Children of Men is the dystopic study of societal collapse, revolts, terrorism, class structure and urban decay with its only through-line being the chaos stringing them together. However, the emergence of a pregnant young woman, in a future where the prospect of bearing children has become all but extinct, the concept of hope and rebirth become, once again, an all too familiar prospect. Alfonso Cuarón is often praised for his intricate composition of drama and story, but Children of Men’s overlying power is relatively simple. In a future where humanity seems to draw closer and closer to its end, the first pregnancy of a woman in 18 years becomes humanity’s reemerging hint at its eternal capacity for beginnings. The film’s protagonist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is key to personalizing Children of Men’s broad social themes; as an idealistic man once driven by the hope that the world could change, only to throw in the towel once realizing it couldn’t.
The story of Children of Men sees Theo on an expansive odyssey pitting him in the crossfire between two warring groups: a brigade of terroristic revolutionaries and the government’s gestapo-esque military. In the opening scene, Theo blends into a crowd of spectators, watching as a news broadcast showcases the death of the world’s youngest living person (18 years old). The whole world seems to be profoundly affected by it. Not Theo, however. After a quick glance at the television he leaves the establishment and, not even a minute later, sees it explode before his eyes. As the camera surveys the destruction we see an awkwardly terrifying shot of a woman carrying her severed arm in a haze of ash and concrete dust. It’s a brilliant establishing shot, we don’t know who’s responsible for the destruction, we don’t who the target is, all Cuarón shows us a very literal fog of war, where good, bad, ally or enemy are obfuscated in a haze of uncertainty. Cuarón’s shows a conflict where neither side’s perspective matter (both just result in endless carnage). Rather, he places those pitted in the crossfire, those clear-minded enough not to hate either side unstintingly, as our point of view.
Theo’s journey has him scour the expanses of his world (an unrecognizable non-United Kingdom), from the seedy ghettos where he’s kidnapped by a group of rebel militia, to the penthouses of top-tier government officials living in detached ignorance from the chaos of the outside world. He has connections to both sides, his ex-lover Julian (Julianne Moore) is a rebel militia and his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is a government official. Theo, on the other hand, seems neutral to all this. He is resigned to live out the rest of his days aloof to the world’s misery so long as it doesn’t affect his sleepy content. It’s only after Julian coerces Theo to fight for her cause that the man becomes permanently affixed to arduous task of attempting to uphold the last remaining goodness in a world setting itself ablaze.
Alfonso Cuarón and a frequent collaborator, the acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, survey the vast urban sets of Children of Men with striking attention to detail. News clippings in the background aren’t resigned to decorative pop art but demonstrate powerful social contexts through world news, political undercurrents and fiery civil unrest. They can also show personal tragedies, a photograph of Theo and his old flame Julian in a friend’s house show a child positioned between them. The reference gives Theo’s ennui a texture of personal tragedy (the loss of a child) amid a larger tragedy (the disappearance of children altogether), giving his journey a sense of emotional reconciliation above political motivation.
This motif becomes emblematic by Children of Men’s affective conclusion as we finally see Theo, Kee and her child safe in boat, awaiting the arrival of the long anticipated Human Project. The sequence is replete with gnawing uncertainties towards the fate of the world’s future, but Cuarón cues us in on Theo showing Kee how to rock her crying baby to sleep. The moment is sobering and bittersweet, and while the world’s fate is uncertain and humanity’s victory unsure, Theo’s melancholic (but contented) smile and Kee’s decision to name her daughter “Dylan” (after the man’s long deceased son) makes us aware of the small victories humans share, the ones that make us want to pull through even in the worst of times. And although he doesn’t guarantee us a happy ending, Cuarón certainly makes us aware that one exists, not totally out of reach.