An Appreciation – Children of Men
The beginning of Alfonso Cuaron’s great film, Children of Men (2006), is like a cinematic wake up call, slapping us right in the face to gain our attention. We see a man in a coffee shop ordering a drink. A group of people huddle together, tensely watching a televised news broadcast. This is a world that has fallen into chaos, but while everyone clamors to see what is happening to their society, this man simply shrugs it off, grabs his drink, and starts heading out of the shop. But what he doesn’t realize is that his world is quickly shrinking, and that very soon he’ll have to make a choice to do something about it or succumb to oblivion. In one unbroken shot, we see the man walk out into the busy street, and then, all of a sudden, a large explosion erupts from the very shop he was in just moments before. The problems of humanity have caught up to him, and now he must act.
The story is set in the year 2027, but somehow Cuaron was able to create a world that seems very much of the present day. This is the director that made Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). With this movie he created an environment that seems so real, so tangible, that we tend to forget that this is essentially a futuristic sci-fi film. We don’t get the normal clichés of advanced technology here; there are no flying cars or people in strange, out of this world clothing. On the flip side, this is not a dystopia that features people in ragged costumes, living in run-down shacks and driving vehicles made up out of spare rusted metal. This is a world that is comparable to the one we currently live in, the people who inhabit it similar to those strangers we walk by frequently. But have no doubt about it, this is a chaotic vision of the future, with nearly every shot of the film feeling heavy with dread and fear, muggy and wet, as if violence can happen anywhere, to anyone, at anytime.
The downfall of social order is due to a phenomenon that the film presents but never explains. For nearly eighteen years, humans have been unable to reproduce. There is no reason given as to why mankind can no longer bear children, although suggestions of pollution, experimentation, radiation, and the like are given. But this doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that since humans can no longer have babies, they must face the very fact that their extinction is near. The opening of the film tells the story of the world’s youngest person, Baby Diego (Juan Gabriel Yacuzzi), being killed by a fan when he refused to sign an autograph. While Baby Diego’s death is lingered upon only for the opening passages of the movie, its effect is felt throughout. People hold vigils in his honor, his memory being respected even when it is well known that he was an unlikable person. But his character is important because he represents humanity’s mortality staring them straight in the eyes. As a result of this mortality, social upheaval came to be. People have taken arms against one another, and many scenes of the film resemble that of current war-torn countries. Most nations have become disarrayed, with the United Kingdom being one of the final havens of organized society. The government, in turn, has become a militarized police force, rounding up illegal immigrants and shipping them away into broken down ghettos to fend for themselves.
Walking amongst all of this is our main character, Theo Faron (Clive Owen). Theo makes for one of the best reluctant heroes I’ve seen in recent years. A former social activist, Theo left that world behind to become a drunken paper pusher, sitting behind a desk and waiting for the end to eventually come, bottle in hand. His only friend is Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), a kooky old hippie who was once a political cartoonist. Theo, a long time ago, was a person who fought for a certain belief, but threw that life away when both his wife and child left him, each under different circumstances. As an outcome, he fell into a world of malaise, and early on we see him meandering through his life almost as if he were sleepwalking. He moves past cages of refugees, ignoring their calls for help. He asks his boss if he can leave early to do his work from home, although it doesn’t seem he does much work at all. The only time he shows any sign of emotion is with Jasper, and even then he appears detached.
That all changes in a near instant when the rebel underground group known as The Fishes kidnaps him. This is when the film takes a turn and reveals its true course of action. Theo learns that his former wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), has become one of the main leaders of the Fishes, and they have come to him to ask for his help to take on a very dangerous mission. A young refugee woman by the name of Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) must be taken to the coast, where a secret group named The Human Project will take her to safety. Theo is asked to help get the transport papers necessary for this to happen. But why should Theo do this at all? Why must he risk his life to save this one person if it is all going to be over in fifty years? The answer is that Kee has become pregnant, the first known human pregnancy in almost two decades. This changes everything, not only for Theo himself, but for all mankind. Kee’s pregnancy has brought an element that Theo has not experienced in a very long time: hope. Hope that humanity can survive, go on, grow into what it was once before and bring society back into balance. Theo’s development from a man with no hope to a man willing to fight for a cause bigger than himself reminds me a lot of Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca (1942). Both start out as characters that harbor much resentment or pessimism, but once they realize what is at stake, they understand what they need to do and what it would mean to the world in general if they were to succeed. Theo follows his mission for the entire movie as the underdog, Julian being taken away from him for a second time, leaving him to care for Kee and her nurse Miriam (Pam Ferris) by himself, with the rest of The Fishes hot on their tails, wanting Kee’s baby for their own political purposes.