Science Fiction is a genre defined by the worlds that it builds. It’s the province of spaceships and telepathy and lasers and robots. It’s the realm of special effects and action sequences. It’s a flight of fancy that’s designed to take you to another world where there’s no place for your quotidian troubles. At least that’s what many think. And they wouldn’t be wrong a lot of the time. Look through the slate of blockbusters that have trundled through our theaters over the decades, and many fit the description above. There’s Star Wars [Space Ships, Lasers, Aliens, Robots, Special Effects and Action Galore]. There’s the Marvel movies [Space Ships, Aliens, Robots, Special Effects and Action Galore]. There’s Star Trek [Space Ships, Lasers, Aliens, Robots, Special Effects and Action Galore]. Terminator [Lasers, Robots, Special Effects and Action Galore]. Seeing a trend here? It’s no surprise that, for many, the suggestion to watch a Science Fiction film results in an eyeroll followed by a look of, “if we must.” Science fiction, though, can be so much more than that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love lasers and aliens as much as the next child trapped in a man’s body. It’s just that I know that a lot of people write off the genre without giving it a fighting chance for precisely those reasons. At its best, though, science fiction transcends its conventions, using its flexibility to highlight aspects of an individual or society in a way that other genres cannot. By rendering the impossible tantalizingly real, the genre can work as a carnival hall of mirrors for humanity, drawing our attention to some features by enlarging them out of proportion. The greatest science fiction immerses us completely in an imagined world to reflect reality back to us while emphasizing certain attributes. When a science fiction film gets it right, I leave a movie seeing the world anew.
In my lifetime, only a handful of sci-fi movies have reached this level of transcendence. Chief among them is Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Set in the year 2027, nearly 20 years after the birth of the last child on earth, the world is on the brink of collapse from social unrest and war. England is one of only a few enclaves in the world where a semblance of order remains. The film follows Theo [Clive Owen], a disillusioned activist turned bureaucrat, who finds new meaning in life as he escorts Kee [Clare-Hope Ashitey], a pregnant young refugee, to the Human Project, a group researching a cure for infertility on the Azores. The plot itself is entertaining but nothing special. Science fiction has long had a fascination with decaying society and shattered worlds. What really makes Children of Men stand out is its use of this bleak setting and the characters inhabiting it to illuminate the way that hope in the future underpins society.
Hope is a word that’s bandied around a lot, but few express how important this concept really is. Dictionary.com defines the word as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” Sounds about right. It’s the feeling I got when I was waiting eagerly for college admissions decisions. It’s the feeling that was mixed with love when I first told my wife that I loved her. It’s the feeling I’m sure to have, mixed with fear, when I’m waiting in some doctor’s office for important test results. When I start thinking about it, hope is everywhere in my life. As a matter of fact, I might say it’s the thing that gets me out of bed every morning, as sappy as that sounds.
I hadn’t taken the time to think about this central role of hope in my life until I sat down to watch Children of Men. Seeing that imaginary near-future where all hope has been extinguished, opened my eyes to the way that it’s fundamental to life. Of course, every film dealing with the end times addresses this issue. There’s the tired trope of people simply cutting loose and descending into libertinism as the world killing asteroid approaches. There’s truth in this idea. A loss of hope in the future, after all, can be equated loosely by some to a world with no consequences. Unfortunately, it also leaves out a lot. Children of Men, through its characters and its myriad details takes a deeper dive into what hope and hopelessness mean.
Take the vividly realized backdrop of refugees that shrouds this film. The camera frequently takes a moment to look away from the action to show an old lady pressed up against the bars of a cage or anti-immigration protesters marching through the streets. It repeatedly hints at a world beyond England riven by war and conflict. Even while we’re given a vivid story about hope through the main characters of Theo and Kee, we’re also witnessing what happens to humanity when hope fades. Without hope, people close themselves off to the world. They grow suspicious of others who they might have once cooperated with. Society frays until it disintegrates as the collective dream of a better world if not for ourselves, then for our children, loses its grip on everyone. Where, once, everyone marched roughly in the same direction, towards a brighter future, now they march in whatever suits them best in the moment. Some turn to another world for hope. Others, like Theo’s friend Jasper [Michael Caine] consider a peaceful death as the way forward. Yet others like Luke [Chiwetel Ejiofor] and Julian [Julianne Moore] pour all their efforts into a short-term cause, possibly losing their way in the process. By the end of the film, we find out that Theo, so jaded at the start of the film, would rather die than give up hope.
And then Children of Men ends, and I’m returned to the very real world. Somehow, though, the film has skewed my perceptions. I see the world through the lens of the film. I see how the conflicts around me, both far and near, can be conceptualized as a lack of hope. The world, which has been sitting before me all this time, looks new again. Children of Men reaches the pinnacle of science fiction. Through its vividly realized characters and settings, it allows viewers to observe the real world with a new set of eyes. It reveals what’s obscured within the quotidian. That is the true power of the science fiction.
Here is what we'll explore this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 14
- A deeper look how immigration is painted in Children of Men
- Scene analysis of three pivotal long takes
- A Related Review on another recent post-apocalyptic thriller, District 9
- And more!