Alfonso Cuarón’s Directorial Approach
High-concept Alfonso Cuarón expertly introduces the Children of Men universe in the film’s opening sequence, setting out how the director would also portray it. The year is 2027, and humans are no longer capable of breeding. The last baby to be officially registered, Baby Diego, died 18 years ago. Television broadcasts the sad news inside a Fleet Street cafe in London. Played by Clive Owen, Theo Faron moves fearlessly through the throngs of distraught onlookers over the news.
Following him from the outside, Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki took a gentle uninterrupted glance. They pass through busy streets and buildings with recognizable screens wrapping their exteriors. Although an alcoholic, Theo pauses to add coffee grounds. Then, the cafe he had just left had an explosion. Like a reporter on the scene, a handheld camera aimed at the wreckage. One victim reaches for a severed limb amidst the rubble.
In seconds, Cuarón paints his film’s dystopia in words that sound more like contemporary depictions than science fiction. While Children of Men uses realistic visuals and themes that reflect modern culture, its literary symbolism transforms its aesthetic into a blend of metaphorical and actual. The aesthetic is what makes people feel most uncomfortable.
Action, Art, and Sacred Symbolism
While natural disasters, armed conflicts, and terrorist attacks have left large portions of the planet unruly, uninhabitable, or chaotic, a resilient police state is on guard. With strict order, the United Kingdom stands as an island unto itself. Adapted from the book by British novelist P. D. James, Children of Men serves as both a warning and an accurate, urgent picture of the not-too-distant future.
The 1992 film’s source material becomes liberal in the 2006 film to account for humanity’s fears of violent political upheaval, border politics, fear of the other, environmental degradation, human infertility, and worldwide humanitarian crises. All the problems that James foresaw in the socio-political environment ran directly. For example, Americans often consider the period before and after the 9/11 attacks.
However, Cuarón shot in London months after the July 7, 2005 bombings. Despite their wounds from reality, he and James show a similar image. However, it is more a grim compendium of our reality than the glorious vision of the future that other examples of the dystopian genre present. It enjoys the fantastic possibilities of technological advancement. Along with four other credited screenwriters, Cuarón still incorporates action with high allusions to works of art and sacred symbolism.
Familiar Elements of the Dystopian Genre
They use the genre’s allegorical capacity to convey an improbable yet optimistic message. Then a question arose. Right now, are we having the best of times? Children of Men occurs in Great Britain, one of the world’s last remaining stable countries, colorless and deathly pale. Now, the death of humanity is inevitable, with Baby Diego gone. As their home countries fall apart, refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants arrive in large numbers.
They were the goal of the British, who focused all their political and military efforts on keeping them in barbed wire camps and cages. The police state propaganda apparatus urges people to protect Britain, report all illegal immigration, or make it a crime to employ, feed or shelter illegal immigrants. They also distribute suicide kits that the government approves of slowing humanity’s extinction.
Factions with names like Repenters and Renouncers divide society when rebel organizations plot to gain power. As we shall see later, the government is trying to maintain order by carrying out random attacks and associating them with the rebels. It serves to sow fear and strengthen government support, catching crazy ideas that the government concocts to gain more power. Surprisingly, the film feels familiar with elements of the dystopia genre.
Viewers must decide whether it implies something about the film or our current predicament. We can say a lot about the plot of Children of Men. The story is set against the backdrop of the surreal environment that Cuarón presents us with. There are guerrillas occupying inactive Warehouses, and there are huts home to people experiencing homelessness. There are much police dragging and imprisoning immigrants but no guarantees regarding utility.
What was most annoying was that there was no single child. Besides that, the only animals left for them to love and care for are dogs and cats. The film’s premise also seems implausible when we consider today’s science. In the last 40 years, men’s sperm counts have fallen by more than 55 percent. Researchers found that artificial factors have caused hormone disruption and decreased sperm count in a new study of male fertility in the Western world they published in a journal.
