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Why Children of Men haunts the present moment

How Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian masterpiece became the cultural exemplum of apocalypse, and a cardinal citation in the time of coronavirus.

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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 Cuarón’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 Cuarón’s dystopian tale of human failure.

Adapted from the 1992 novel by PD James, Cuarón’s film was a commercial flop when it was released in 2006. Admired by critics, it cost $76m to make but grossed less than $70m at the box office. Overlooked for major awards at the Oscars, and under-promoted 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, Cuarón’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, Cuarón 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. Cuarón was inspired by the 20th-century film theorist André 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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As commentators of the film have observed, Children of Men reproduces a world that is, if not exactly the same as ours, then a darkened, more barbarous distillation of it. This is the main reason for its persistent and growing resonance in the cultural imagination.

Writing in 1965, the American essayist Susan Sontag described the “satisfaction” that science fiction movies provide. They are fantasies, she wrote, “where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings”. But there is no catharsis or redemption in Children of Men, no time to bask in the triumph over an alien invader or from surviving environmental wipeout. The images on the screen, a collage of human debasement and moral abdication, are all too familiar as the way we live now.

In James’s original novel, Britain lives under the dictatorship of the Warden. But on screen, there is no sense that life is presided over by a totalitarian power. Why should it be, since the film both imitated and foretold the norms and methods of existing liberal democracy?

The passing of a Homeland Security Bill at the start of the film is analogous to the 2001 USA Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks. Citywide announcements about reporting suspicious behaviour are more threatening versions of messages heard on British public transport today (“If you see something that doesn’t look right…”). Scenes of hooded prisoners recall the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib during the war on terror. Routine xenophobia is perhaps what Theresa May had in mind when she devised her “hostile environment” strategy as home secretary in 2012.

London’s rundown streets are the recognisable aftermath of economic austerity. The distribution of suicide kits to “illegals” and people over 60 is reverse herd immunity. Images of caged people not only evoke Nazism’s genocidal campaigns of the 20th century, but also how the West has treated immigrants and refugees in the 21st. And the infertility crisis is an extreme projection of what the future could hold for countries with falling birth rates, such as Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea.

Its portrayal of democracy’s dark side is what makes Children of Men so unsettling. But beyond these parallels and prophecies lies the film’s true disturbing force: its philosophical iconoclasm. Cuarón places the future of humanity in the body of an immigrant black woman – perhaps the most powerless, disenfranchised, stigmatised and exploited individual in the modern Great Chain of Being.

Kee is the antithesis of almost everything that modern societies venerate and forgive: the rich, the male, the rooted, the documented. She is the film’s true apocalypse in the literal sense of the word – pure revelation, forcing us to confront the hollowness and turpitude of the prevailing moral order.

This point is reinforced with crushing irony when viewed against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis. In the film, a video montage played on TVs shows the anarchic state of the world’s capital cities. It then cuts to an image of Big Ben with the words “ONLY BRITAIN SOLDIERS ON” superimposed over the top of it.

The Brexit-style jingoism is familiar, perhaps even mundane, after a decade of Conservative government. But at the time of writing, the UK has the world’s third-highest coronavirus death toll, and is set to suffer the worst economic recession among developed economies. So much for soldiering on.

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The human failure to reproduce, which leads people in the film to adopt pets and treat animals as if they were children, is Cuarón’s way of confronting another catastrophe. This occurred off camera, before the story begins in 2027, and knits the film’s timeline with our present. This is the failure of political imagination.

The way the film extrapolates from the here and now is the reason the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher thought Children of Men was unique. Writing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Fisher understood the film as a true depiction of what he called “‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”

Children of Men does not take place at the end of the world, which has already happened, but within its chilling coda, where, as Fisher writes, “internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist”. There is no desire to create alternate ways of living, or to make the end of times less awful. In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), the inability to grow food impels mankind to look to the stars for new worlds to inhabit. In Children of Men, however, the failure of the medical sciences to discover a cure for infertility seems to have stripped humanity of all resolve and Promethean ambition.

Instead, society is held together by a combination of barbed wire and people’s desire to live as normal; to take it on the chin, to muddle through, to keep calm and carry on. When Theo asks his cousin Nigel, a senior government official, how he copes with it all, the response underscores the mortal consequences of self-regard: “I try not to think about it.”

Fisher was right to highlight the relationship between capitalism and authoritarian politics in the film; how the public square has been abandoned – actually and metaphorically – and the state stripped back to its military and police functions. But more terrifying, perhaps, is how, even as the world’s end approaches, we are still forced to endure the banalities of daily life.

