Films set in the future have a tendency to feel dated. After all, how can a movie accurately depict the future without sorely reflecting the era in which they were made? The most astonishing thing about Children of Men is how it hasn’t aged a day since its release in 2006. Considering today’s geopolitical climate of building walls, sealing borders, and banning refugees, perhaps the film is more relevant than ever.
In the opening credits, we are given a rundown of headlines in the future: “Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle; the Muslim community demands an end to the army’s occupation of mosques; the Homeland Security bill is ratified. British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue…” The film already draws a disturbing parallel to the sociopolitical reality of today and this is before the first frame of the movie.
The film opens in a crowded café, on an audience transfixed by the “real” news: Baby Diego has died. He was 18 years old, the last person born before infertility struck the world. He earned a celebrity status for that reason alone. Theo, our presumed hero of the story, is unfazed by the news and casually orders a black coffee. We follow him as he makes his way outside where we are introduced not to a futuristic dystopia, but a sobering one. Buildings are plastered with ads, the streets are crowded with vehicles emitting plumes of smoke as they whizz by, and the world is overrun with crises happening all over the globe. Just as we are absorbed in this portrait of a society that looks strikingly familiar, the café behind Theo explodes, now the site of an apparent terrorist attack. We don’t know anything about Theo, but we know everything about the year 2027, a world where children are no longer born, a population indoctrinated by the media, and a fragile world order teetering on anarchy.
Britain stands as the last remaining country with a functioning government. Children of Men scrutinizes the cost of this stability, namely what we do in the guise of national security. Early on, we see that the streets of London are filled with detention centers for refugees (“fugees” as they are called). Countries become increasingly militarized in times of crisis. This world, in particular, is in a constant state of crisis, so to Theo this is business as usual. As for who’s responsible for the café bombing is hardly debated. It is now justification for harsher codes of conduct no matter how prejudiced in nature. You can make out posters on the walls reading, “Suspicious? Report All Illegal Immigrants,” thus, immigrants are implicated in the state of things. It’s worth noting that we don’t meet an actual immigrant character until the second act of the film.
“Poor fugees,” Jasper says, an acquaintance of Theo. “After escaping the worst atrocities, our government hunts them down like cockroaches.” Refugees are not meekly in the process of being ostracized or dehumanized. They already are, for no reason other than the fact that they’re displaced, seeking asylum, and unwanted (the film does away with subtitles, putting up a language barrier and subjecting the viewer to the pervading xenophobia). Theo may be a disillusioned bureaucrat, but his indifference is characteristic of all of us. We watch the news from the comfort of our own homes, quietly stowing real world problems to the back of our minds. It’s not on our doorstep, therefore not an actual concern. We don’t care until we have to, not before.
Theo returns to his political activist roots after he’s been recruited by the “Fishes,” a resistance group seeking to end the tyranny and propaganda of the British government. He’s persuaded to help when he discovers that an immigrant is pregnant (the film makes no illusions about the situational irony that humanity’s salvation lies in the womb of a refugee). Realizing what’s at stake, Theo is then tasked with safeguarding Kee to The Human Project – a rogue scientific organization dedicated to curing infertility. Unbeknownst to Theo, the Fishes have their own agenda, seeking to use Kee’s baby as a symbol for the masses to rally behind and overthrow the regime. It becomes clear that Kee does not have a choice in the matter of her own baby (reproductive rights, anyone?). Her body, much like her status as a citizen, is up for debate, and her womb then becomes the very battleground for the future.
The infertility premise is left unexplained, a deliberate choice on director Alfonso Cuarón’s part because he saw it as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope for humanity. Take, for example, the endless smog blanketing the country. Carbon emissions are left virtually unchecked. Whether this is because capitalist enterprises are still seeking to profit from the world’s reliance on fossil fuels despite humanity’s doom or because they have little regard about their footprint on the environment anymore, the prospects are bleak either way. This is a world that sees no point in regulation despite its literal and moral decline. Capitalism itself has no boundaries and yet, on a grassroots level, countries are tightening borders and systematically hunting down immigrants in the interest of self-preservation. But wouldn’t it benefit our survival as a species if we broke down these barriers? If diversity was a virtue we hoped to pass onto our children, then, in a world without children, I suppose such virtues are no longer necessary to uphold. Keep in mind this is the concept of a science fiction movie. What excuse do we have for acting the way we are now?
The film has quite shockingly proved its timelessness in the U.K. following the country’s economic fallout in the wake of Brexit. Interestingly enough, Cuarón intended the film to be a critique on post-9/11 America and the neoconservative politics that thrived (along with the anti-Muslim rhetoric that can no longer be reined in). Bexhill, the refugee camp at the center of the film’s pulse-pounding finale, was meant to harken back to the chilling images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Closer inspection provides a glance into the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Now, the sequence offers a harrowing glimpse at our present. As Theo and Kee are sorted into the cultural chaos of Bexhill, a sign post above them starkly reads, “Homeland Security.” Fugees are stripped of their belongings, their clothes, identification, while border agents mercilessly enforce the oppressive will of the government. One such officer gives a discriminatory look at them and says, “You fucking people disgust me.”
The film utilizes numerous artistic cues to internalize its political commentary. In order to secure Kee’s travel through the country, Theo seeks the favor of his cousin Nigel, a government minister who runs a state-sponsored program dedicated to salvaging lost art from the violent masses (the art is not stored in some museum accessible to the public and is instead used as Nigel’s personal décor). When we meet Nigel, he stands proudly beneath Michelangelo’s David, once a symbol for standing civil liberties, except the statue we see is missing the left calf, thus a broken symbol. Nigel casually mentions La Pieta, a sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the crucified body of Jesus. As Theo dines with his cousin, he is framed astutely in the distortion and suffering of Picasso’s Guernica, where in the far left corner you can just make out the image of a mother cradling her dead son. This referencing of motherly grief is externalized on a street-level in Bexhill, the camera this time focusing on an immigrant mother grieving a child taken away from her just moments ago. Cuarón’s cross-referencing of various texts serve as a haunting critique of the world we find ourselves in. But despite the layers of inter-texts embedded in the film, Cuarón’s most startling reference lies in the present.
Children of Men serves as a cautionary tale about the lack of social infrastructure, the pettiness of hedonism, and the dangers of xenophobia. Infertility is the only anxiety we do not share with the film (overpopulation is the more pressing concern) and yet, Cuarón largely prophesized the nature of things to come. Even in the film’s smaller moments Cuarón’s commentary continues to reveal itself. When Theo is reacquainted with his ex-wife, Julian, he remarks that the photo the police use of her doesn’t do her justice, to which she replies, “What do the police know about justice?” And Jasper’s mute wife, Janice, once an investigative journalist who exposed much of the British government’s injustices, was mysteriously kidnapped and tortured, rendered catatonic after the ordeal. Consider that for a moment, a public servant who was silenced for simply doing her job. Watching this film today, you have to remind yourself that this is a movie because its implications and meditations are horribly credible. Movies typically offer us an escape from reality. Cuarón, instead, plunges us deep into our own filth. Made just over a decade ago and set a decade from now, Children of Men gravely reminds us that the future might be a lot closer than we think.