They concluded that environmental influences, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals, pesticides, and heat, plausibly influence sperm count and other semen parameters. In addition, other influences are lifestyle factors, including diet, stress, smoking, and body mass index. The analysis concluded that the sperm count would only continue to decrease.
A Journey through Refugee Checkpoints
It is undoubtedly a contributing reason to the decline in the US birth rate, which has fallen below surrogate fertility. Not to mention, socio-cultural factors other than urgent health problems affect the decline in birth rates. Simply put, fewer women want to have a family or choose to put off having children until later in life. Changes in society and health show that Children of Men are anything but irrational.
In the film, the youngest person dies from a stabbing in Buenos Aires for refusing to sign an autograph. Granted, it would not be like an action movie where the protagonist never seems to fear death, when the Fishes (a rebel group of anti-government, pro-refugee activists, which Theo’s ex-wife, Julian Taylor, leads) arrest Theo, with no hope for the future of humanity, he is physically exhausted by the presence of screens becomes a strain.
The former couple separated after losing a child, leaving Theo lacking social motivation. Although they still love each other, they also help a young black woman named Kee through several refugee checkpoints and land on a boat. Theo accepts bribes and agrees to get transit papers from his well-connected cousin, who works for the government.
A Symbol of Hope
Not long after, they are ushered into a boat to meet with Julian’s fellow mutineer, Luke. Following the assault that resulted in Julian’s death, Theo learns not only that Kee is expecting her first child in 18 years. It becomes a symbol of hope for humanity, but also that Fishes plotted Julian’s assassination to use the baby as a political tactic. The film moves forward with the same force that Cuarón exerted in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Theo fled with Kee and Miriam to the remote home of his friend Jasper Palmer. When the Fishes find Jasper’s house, he distracts them while Theo and the others escape before meeting a gruesome end. The film has a way of turning every situation in its head. Like Theo, we hardly have time to consider the impact and consequences of an event because it happens so quickly. In short, we can only fully process what we have seen once we escape the film’s gravitational pull.
Therefore, Children of Men is not a film that encourages passive viewing, whether we want to call it captivating, enthralling, or absorbing. Also, the exciting thing about the United Kingdom in the film is that it does not seem to matter what color we are on the ship when they pull the strings.
Framing Kee as a Symbolic Figure
In order to get Kee’s travel documents so she can smuggle them out of the country and find safety in a safe place, Julian’s organization begs Theo to use his powers. The promotional film explains why Kee is the key to the future. Despite his direct nature, Cuarón infused literary tropes and symbolism into Children of Men as he did with his groundbreaking films such as Y tu mamá también and Gravity.
Consider Kee, whose name contains a homonym that implies she is the answer to humanity’s problems. Cuarón emphasizes Kee’s symbolic significance by framing her as Sandro Botticelli did in The Birth of Venus. When it came time to bear her child in this hostile environment, Theo dusted his hands with the rest of the scotch, a blatant indication that he was letting go of his egocentric way of life and returning to his former idealistic ways.
In essence, Theo’s job is to escort Kee to the mysterious ship Tomorrow, which the Human Project operates. The risk is obvious where Cuarón directs such readings with auditory and visual allusions to Christian symbolism. As the choral singing accompanies an emotional high point in the film with the tinnitus notes that follow a shocking explosion, Theo’s collapse after Julian’s death, Theo’s response to Jasper’s death, and Theo’s and Kee’s miraculous escape are just a few examples.
The Unifying Spirit of Children of Men
By linking spiritual heights with Christian sentiments, heavenly melodies contrast the beauty of the natural world. The film’s symbolism emphasizes how we have failed to reproduce and how we have failed to create in the image of God. In large part, it is also because our broken society has drifted away from humanist values. Therefore, our religious values and optimism for the future will return once we return to a humanist, organic, and non-nationalistic approach.
It is all overt symbolism that we would shamefully do in a different movie. The unifying spirit of the story may be why Cuarón’s clear decision worked. The abuse and exploitation of authority by the occupying regime is one of the film’s main topics. It denotes a totalitarian society where the government strictly controls the population and maintains order using military force, surveillance, and propaganda.
