One of the most striking things in the days following 9/11 was the absence of air traffic. The sound of planes taking off and landing, the sight of jets zipping through the sky, have become such a part of the background noise of our lives, we noticed them only in their absence, and the silence of the skies in those couple days was deafening. The absence of children in the film Children of Men has much the same impact.
Imagine, if you will, a world without children. Not the temporary, blissful, child-free retreat of, say, a fancy restaurant, or a weekend away from the kids, but an entire world without a single child in it. No pregnant women, no families pushing strollers and shepherding toddlers, no preschoolers chasing bubbles, no schools or playgrounds, no kids building sandcastles or snowmen ... no future. The year is 2027, and for 18 years all the women on Earth have been infertile. From New York City to Paris, from South Africa to the South Pole, not a single baby has been born on the planet for nearly two decades.
This is the world of the not-too-distant future as brought to life by director Alfonso Cuarón in Children of Men, his adaptation of the P.D. James novel of the same name. In the aftermath of mass infertility, the world has collapsed, descending into nihilism, separatism and violence. England has closed its borders and is deporting foreign refugees ("fugees") like criminals. Soldiers, tanks and the sound of gunfire are everywhere. Theo (Clive Owen), a one-time political activist who has descended into the realm of ambivalence and bureaucracy, drifts through life aimlessly, lost in grief over the death of his son some years before in an influenza pandemic. He is a man whose life has lost all hope and meaning; his numbness, even as a coffee shop blows up seconds after he leaves it, reflects the tenor of the times in which he is living. The one bright spot in Theo's existence is his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a fellow former activist who lives in a retreat deep in the woods.
Theo's life no longer has purpose -- until the day his ex-love, Julian (Julianne Moore) -- now heading up a band of rebels fighting for the rights of the refugees -- has him abducted and brought before her so that she can persuade him to obtain illegal transit papers to get Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young refugee, safely to the coast. Theo reluctantly agrees to help, more because he wants the 5,000 pounds the group offers him to secure the papers than because he desires to get involved in anything resembling activism or intrigue. When Kee reveals to him why people are willing to die for her, though, Theo finds himself in the position of reluctantly holding the future in his hands.
If you've seen the trailer, or even the movie poster, you know what's so important about this girl: In a world of complete infertility, she is miraculously, inexplicably, pregnant. And from there, we sit back and watch the desperate race as Theo and Julian fight to get Kee to the mysterious group "The Human Project" -- a near-mythical organization believed to be working toward saving humanity -- before her baby is born.
Cuarón could not have cast better than in choosing Owen to play his Everyman; Owen imagines the despair and depression of a single man's world falling apart, then magnifies that to infinity, as one man whose inner darkness reflects a world that has given up hope. Fiesty Moore is the perfect foil to Owen's ambivalence. Where Theo has given up hope, Julian has latched onto her inner activist; if she goes out, it will be kicking and fighting all the way, and one can well imagine the bitingly intelligent Moore reacting in much the same way as her character to such desperate circumstances. Newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey is radiates both strength and uncertainty as the young girl who finds herself in the curious position of being the hope of mankind. A strong supporting cast filled with talent including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, and a practically unrecognizable Caine bolsters the film as well.
Where some directors might have opted for making a sci-fi action film with flashy chase scenes, nifty futuristic special effects and gadgetry, and artsy camera angles, Cuarón has chosen instead to make a political and philosophical film. He holds up a mirror to our own worldview, reflecting back to us what we bring to it. Cuarón gives the environment equal weight with his characters, keeping the camera angles wide throughout and immersing us in the environment he's created. And a grim environment it is, with its dreary grey tones, gloomy lighting, bombed-out, war-zone look, and stone-faced soldiers hauling refugees off in buses reminiscent of concentration camp trains. It's no accident that Cuarón has set his film a mere 21 years in the future (the book is set 30 years distant, giving a little more breathing room); Children of Men is very much more a philosophical and political statement about the times in which we are living than a mere action-packed thriller.
We humans are a curious lot, dividing ourselves into alliances and enemies, by whim of chance and circumstance. In a world with no hope for a future beyond the present generation, would we support and help each other, or would we turn on our fellow humans like a pack of rabid dogs? Cuarón looks at the world as it is now -- people fighting and dying over whose religion is more "right," mass genocide in places like Rwanda and Sudan, children living in brutal poverty, even in countries with abundant overall wealth -- and overlays a vision of a world with no hope at all, to examine what might happen to humanity under such desperate conditions.
If you think Cuarón's vision of humanity is depressingly gloomy, well, it is -- all the more so because he's probably not too far off the mark. Cuarón blends art and religion, politics and war, into a seamless statement about mankind, and it's not a pretty sight. And yet, in spite of the darkness of the worldview presented here, Cuarón does not leave us completely bereft of hope; he shows us a flicker of light beneath the dark surface of anger and ambivalence with which he surrounds us. Children of Men raises more questions about the state of the world and our future than it answers; as to whether the film ends on a note of despair or hope for mankind, well, that depends, as Cuarón intended, on the philosophical view you bring to it.