“Children of Men” depicts our own world, run amok.
Sound & Vision, Bryan Collinsworth, Jan. 29, 2007
“Children of Men” depicts our own world, run amok.
By Bryan Collinsworth
I’ve always rolled my eyes when college students or aging activists have said they think George W. Bush is leading us down the road to fascism. Sure, he’s a disastrously incompetent leader with authoritarian leanings.
But fascism? Even at their worst, Bush and his cronies have operated largely within the constraints of the American democratic system by seeking congressional or judicial approval. And when they’ve faced sufficient domestic criticism, they beat a hasty retreat , like on the subject of warrantless wiretapping.
No, I’ve thought, while it’s certainly a frustrating time to be progressive in America, it’s inconceivable that an established, stable democracy like ours could easily transform into anything resembling a fascist state. But “Children of Men,” Alfonso Cuaron ’s spectacular new film, made me reconsider.
It conveys an unshakable, disturbing sense that the near-future political dystopia depicted in this movie felt far more familiar than it should have.
This is odd, because the central premise of “Children of Men” is pretty far-fetched. Some time next year, every last person on the planet becomes mysteriously infertile. By 2027, the year in which the story is set, all of humanity has plunged into a chaos born of the knowledge that total extinction is just a generation away.
Despite all sorts of looming disasters in the real world, this particular scenario struck me as implausible. So why was it that I caught myself, an hour after the film, feeling a little too much excitement and, yes, relief at seeing a baby cradled in a mother’s arms?
Here’s why: “Children of Men’s” sci-fi premise is in many ways just a vehicle for exploring and exploiting much more familiar fears. Cuaron doesn’t just present us with a nightmarish hypothetical situation; he uses that storyline as an excuse to take each and every trickle of unease in the modern world, follow them along their logical courses until they build into torrents, and then pour the results across the screen.
In the wake of global infertility, most of the world has imploded: We are briefly shown shots of everything from a mushroom cloud rising over Manhattan to smoke billowing from the famous Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. These images already cut to the core of our post 9/11 nightmares—but they are only the beginning.
The main action of the film is set in England. The British government’s official propaganda presents Britain as the last bastion of stability in this world of rampant terror. It has done so, however, only by resorting to draconian measures to maintain order. Armored police and German shepherds line every street, while refugees from across the war-torn globe are herded into cages and concentration camps to prevent them from overwhelming the British Isle’s relative calm.
The sense of threat from desperate immigrants is so severe that propaganda plays continuously in all public transportation systems, reminding travelers that whether “he’s my dentist,” “she’s my cousin,” or “he’s my waiter,” they’re all illegal immigrants, and must be reported and deported to maintain order. On top of this, the rhetoric of this future Britain is chock full of the kind of phrases that have become so well known to us in the last few years: All state actions are taken in the name of “Homeland Security” or spurred by a “refusal to support terror.”
“Children of Men” is no simplistic critique of authoritarianism, though. Cuaron is more than willing to show us the dire circumstances that have incited this neo-fascist state. The masses of refugees are indeed overwhelming and driven to the brink by the global chaos they have endured. Islamist militants march through the refugee camps, and gangs of leftist radicals haunt the edges of British society, playing convoluted, self-important political games within their own ranks while earnestly hoping that a well-placed bomb or two will bring renewed peace on Earth.
Bring all these elements together, and what “Children of Men” vividly shows us over the course of two hours is quite literally the sum of all our fears. Worldwide infertility may be the catalyst, but what truly frightens is the film’s vision of globalization gone as wrong as it could possibly go: a vicious clash between the world’s haves and have-nots that ultimately drags all of humanity downward into anarchy or fascism.
It’s one final twist, though, that makes this future so chillingly believable. We witness it all through the eyes of a protagonist, Theo Faron (played by Clive Owen ), who has managed to lead a strikingly mundane and conventional life in the midst of all these nightmares.
Faron wakes each day in a comfortable urban apartment with a nifty little flat panel TV that plays smarmy ads for the latest miracle drugs. (The only disconcerting thing is that the drugs aren’t Viagra or Cialis, they’re suicide pills). He strolls to work past rows of police and cages full of refugees, able to ignore it all as long as he has his daily cup of coffee. He works in a cushy white-collar office in which everyone surfs the net instead of doing work; halfheartedly looks for dates and then chats about his failures with his friends; and when his conversations turn to current events, his concern only goes as far as a few dismissive, cynical comments.
Theo has no significant urge to ask tough questions or rock boats, and it’s easy to see why: The British government doesn’t meddle in his personal affairs as long as he remains a relatively well-behaved British citizen. Instead, the state’s ruthless struggle against global upheaval takes place behind closed doors or at deportation centers far from Faron’s eyes and mind. (We have one particularly horrific glimpse of these centers late in the film, in a scene reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.)
This is ultimately what makes “Children of Men’s” portrait of a neo-fascist England seem so plausible. The story illuminates the secret to successfully perpetrating injustice in the modern world, the same secret grasped by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, Omar Al-Bashir, and, to a far lesser extent, those who plot secret prisons in Eastern Europe or at Guantanamo Bay: As long as they keep it off the televisions and comfortably distant from the consciousness of average citizens, even leaders of a relatively democratic society can get away with a hell of a lot.
Theo’s self-induced ignorance does not last. The real meat of “Children of Men” commences when he is caught up in political intrigue that plunges him into the disturbed innards of his “stable society.” But even as his life becomes unspeakably horrific, the evil around him is never anything but banal. The world is this way, Cuaron makes clear, because ordinary men and women ignore it, allow it and participate in it.
And this is the final warning of “Children of Men.” It’s a warning that applies equally to those on the right who would hide brutal experiments behind a sunny veneer; those on the left who would convince themselves that the world wants the changes they think best for it at any price, and those in the middle who would just keep their heads down and ignore it all.
The warning is this: Great global upheavals and clampdowns may indeed lurk just around the corner, and they may not need any catastrophic catalyst to set them in motion. All that’s really required is that we all act too much like normal humans. As Theo comments in one of his more cynical moments, “It was too late before the infertility thing happened.”
“Children of Men” presents an upsettingly strong case that he could be right. We must be vigilant defenders of democracy and human rights if we are to prove him wrong.