With ruthless police forces, prisons, and a runaway climate of fear, the director portrays the government as repressive. In such a dystopian society, those in power will do anything to maintain their power. Even at the expense of human rights, the political climate within Children of Men emphasizes the effects of a culture based on fear and division.
Hope and Power in a Bleak Society
The government uses the infertility crisis as a tool for population control and political consolidation. The marginalization and treatment of immigrants and refugees as second-class citizens exacerbates social tensions and encourages violence and instability. The film critiques nationalism and xenophobia, highlighting how scapegoating and political manipulation can exacerbate social inequality and sustain oppressive systems.
Additionally, Children of Men examines how hope and power interact. In a bleak society, Kee’s pregnancy stands as a sign of hope and a possible agent of change. Power struggles erupted when various political factions and organizations flashed a glimmer of hope, trying to use their predicament to their advantage. The film’s thesis is that optimism can spark resistance against repressive governments that overthrow established power structures.
The trip to the seaside that Theo and Kee take with Julian, Luke, and Miriam forms the bulk of the film. Homeland Security personnel chased them along the road. During the chase, one of the most sudden yet brutal scenes we have ever seen in a film occurs. Not every chase in every action film or noir, Cuarón presents Children of Men with a focus on precision and a shaky look.
Capturing Devastation and Human Suffering
Apart from its poetic embellishments, it exists. In creating an immersive overall frame, Cuarón and Lubezki shoot for long periods as if they were a news team daring to follow the live action on the location. They caught refugee camp sewage, burned bodies, collapsed buildings, and debris everywhere. Large-scale destruction, explosions, and terrified individuals on the ground are all the film portrays.
Additionally, the film is a human endeavor that Cuarón films from the perspective of people, like the names of the scientists working to save humanity off-screen. By following Theo, Lubezki challenges the omniscient or unbiased perspective that sci-fi films usually take. Instead, every frame turns the viewer into a participant, forcing us to think about how the event connects to our modern society.
Children of Men intend to show how big countries like America have changed from immigrant nations to isolationist fanatics. As Cuarón says, there is no doubt about this, demonstrated by Kee’s statelessness, a symbol for other immigrants they mistreated and placed in the camps that gave rise to the Holocaust. What is more, America has imprisoned more than 20 thousand migrant children in detention facilities across the country after separating them from their parents.
In the film’s society, they marginalize and treat refugees and immigrants as second-class citizens. They endure prejudice and are often confined to a detention facility, where they endure appalling living conditions. The film describes the difficulties experienced by those seeking safety and a better life and the brutal consequences of such treatment. Once again, the director builds action scenes in sweat and desperation.
There are too many action scenes that the actors choreographed well. However, Cuarón and Owen could smell terror and death in the air. Nothing pulls off a tough act like a dog running through the streets, even during a shootout. Only humans on Earth are affected by infertility. Cuarón’s aesthetic explores our interactions with the images we usually observe in the 24/7 news cycle from a safe distance and with apathy.
He makes us care about characters like Julian only to portray him passing in a car prematurely without lingering over it. It increases the surprise factor in that the strategy serves as a helpful reminder that the media focus does not always capture a narrative’s full emotional impact or loss. Thus, Cuarón’s brand of realism also allows for moments of formal audacity.
The Power of Long Shots
Cinephiles who pay attention to details such as shooting duration and understand the challenges that Cuarón and his crew face to make such shots will see Children of Men as a film that combines grim realism with a dash of fantasy. The sequence where Theo and Julian flirt with each other while playing ping pong in the car. With the camera sliding deftly between the seats and passengers, it is impossible to watch without feeling a twinge of awe at the accomplishments that CGI aids in.
The same goes for the film’s iconic prolonged scene that the director shot inside a refugee camp during the chaos and gunfire when seven blood flecks land on the lens of a handheld camera. Despite the filmmaker creating the illusion with multiple shots digitally, the diminishing drips serve as a reminder of how long shots last during the action before everything comes to a halt. Theo emerges from the concrete building shell carrying Kee and her baby.