In other films about the apocalypse, such as Mad Max, global ruin invites a kind of dark liberation, when survivors embrace sex, drugs, racing, fighting and looting. But in Children of Men, Britain limps on and its citizens limp on in it. Humanity has reached its tragic denouement, but no one can escape the ordinary unhappiness of capitalist realism: endless forms, long commutes, idle queues, crowded streets, and trying to convince your boss to let you work from home.

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Fisher’s idea of capitalist realism drew on the work of the American cultural critic Frederic Jameson. In The Seeds of Time (1992), Jameson argued that it is “easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations”.

Fears about the exhausted mind – a silencing of the intellect that makes us incapable of revising the very orders we build for ourselves – belonged to a wider set of anxieties at the end of the Cold War. The historian Eric Hobsbawm predicted at the time that the world was being made “uninhabitable” as a result of global inequalities and “the sheer exponential growth in production and pollution”. Democracies, he thought, risked becoming “right wing, demagogic, xenophobic, nationalist regimes” as humanity descended into “barbarism”.

Hobsbawm made those remarks in 1992, the same year that Jameson published The Seeds of Time, and PD James published The Children of Men. It was also the year that Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, his Hegelian reading of how liberal democracy became, as he put it, “the final form of human government”.

Considered the ur-text of Western triumphalism, Fukuyama was puzzled by the misinterpretation of his thesis – the definitive victory of democratic capitalism as the perfect system of rule. For Fukuyama, little joy is to be found at the end of history. The post-historical future, he thought, would be “a very sad time” and risked becoming a “life of masterless slavery”; an age of decadence and boredom.

Fukuyama has praised Children of Men as a film that “should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump”. As someone who anticipated the political upheavals of the past few years, and who has prophesied a “nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom”, Fukuyama perhaps sees the film as the cinematic rendition of his thesis. Both The End of History and Children of Men depict a grinding interregnum between the past and the future. “In the post-historical period,” Fukuyama wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

This point is illustrated perfectly in the film. When Theo visits his cousin’s home – a fortified apartment on the top of Battersea Power Station – he is greeted by Michelangelo’s statue David. This is part of Nigel’s art collection that also includes Picasso’s Guernica and the portraits of Rembrandt.

Yet with no future to speak of, the past has become meaningless, and in the dead space of Nigel’s redoubt these masterpieces are mere artefacts, emptied of all power and import. Cuarón’s Britain is a kind of temporal perdition, a relentless, inescapable present. To modify Antonio Gramsci’s line from the Prison Notebooks, it is a place in which the old is dying and the new will never be born.

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The terrifying thought that strikes you while watching the film is that we have already crossed some kind of historical event horizon and are living in that eternal present, ideologically directionless and politically unmotivated to improve our lot.

This is a view the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues in his book The Decadent Society (2020). Douthat’s contention is that, even with high levels of material prosperity and technological development, our societies exist in a state of “sustainable decadence”, characterised by economic stagnation, institutional deadlock, cultural repetition and intellectual exhaustion.

This condition has made us gravely exposed to disaster. Even in the face of ecological catastrophe – the devastation of nature, species extinction, the poisoning of the oceans and the erosion of human habitations – societies seem unable to summon the imaginative and political energies needed to prevent the inexorable deluge.

As Douthat writes, there is a chance that if parts of the world become uninhabitable, the technocrats of the future will have a strong case that decadence – that is, political gridlock – “made it impossible for Western governments to act on climate policy together or alone”.

In relation to Children of Men, the irony of the climate crisis is that we are now forced to ask: is it even OK to have children? Unlike Cuarón’s film, in which the end of children is the source of humanity’s collapse, some are now wondering if the end of children is the key to our salvation. When the Guardian reported on a prominent scientific study in 2017, the headline read: “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children.”

As a new parent, I can’t bring myself to contemplate the idea that my child’s very being harms the Earth, and that fewer children in the world is the way to save it. As the science writer Meehan Crist has argued, this theory merely shifts responsibility for climate change from “systemic actors” such as fossil fuel companies on to individuals. It excuses corporations while placing moral responsibility “on people who live within systems where they are not free to make carbon-neutral choices”.

What I do worry about, especially for my infant son, is not that humanity is going to experience sudden and catastrophic decline and fall. Rather, as Theo complains to his friend Jasper, I worry that it’s “too late”.

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The idea that we’re out of time is what makes Children of Men both a mirror and augur of the world, and the world to come. At the end of history, cut off from its past and pessimistic about the future, and facing slow death under rising tides, humanity has resigned itself to a somnambulant life. It is a life of finitude, routine and conformity; one without vision, spontaneity or surprise, where we no longer seek to live larger lives or even strive for our continued existence. We have become Nietzsche’s “last men”. 

Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special