In 2027 no children have been born anywhere for eighteen years. Most of the world is in chaos, collapsed under the weight of its own despair or under the blows of terrorists. Britain has maintained relative order under a dictatorship that employs draconian methods against illegal immigrants, caging them like animals, segregating them in abandoned cities, forcibly deporting them. Perhaps to distract the populace from despair and calls for rebellion from a violent underground ("the Fishes"), the government, through the "Homeland Security Department," beats a constant drumbeat of mindless patriotism and xenophobia. Meanwhile it urges suicide—via a drug called "Quietus"—on the oldest and feeblest.
Theo Furon (Clive Owen), a disaffected, rumpled, rather alcoholic government worker, is forcibly drawn into the underground through a personal contact. Owen laudably eschews the "movie star/leading man" mode, which he could easily pull off, letting himself appear unkempt, weak, and decidedly not larger than life, retaining only the movie star quality of being instantly likeable and sympathetic. Julianne Moore plays his contact and former lover, Julian. Moore, who always turns in a solid performance, seems fitted to the role of rational/compassionate revolutionary, attractive yet earnest and proper/hyper/stiff, someone you would expect to be in control.
Julian urges Theo to obtain transit papers for a refugee, Kee (Claire Hope Ashitey), to reach the coast. But Theo has to accompany her and ... she's pregnant. She's to be spirited away by a shadowy off-shore organization, The Human Project, which may be able to turn her pregnancy into humanity's salvation. Ashitey makes Kee seem strong and independent, never, in herself, out of her depth, even while she's being pulled hither and yon in circumstances beyond her control. The Project is a weak element in an otherwise gritty, complex, and detailed world. We know almost nothing about it, other than its lame 80s-sounding name. Kee might as well be going off to Rivendell or Hy Breasil.
At any rate, complications ensue, and soon Theo and Kee are on the run.
Readers of P.D. James's Children of Men will recognize some of the scenario, but it's best to put the book out of mind when watching this exciting and thoughtful film by Alfonso Cuarón, director of Y tu mamá también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuarón has taken the focus off humanity's coming extinction and made a study of the quest for, and the abuses of, power. James's novel does share those concerns, but Cuarón's film becomes a vehicle for an examination of xenophobia, terrorism, and the cruel treatment of refugees. Immigration is not the primary concern of the book, in which a white British citizen, not a black illegal immigrant, becomes pregnant, and where immigrants are allowed into Britain as workers, called "Sojourners," under close supervision and regulation. They are for the most part treated badly, kept segregated, and not allowed to stay past their time, but the situation the movie presents—immigrants in cages, or living like near-animals in a bombed out prison city—is far more extreme and more central to the story.
Why, then, make this film out of this novel?
Cuarón has said that he became interested in making the film when he saw how to use the story to comment on the present day—our careening-out-of-control world of armed, asymmetric conflict, with lunatic terrorists determined to force their will on the world, frightened people in flight, and ruthless governments determined to destroy the terrorists and forbid unlawful entry into their borders. The comparison to the Republican-run US—hence Britain's "Homeland Security"—is clear, with the refugee city of Bexhill standing in for Iraq.
Cuarón saw that the hopelessness of mankind facing its end could be a metaphor for the hopelessness many now feel looking at the world. In the plot's context, the birth of a child elicits a kind and degree of hope it would not normally do. It does not seem clichéd in the film (to have a birth symbolize hope) because of the context and because of how it's played—the execution is (sometimes) all. But also because it is not the birth per se that counters the inhumanity and brutality of the film's world, of our world, and gives cause for hope (whatever Cuarón's intentions). The distinction may seem fine, but it's not the plot-central appearance of a child after eighteen barren years that carries the real weight of hope. Perversely, it's the common humanity of the birth, the same as of any birth, irrespective of the fictional context, and the tenderness and concern the birth and child elicit, that present the most powerful response to inhumanity. A battle pauses for this child, in wonder and humbling joy, which fits the film's scenario; but the real hope invoked is for the warmth and decency of common humanity to offset the kind of power struggle that makes people see one another as some kind of "other," unworthy of life or compassion.
