The second entry by Alfonso Cuaron on the best of the 2000s list, Children of Men, is set in London in 2027 amidst an ongoing mass infertility crisis that has led to the collapse of most nation states. England, under an authoritarian government, “soldiers on.” Refugees from the rest of the world have rushed to England leading to an immigration crisis. On the day after the youngest person on earth dies, Theo (Clive Owen) is contacted by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian leads a human rights organization/terrorist cell known as “the Fishes” who fight for the rights of refugees. She needs transport papers for a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and she needs someone she can trust to obtain them. It’s a spoiler, but Kee is pregnant - the first pregnant woman in almost 20 years. Children of Men follows Theo’s quest to bring Kee from London to the coast where they hope to make contact with “The Human Project,” a nearly mythical secret society of geniuses who might cure the mass infertility.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that Children of Men is a futuristic gloss on the Nativity Story. A young woman, carrying a child that could save humanity, escorted by a man (not the child’s biological father) through a world where powerful forces seek to control the child for their own purposes of varying degrees of nobility.
However, where the nativity story expressly makes hope come from the divine, eternal resurrection and salvation, it’s clear that Children of Men is a humanist piece. Hope does not fall from on high in Children of Men it is birthed from our loins. The hope that our children and our children’s children will have it better than we do, Children of Men argues, is what animates humanity as a species. I find that argument depressing. Surely we are more than our ability to pass on our genetic material.
Nevertheless, Cuaron’s bleak, pessimistic future is breathtaking. I liked the small touches. In 2027, people dote on their pets because they have no children to spoil, and the animals all seem to really like Theo. The young adult population appears less healthy than adults Theo’s age or older, hinting that the infertility crisis manifested slowly through increasing rates of birth defects. The music choices, with lyrics like King Crimson’s “Lullaby in an Ancient Tongue” were thematically appropriate, if a bit on the nose, and, of course, Luzbecki’s cinematography is as perfect as ever.
I recognize that Children of Men is a good movie, well above average, but I think it’s also going to be somewhat forgettable. It reduces humanity to our urge to reproduce as a way of taking our hope away from the divine and giving it back to us. Unfortunately, this process deprives us of what I think humanism depends on – that we matter because we are human, and that’s true regardless of whether or not we have the ability to pass on our humanity to the next generation.
My favorite scene occurred early and almost hit upon this theme. In the scene, Theo visits his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) to request transit papers for himself and Kee. Nigel is a high ranking official in the Ministry of Culture, and apparently spends his life rattling around in a museum of rescued (plundered?) treasures: Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, something that looks like a Banksy. Theo confronts Nigel and asks him why he preserves all these pieces of art. Humanity will be over in a matter of decades. Nigel replies, “The truth is, Theo, I just don’t think about it.” I’m not sure Cuaron has completely thought it through either, but he wants us to, and that’s something.