with one another, but this is a film that constantly communicates with the audience, more than any of the aforementioned visual references can surmise. There’s palpable civil unrest all the way through the film, but the background detail keeps grabbing your attention and referencing the present as Cuarón intended. Most notably, we see graffiti early that references the Sun‘s election day front page from 1992, the year the novel was published: “Last one to die, turn off the light.” In a world where the news is the only shared cultural cache, there’s not a lot of positivity.
Speaking of communication, it proved a bit difficult for Universal to market a film as nuanced as Children Of Men. The uplifting trailer was scored to Sigur Rós’ Hoppípolla, and looked significantly more like a thriller about discovering how Kee became pregnant than the film actually was: “One man will fight for our future” is about as generic a tagline as you can imagine. In the United States, the film opened on Christmas Day, which led some critics to observe that it was a modern Nativity story in their largely positive reviews, but its un-festive tone didn’t lend itself to box office success.
But more significantly, it really holds up to repeat viewings and we’d go so far as to call it a modern classic. Through its visual representations of culture and communications, the world of Children Of Men is chillingly recognisable, not because things have gotten so bad as they are here, but because it feels as if they still might. The calendar for this most understated of cinematic apocalypses is the only thing that contradicts it, but the film’s resounding success is in building that world and then acknowledging the possibility of hope for humanity yet.