In 2027 the youngest human on Earth is killed. None will come after him. They’ve all stopped: there are no more pregnancies, no more births, no more babies, and no answers. In the chaos of the 18 years since the start of an infertility pandemic, civilisation is disintegrating as quickly as citizens are dying off, and disasters – both natural and man-made – have decimated the modern world: ‘Only Britain Soldiers On’. Children of Men is the champion of realistic visions, as Britain closes its borders and rounds up “illegal immigrants” (formerly asylum seekers) into coastal camps where they are left to rot. There is only one hope left, in the form of a young pregnant “Fuji” named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), whom Theo (Clive Owen) must help reach ‘The Human Project’ if she is to raise her own baby and possibly provide the key to humanity’s salvation.
According to director Alfonso Cuarón, “this film was not the creative workshop, it was the essay workshop”. Determined that every shot should be a reference to modern structures, artwork or reality, Cuarón shaped an entirely credible future. Contemporary new cars were aged perfectly and, in terms of clothing, fashion stays practical in practical times and people are dressed for a war on the home front as England breaks down. London is spectacularly recreated with the addition of shimmering mosaic billboards and overbearing propaganda signs reminding you that this world is only a disaster away. Sound designer Richard Beggs takes the claustrophobia and the sense of trauma further. He reportedly began recreating the experience of tinnitus after an explosion in an early scene, and this developed into a recurring motif throughout.
The stunning use of incredibly long one-shots, and the complete lack of close-ups, came out of Cuarón’s determination not to use editing or montage to create tension, deciding that the style should reflect the organic truthfulness of a documentary. He points out, “if you are going through life and something happens, you don’t have the luxury of going , ‘Stop, stop, guys, and let me get a close-up!’” In one iconic scene, a special rig was even invented to work inside a moving vehicle, tilting and lowering the windscreen, seats and actors to allow for the camera to swing inside the car with them. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki reportedly refused Cuarón’s suggestion to use CGI (Cuarón was fresh off the set of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and thank God. Having used documentary-style camerawork as a springboard, everything here is about truth and brutal honesty.
Grim and cluttered, this is a dilapidated world. Lubezki embraces deep blue filtering to indicate the storm that has gathered overhead. A layer of dust coats everything and the sky is permanently overcast; neatly knitting together infertility and environmental concerns, it’s a world that’s been neglected. The future is always dark, misty or hidden by trees and the distance is never in view – subsequently, we are never allowed to see and prepare for what’s coming. The jury is still out on whether Clive Owen’s performance is worthy of the film he’s in, sewn together as it is by excellent direction and editing: it is entirely unsurprising that Children of Men won Academy Award nominations for Cinematography and Editing. The actual script was an entirely collaborative project, only based loosely on the source novel, and designed to give the characters a little more grit, and in particular shy away from a “cute”, “sensual” or “father-daughter” relationship because, according to Cuarón, “you don’t choose who you survive with”.
An audience is made to feel how small they are in this vast world; acknowledging how little your central characters mean to anyone else in this film is a terrifying experience. Children of Men insists that, no matter how small they may feel, individuals have to take responsibility for the wider future we are setting out for humanity. Fundamentally, no one knows what is best for the future, and it is seldom clear who has the best plan and when the right choice has been made. The entire narrative is littered with moments of decision that are made so much harder by clashing and fractured ideologies, all sides believing they know what’s best.
Though the novel did employ a Big Brother-style dictatorship, Cuarón’s script opted for a democratic police state, which is a rather unique step for dystopian fiction and all the more terrifying for how familiar the concept is. Cuarón wants to challenge us to see the world around us for what it is; his obsession with truth breathes through again and again. Children of Men is largely about disrupting blind faith in democracy, and disapproves of nationalism as a political system – it should indeed be possible to disagree with your government without fear. It’s not just a moral message for the modern age hidden in shiny panels and ‘spacey’ fashions, but an in-depth examination of the “what if”. Cuarón constructs a beautifully grim and frighteningly prophetic study of scapegoating politics, the evolution of democratic police states, the increasing hostility towards global cooperation in Britain, and the disintegration of civilisation under pressure as belief systems clash, crash and burn.