Every soldier laid down their weapons, and some knelt and made the sign of the cross. Theo, Kee, and the baby passed them like Moses parting the seas. The xenophobic views are prevalent in the dystopian world Children of Men illustrates.
Children as the MacGuffin
Because they view immigrants as a threat to their security and a scarce resource, the natives show a deep fear and hatred towards them. The film shows how xenophobia and nationalism exacerbate social divisions and support authoritarian systems. As Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin, children are the MacGuffin in Children of Men, who motivate all action. Significantly, the film never explains why children stopped being produced or how they might be imagined again.
They are using children as MacGuffins is another dramatic ruse to avoid serious politics while showing how decency and coexistence are disappearing from the world. Children are not the focus of the film. Instead, it is about men and women, civilization, and how people can exploit terror to support a police state. Despite the common notion that Kee’s child would save humanity, the story robs Kee of her agency as a woman and belittles her by using her womb as a metaphor for humanity.
Instead of Kee, Theo continues to be the center of film conflict in a patriarchal society that grapples with women’s rights regarding their bodies. That is probably because Cuarón’s fiction is cynical and stretches appropriately. As a political tool, several groups influence Kee.
Theo’s Redemption Narrative
To rally support for the Fishes’ cause, Luke and his gang plot to exploit Kee’s unborn child as a symbol. If the United Kingdom government gets the child and is replaced by a posh British black woman as mother, Miriam believes Kee will come out of custody. Children continue to be the film’s focus, but the title’s metaphorical references to humanity, in general, the phrase “men” represents humanity, representing a rejection of agency as carriers of children.
On the rowboat to Tomorrow, Theo teaches Kee how to care for her child until his last breath. In Theo’s redemption narrative, the film never gives Kee any substance other than a dramatic device. Even though the film comments on organizations trying to take advantage of Kee, in the world of the film, immigration and refugees increase social tensions and lead to deadly conflicts. Local populations and governments alike practice cruelty and prejudice against marginalized populations.
The film shows the negative impact of prejudice and violence on people and communities and the results of societal divisions. It is about the struggle, not the victory. The climax leaves room for a different interpretation. If there is a more precise resolution, the performance is essential because each individual has absorbed their reality in such a way that they make it natural and wholly convincing.
Response to 9/11
Never mind that Cuarón has stated that he did not intend Children of Men to be a sci-fi film. Unlike Brazil, which seems to be the future, the setting for 2027 is based on the present. Other futuristic sci-fi films like Blade Runner did not catch his attention. Instead of creating elaborate original designs, Cuarón tries to draw inspiration from the real world. The director gave his crew photos from Chernobyl, Sri Lanka, and Middle Eastern countries.
To meet political demands, he referred to America’s response to 9/11, which included immigration panic, border controls, use of the term terrorist, extraordinary renditions, and nationalistic security symbols. Children of Men is still essential because of Cuarón’s innate allegory, which provides limitless possibilities for reading and interpretation. The film challenges prejudice and humanizes immigrants through Kee.
By highlighting their shared humanity and the value of empathy, and compassion, Kee’s journey humanizes the hardships immigrants go through. The film challenges bias and stereotypes by presenting immigrants as real people with ambitions, dreams, and vulnerabilities. Some characters are not wearing weird clothes or traveling to the moon, and cities are not made of plastic. Instead, they look as they do now, albeit obsolete but broken.
Undoubtedly, Earth will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Therefore, the film serves as a sobering warning. If there is no future, how will we behave? The final effect is the text that makes people glance in the mirror and see a horrifying reflection of themselves. Something similar happened in Cuarón’s film, but the director focused more on offering positive alternatives. Regardless of how bad the overall scene is, the world of Children of Men, not to mention our own, may need some objective, extraterrestrial magic.
However, Cuarón’s fast-paced dystopia passionately underscores how sociopolitical discourse has taken over our lives. It obscures the humanitarian issue and the collateral damage that followed. With a humanist message that silences political discussion, Children of Men is a painfully optimistic film facing vicious cynicism.
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