Upon first seeing a preview for Children of Men, I was immediately struck by the gender-specific language in the title. As it turns out, the use of the word “men” is quite appropriate (not to mention being snappier than, say, “Children of Humankind”). Children of Men is ostensibly about real children — or rather the world’s lack thereof. But the spawn of men we see depicted in this film embody the worst excesses typically associated with masculinity: war, brutality and the abuse of power.
Children is the work of director Alfonso Cuarón, whose Y Tu Mamá También was another masterful exploration of gender. Here Cuarón offers us a shockingly realistic portrayal of a world on the brink.
It is the year 2027, and no human child has been born for nearly two decades. Though this universal infertility is commonly held as the stimulus behind decades of violence and civil unrest, protagonist Theo (Clive Owen) has another theory. In a candid talk with his eccentric father figure (played by Michael Caine), Theo confesses his view that we were headed down this path anyway, that the abrupt end of human reproduction was just the final nail in a coffin built from war and greed. The current state of England, the world’s last standing civilization and the setting for the film, offers little to refute this grim assessment.
As in 2005’s V for Vendetta, the England of Children of Men has become a vicious police state, enforced by the hyper-vigilant department of “Homeland Security.” Also like V, this portrayal of totalitarian rule becomes a powerful vehicle for criticizing modern American policies, both domestic and foreign. In bleak shots layered with fog and grime, we see masses of starving immigrants pressed in behind chain fences, held at bay by snarling German Shepherds. Later, a Guantanamo-like refugee camp shows us rows of cells filled with hooded, half-naked detainees.
High above the tumult, a small minority of wealthy elites distract themselves with the remnants of high culture, washing down their anti-depressants with expensive wine. Theo asks his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), one of these lucky few, how he gets by knowing that the end is nigh. “I don’t think about it,” Nigel replies.
Theo tries not to think about it either, drowning out the death rattles of the world with cheap scotch. This ex-activist is given a new cause, however, when his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) charges him with an unlikely mission: protect the world’s only pregnant woman.
Julian is the leader of the Fishes, a people’s revolutionary movement dismissed as terrorists by the British government. The Fishes need to get Kee, the pregnant girl (played by newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey), to the Human Project, a mysterious and possibly mythical group of the world’s greatest scientists.
Theo and Kee’s journey through mid-apocalyptic England becomes a kind of pilgrimage across the shattered landscape of humanity. From refugee camps to civil war zones, the pair is alternately aided and confronted with the greed, hate, courage and compassion of strangers. Owen breathes new life into the familiar grizzled, reluctant hero, and Ashitey is superb as the defiant and terrified Kee.
One of the film’s greatest accomplishments is that it manages to communicate the grim state of the world almost entirely through props. While Children allows itself one or two moments of superfluous exposition, we come to understand the horrors of the last twenty years primarily through the visual language of the street. Newspaper clippings, advertisements, tattoos and graffiti unveil a dystopian vision both strange and frighteningly familiar. Shaky, hand-held cinematography completes an experience of profoundly unsettling realism.
In its brutal authenticity, Children of Men offers us an important reminder: though we tend to dismiss anarchy, tyranny and civil war as problems of the third world, true chaos recognizes no borders.