At the End of History: Why Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 Dystopian Masterpiece Children of Men Haunts the Present Moment

By Jacobson, Gavin | New Statesman (1996), July 24, 2020 | Go to article overview

At the End of History: Why Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 Dystopian Masterpiece Children of Men Haunts the Present Moment


Jacobson, Gavin, New Statesman (1996)


"As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd what happens in a world without children's voices." I thought of these lines from Alfonso Cuaron's film Children of Men in the days after the coronavirus pandemic sent Britain into lockdown. There's a primary school across the road from where I live in East Sussex, which, before 23 March, came to life every day in a verbal free-for-all of innocent yelps and shrieks. Now it stands silent.

More than face masks and evening death tolls, empty streets or planeless skies, it is this muted scene that has deepened my sense of the crisis, and evoked Cuaron's dystopian tale of human failure.

Adapted from the 1992 novel by PD James, Cuaron's film was a commercial flop when it was released in 2006. Admired by critics, it cost $7601 to make but grossed less than $7om at the box office. Overlooked for major awards at the Oscars, and underpromoted by its studio, Universal, Children of Men seemed destined to languish in the cinematic netherworld.

But the film has since become the cultural exemplum of apocalypse, a singularly bleak imagining of our collective demise. In 2016, international critics ranked it 13th in the BBC's 100 greatest films of the 21st century. The American film critic J Hoberman described it in 2018 as a "21st-century classic". Alongside the writings of JG Ballard, the film has become a cardinal citation in the time of coronavirus.

It is set in England in 2027, when an unknown catastrophe has rendered humanity infertile. The planet is in a state of collapse and the youngest person on Earth, we are told from TV reports, has just died at the age of 18. Britain exists as a semi-stable authoritarian state, the last remaining holdout that attracts migrants fleeing plagues and nuclear devastation in their home countries. But they arrive to a hostile environment of xenophobia and state-sponsored paranoia. Immigrants and refugees ("Fugees") are demonised, hunted down "like cockroaches", as one character puts it, and incarcerated in huge internment camps on the coast.

London is a grim prospect of terrorist bombings and security checkpoints; of militarised spaces, filthy streets and police with snarling German shepherds straining at their leashes. Large telescreens hang on the sides of buses and buildings, across which scroll warnings about immigrants and demands for people to take fertility tests.

Unlike the neon-flushed cityscapes of Blade Runner, Cuaron's capital is more like the "Unreal City" of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, a place in which people stumble in "the brown fog of a winter noon", neither dead nor living. On set, Cuaron insisted, "We're not creating; we're referencing." There are no gadgets or techno-punk settings in Children of Men, only allusions to the colonised lands and war zones of Palestine, Iraq, Northern Ireland and the Balkans.

Trudging through this ruin is the film's anti-hero, Theo Faron (played by Clive Owen). A former activist and a now dejected bureaucrat, Theo is haunted by the death of his son from a flu pandemic in 2008. Early in the film, his ex-partner Julian (Julianne Moore) convinces him to help her underground cell of revolutionaries obtain transit papers for a young woman called Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). Taken to the countryside, Kee--a Fugee--reveals to Theo that she is pregnant, and they take flight together in a desperate chase to reach a secret fertility research group called the Human Project.

Breathtaking cinematography is one reason for the film's enduring popularity. Rendered in washed-out palettes of grey, it was shot on handheld cameras, which lends the story propulsive energy and realism. The film is also famous for its single long takes. Cuaron was inspired by the 20th-century film theorist Andre Bazin, for whom fast editing diminishes a scene "from something real into something imaginary".

Two extended action sequences in particular --a car chase in which Julian is fatally shot (four minutes, seven seconds), and when Theo dodges gunfire while running through Bexhill refugee camp (six minutes, 30 seconds)--are two of the most electrifying moments in modern cinema. …

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