Movies That Everyone Should See: “Children of Men”

What would the world look like without hope?


“Children of Men” opens with a bang.


The movie opens with Theo Faron (Clive Owen) purchasing a coffee in a coffee shop. The crowd there is fixated on the tv screen, watching the news that “Baby Diego”, now 18 years old, the youngest person on the planet, the last baby born on earth… Has been stabbed in an encounter with a fan and has died.

As Theo heads out of the shop and walks a ways down the street, a bomb explodes behind him, destroying the shop he just exited.

Welcome to the world of “Children of Men”. Infertility has plagued the planet for almost 20 years. As a result, the current population has lost hope. There’s no new generations coming up behind, there’s no future to work towards… What’s the point? The human race is literally running out of time. Going through the motions.

Religious cults are pervasive. Bulldozers plow the streets of wreckage. Refugees are kept in cages, while people pray at wailing walls. It’s a despondent existence.

On the train Theo takes, the over-the-seat tvs play a montage of riots, famous landmarks aflame, and end of the world portents. As a mob of angry people throw rocks at the passing train, the commercial discloses its message. The other nations of the world are in disarray…

“Only Britain Soldiers On.”

And that’s what life seems to have boiled down to in “Children of Men”, “Soldiering On”. There aren’t many rational ways to deal without hope. Theo’s friend Jasper (Michael Caine) spends his time breeding marijuana hybrids like “Strawberry cough”. His cousin Nigel, a Government Minister, openly admits he lives in denial.

His ex-wife (or estranged wife, at least), Julian (Julianne Moore), has taken up with a terrorist organization known as “The Fishes”. The Fishes are fighting for human rights for immigrants and refugees. Along with being detained in roadside cages, the government has set up interment camps, where refugees are starving and being shot with little provocation. It’s a violation of basic human rights, under the guise of protecting the country’s citizens and their resources.

Julian and the Fishes kidnap Theo and ask him for his help… He’s to ask his cousin for papers in order to enable the movement of a young female refugee… Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). In turn, he’ll be handsomely paid.

Theo complies.

His involvement with the Fishes has brought him back into contact Julian. They begin to have fun together for the first time in years… Just prior to the infertility, the couple lost a child of their own to the flu. Their rekindled spark, along with a technicality in the papers he was able to obtain (the girl needs to be accompanied) wind up drawing Theo into the Fishes’ mission to escort the girl to safety.

But along their journey, the car they’re travelling in is ambushed. A rebel band blockades the road and attacks their vehicle, resulting in a shocking death. The group is forced to a safe house to regroup. It’s there that Theo learns the reason why the girl is so important.

Kee is pregnant.

What should be a miraculous occurrence is actually a dangerous situation. The government would want the child for their own political purposes. Perhaps they would suppress news of the birth altogether. It wouldn’t take much to imagine them conducting medical experiments on the girl. The Fishes, far from wanting to protect her, want to use the baby as a rallying cry for their revolution. They feel that the fact Kee is a refugee will inspire a refugee uprising.

Thus, Kee’s pregnancy is a perilous proposition. There’s a possibility of safety… a rumored “Human Project” – a place of safety in the Azores. In order to get there, though, Kee would need to reach the shore, find a boat, and make it safely to the rendezvous point – an offshore buoy.

Theo, once he grasps Kee’s importance, becomes her shepherd and guardian. He sacrifices his own safety in order to get her to the rendezvous. It’s a mission that will bring them through the middle of a war zone, and risk the lives of everyone he loves, but he knows the importance of the situation… The baby – the only baby on earth in almost two decades – needs to get to safety.

Director Alfonso Cuarón creates an incredible world for us in this film. It’s gritty and despondent… bleak. It’s almost a post apocalyptic world, without having had the apocalypse. It’s the people that are barren, not the landscapes. The fact that they’re bereft of hope permeates every aspect of the film.

Cuarón’s direction enriches the story. The film is famous for its lengthy, continuous takes, the longest of which is reportedly some seven and a half minutes long. It’s actually a bit of an illusion, as many of the famous shots are composites, seamed together digitally in order to give the impression of a single take. Nonetheless it’s impressive, and it makes for a relentless viewing experience. You’re never given respite from the action. It’s also still an incredible technical challenge. In order to film the scene where Kee and the Fishes drive into the ambush in one take, for example, a special rig was built atop the car, the car’s windshield was designed to be removable, the front seats tilted out-of-the-way, and four people rode on the roof of the moving vehicle in order to film.

But it’s not just the shooting style that makes the direction so notable. Cuarón also manages to create a realistic, depressing, hopeless film world, most notably in the shelled out, urban ruin of Bexhill. He creates an insane sense of realism with the opening terrorist bombing, and later in the small theatre warfare in the Bexhill streets. Throughout, his sets, settings, and special effects consistently strengthen the bleak tone of the film, they compliment the movies themes as well as propelling the narrative.

There’s a number of thoughts to be mined from “Children of Men”. Many people will point to it as a political commentary, given the militarism, terrorism and security issues. Others may view the film as a modern nativity allegory.

But to me, it’s all about hope.

The theme of hope is central to “Children of Men”. Sometimes the most effective way to illustrate something is to portray its utter absence. The world of “Children of Men” is a hopeless one, and without hope, the bonds of society have broken. People no longer treat each other with respect, it’s every man for himself. Suicide, murder, war, theft, totalitarianism, terrorism… the predominance of such evils due to the lack of hope in “Children of Men” suggests that it’s only through the presence of hope in the world today that such conditions are kept in check to the extent they are. The future, the promise of a better tomorrow, the world we’re building for future generations, that’s the great human motivator. Not survival, or wealth, or any personal self-satisfaction.

There is a power inherent in the hope that we’re all working towards something better over time. That our lives have improved through history, and that the betterment will continue into the future. That common belief is a powerful bond that motivates so many aspects of society. Without it, the world would surely, and quickly, crumble.

And even amongst the wreckage and the war and the wickedness of “Children of Men”, the fact that there IS a child born in this film symbolizes that even in the darkest times, amidst the deepest despair, there is always the possibility of a miracle. Of rebirth, resuscitation, renewal and redemption.

Cuarón has created a masterpiece of a film here. It’s bleak and powerful and thrilling to watch. Gripping. And through it runs an unmistakable message about the power of hope and the impact that it has on human life. It’s impossible not to be engrossed by watching it, and impossible not be moved by having seen it.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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