The film returns again and again to what is decent and humane, and this conveys a hope—though it's a frail candle in a powerful gale of violence—more powerfully and subtly than the miraculous appearance of the child. On several occasions we enter homes, even in the worst of circumstances, where surfaces are covered with pictures of loved ones, of happy times, a mixture of snaps and studio photos and the like. This profusion of background detail makes the characters more real to us, as people in a fiction, but also in the way that, even in life, people become more real to us when we know them better; real in the way that people are not real to those who have no compunction punishing or killing them. These pictures present an alternative to the inhumanity of the ambitious and ruthless: family, friends, affection, laughter, decency, warmth, humor, home. In words, this seems trite, but it is never said in words or even emphasized.
Other elements making the same point: the many acts of kindness and sacrifice Theo and Kee meet with, helping them on their way. Theo himself growing out of alcoholic self-pity (he himself has lost a child) and anomie into a self-forgetting kind of heroism. His friend and mentor Jasper (Michael Caine, chipper and endearing), an aging leftist pothead political cartoonist with a vulgar sense of humor, with his silliness (even his penchant for fart jokes), his tenderness and love for his senile wife, his cheerful courage, and his willingness to sacrifice.
Despite its themes, the film never seems saccharine. It plays as an action film and from fairly early on hurtles ahead. Time and again, scenes of humor, warmth, and affection are in the next moment erased by shocking violence, and what the party surrounding Kee meets with makes it clear that the cost of hope is high. It's shot with a hand-held camera, giving it an immediate, unsettling feel; that feel is stressed in a key central scene filmed in what seems one long, claustrophobic take. The film's palette is gray-blue, a bit like the slickly violent Mel Gibson film Payback, but drabber, and of course, to a different purpose. Much of the soundtrack is rather raucous, increasing the sense of the unsettling.
Those who stay until the very end of the credits will be rewarded with an insight into Cuarón's take on his material. The final musical track, Jarvis Cocker's "Still Running the World," says in part "That the cream cannot help but always rise to the top / Well I say, shit floats"; the refrain is "cunts are still running the world" (in the British sense of "cunts"—somewhere closer to "pricks" and "stupid bastards" in American). The world is run by people whose cause is so important or whose ambition, greed, or paranoia so overwhelming that they don't care what harm they do, or to whom. The alternative to the abuses of power, whether from "above" or "below," is all the commonplace human things that have no power, no market value. All those pictures of loved faces.
A postscript about the genre of this film, which is, after all, being reviewed here in a science fiction/fantasy magazine. In an interview atrottentomatoes.com (which seems to come originally from ign.com), Clive Owen opines that this film is not science fiction: "It's more relevant than a lot of films set right now." Since science fiction, as we all know, does not and cannot deal with current issues or anything relevant.
Well, Owen's comment was offhand. But in a Dec. 28 essay in The New York Times, "Children of Differing Visions: Contrasting a P. D. James Novel and the Movie It Inspired," critic Caryn James writes: "'The Children of Men' is not another of Ms. James's famed detective novels, and it is not, as it has sometimes sloppily been described, science fiction. It is a trenchant analysis of politics and power that speaks urgently to this social moment..." Because, of course, science fiction doesn't and can't do that. Science fiction, as we well know, is about ray guns.
But really: is 1984 not science fiction? LeGuin's The Dispossessed? Does the thematic aim or effect of a work change its genre? Or has Ms. James been paid for opining so long that she has mistaken someone being willing to pay for her opinion with the misconception that her opinion is always valuable, no matter how ill-informed?
Perhaps science fiction has overreached somewhat (not in my opinion; but let's just say). Why is anything set in the future, even if it doesn't deal with a scientific topic, automatically "science fiction"? Or why are alternate histories automatically considered science fiction? Perhaps such types of work shouldn't be considered so, de facto.
But we are not, in fact, at day one of science fiction, or of the theoretical and critical consideration of it. There is a body of opinion and writing by people who have made the field their special concern, plus a body of practical application of theory in libraries and bookstores throughout the world, every time The Man in the High Castle or Brave New World is shelved in the science fiction section. The people who know science fiction best, from critics to book buyers, recognize certain subgenres as part of it. If you want to claim that they aren't or shouldn't be, fine—make your argument. There may be grounds for it. But don't simply come along at this late date and declare, based on nothing but your unfounded and profoundly ignorant opinion, that they are not.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published 16 short stories, with more forthcoming, and over 160 nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.