Reel talk: Why Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” is more relevant now than ever

A graphic of a man's face. He has brown hair, and the bottom half of his face is a mask of a melting world map.
Graphic by Amy Lowndes

Rarely does a science fiction film feel as tangibly and devastatingly real as Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 thriller “Children of Men.” Set in the year 2027, the film depicts a broken world ravaged by disease, pollution, natural disasters and violence, as well as 18 years of inexplicable human infertility.

Great Britain is one of the few places of order left, maintained by a totalitarian police state that greets the inflow of refugees — referred to as “fugees” — by confining them to cages and abysmal camps, all while propagating a fear of illegal immigrants to the British population. The rest of the world has become so overrun with chaos that it is left ungovernable.

When the film was released in 2006, a future like this seemed possible. In 2019, it seems likely.

As the film opens, the voice of a newscaster informs us that the youngest person on Earth has been stabbed after refusing to give an autograph. We then see a crowd of people in a coffee shop standing motionless, captivated by the television broadcasting the news.

A man pushes his way through the crowd and glances uninterestedly at the screen while he waits for his coffee, and promptly makes his way to a newsstand down the street where he adds liquor to his coffee cup. As he walks out the door, the camera follows behind him, giving us our first glimpse of 2027 London — dirty and grey, with buildings and buses that are plastered with billboards reminding Brits that illegal immigrants are criminals and suspicious activity should be reported.

The man is Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned ex-activist who now works a menial desk job at the Ministry of Energy. As we follow him throughout his day — to work, on the train to his pot-smoking, ex-political cartoonist friend Jasper’s (Michael Caine) house, to his dimly lit London apartment — the incredible attention to detail in constructing and coloring this bleak version of the world becomes clear.

Theo’s coworkers cry as they watch the news on their computers, where we learn that the weighty title of the world’s youngest person now belongs to a woman.

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On a TV on the train, a triumphantly nationalist government-sponsored advertisement shows clips of chaos from cities around the world, declaring that “the world has collapsed” while “only Britain soldiers on.” Billboards across the city warn that avoiding fertility tests is a crime and newspaper clippings documenting the world’s steady descent cover the walls of Jasper’s home. These details saturate the background of every frame, creating an extraordinarily rich, realistic world.

The story begins when cynical and apathetic Theo is asked by his ex-lover Julian (Julianne Moore), who leads the immigrant’s rights rebel group known as the Fishes, to help safely transport a refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to the coast. While initially motivated by money, Theo is profoundly moved when Kee reveals to her that she is miraculously pregnant. The two then venture into a refugee camp and soon-to-be war zone in an effort to reach the coast and connect with the Tomorrow, a boat that is supposedly going to bring Kee to safety.

It goes without saying that the film is a massive technical achievement, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s striking cinematography capturing both the horrifying and beautifully intimate moments in equal measure. Most impressive are his long tracking shots, which, particularly during the nail-bitingly tense third act, make the film extremely immersive.

John Tavener’s minimal, atmospheric score strikes the right balance between heightening the emotional impact without being distracting. Actors Owen and Ashitey are fantastic as well, with numerous touching moments between Kee and Theo serving as a welcome break from the chaos that surrounds them.

What is most striking about the film, however, isn’t its technical merit, but rather how alarmingly similar the world depicted in “Children of Men” is to our own. It is impossible to see how Britain has closed its borders and propagated isolationist, xenophobic messages and not think of Brexit. Nor can one watch the abuse that refugees fleeing violence suffer at the hands of the British government without being reminded of the brutality with which our own government treats immigrants today.

And although we aren’t dealing with global infertility, the threat that climate change poses to our way of life is not far off from that posed by a future without children — both problems are so big that it seems impossible to feel hopeful about the future.

In the apartment of Theo’s wealthy cousin — seemingly distant from the chaos of a world in crisis — Theo asks him how he keeps going.

He replies, “You know what it is Theo? I just don’t think about it.”

“Children of Men” is an urgent and disquieting reminder that apathy is a privilege, and that we can — and must — face a grim-looking future with hope, no matter how elusive it may seem.

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Rachael Diamond SC ’21 is TSL’s film columnist. She is a philosophy major who enjoys ranting about movies to anyone who will listen.

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