In the wake of a major migrant crisis, authoritarian politicians rise to power as regimes are challenged and toppled on a seemingly weekly basis. Fear rules the day as people struggle to get by, all the while the hand of government squeezes tighter and tighter as more and more democratic norms and fundamental human rights are waived in the name of protecting the country from the demonized “other.”
I am not describing the world in 2017. I am describing Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, Children of Men. But I may as well be describing 2017 for as similar as the world depicted in the film seems to be to ours.
This film was released in 2006.
I love this movie for a myriad of reasons, no list of which would be complete without a mention of its outstanding cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki is one of our greatest living practitioners of the craft, and his work here made me a fan for life. Conversation around the film often tends to focus on the immaculately staged one-take sequences, such as the five-minute car ride that captured the sense of utter chaos inside a car as everything around them begins to go wrong, and the twelve-minute crawl through an active warzone that is as dizzying as it is dazzling in its craft. But even in the small moments, Lubezki’s camera shines and gives us some truly gripping imagery. The industrial rot mise-en-scene of the film is enhanced by Lubezki’s dedication to soft, muted lighting that teeters on the brink of desaturation. A cloud lingers over the entire film, even the indoor scenes where one would expect less grey lighting. It’s haunting, and drains the film of so much joy and warmth, placing the audience right in the mind of Clive Owen’s perpetually downtrodden Theo.
This is a film that has been running through my head basically since the first time I saw it, but it always flares up in conjunction with worrying world events. Every story I read about a far-right politician rising to prominence on an anti-immigrant platform sends this movie’s images rushing through my mind. Sure, the exact situation at play in this film – the global infertility pandemic that has resulted in no children being born in over 18 years – is powerfully unlikely and almost certainly nothing more than a chilling sci-fi premise. But that situation is also just window dressing for the film’s true conflicts – navigating the authoritarian regime that was once the United Kingdom, and surviving in a world that oppresses even those few citizens with the privilege of living with a functioning government.
The world scares me to death, these days, even as a white man who will be least affected by whatever horrors the regime in the United States inflicts upon its citizens. This movie is a frightening glimpse of what could come to pass. And yet, thinking of this movie doesn’t horrify me. It doesn’t make me tense up in fear and dismiss thoughts of it, preferring to focus on something less severe.
Because Children of Men, ultimately, is a film about hope.
Whether it comes in the form of a child being born in a rundown apartment in a war-torn slice of a once-great city, the mother and child being bathed in an angelic light from a small lantern in an otherwise dark world, or in the form of a ship’s bell ringing out its arrival at the last moment before the future of humanity is forever lost to sea, hope is woven throughout every moment of this film. The situation is, more or less, hopeless. The core thematic thrust of the film is in how these people – from Clive Owen’s Theo, who is more of a passenger on a journey than anything else, to Julianne Moore’s revolutionary leader – find hope in the depths of ultimate existential despair.
The film, for what it’s worth, doesn’t have a clear answer. Moore’s character seems to find it in her revolutionary fervor. Pam Ferris’ matron Miriam can be heard chanting selections from the Upanishads at pivotal moments, ending her chanting always with “Shantih, shantih, shantih”: text that also appears as a title card at the end of the closing credits, roughly translating from the Sanskrit into the English “peace which passes understanding.” T.S. Eliot famously invoked this same mantra at the end of his epic poem, The Waste Land, which is my favorite poem – and that’s no coincidence.
Each of these characters finds hope in different places, but Owen’s Theo finds hope in the unlikeliest place of all: in the midst of the film’s palpable despair. His entire journey through this film is from being a disaffected public servant, walking through his day in a perpetual daze (he is completely unfazed by a bomb blast happening just behind him in the street), to being a soldier of hope and the future of humanity.
We live in scary times, and one of my running fears since I saw this movie for the first time is our world going the way of Theo’s world. The film takes place in 2027, and perhaps the intervening 10 years will bring us close to this. But I don’t believe so; I have a powerful hope and faith in the intrinsic goodness of humanity that the better angels of our nature will win out.
Thinking of this movie, thinking of the sense of hope it finds in the hopeless, only fortifies that belief.