In a recent article in Wired magazine, author Cory Doctorow writes about how the way a society reacts to disaster can result in a dystopia—the general term given to what happens when a civilization falls apart and resorts to mindless brutality. In the article, Doctorow likens the sense of panic and regression into primitive survival instincts that would constitute a dystopia to what happened on-board the Titanic the night it sank beneath the ocean: panic and a lack of cooperation led to only half the seats on many of the lifeboats to be filled, even as those survivors sat and watched more than 1,500 of their fellow passengers drown around them.
As Doctorow indicates, turning “mere crises into catastrophes” results in dystopias, and this occurs only after you have created the perfect conditions for such an imperfect society; namely, you must stoke the flames of fear and despair until you “convince people that when disaster strikes, their neighbors are their enemies, not their mutual saviors and responsibilities.”
In other words, you have to encourage a climate of hopelessness and cultivate a lack of faith.
The result of such a cultivation is, ironically, infertility: it is to create a spiritual infertility and and infertility in the sense that such a place would become, essentially, a groundless civilization—a society without history. Thematically, this is what Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men depicts, and in the film’s diagnosis of late-era capitalism and globalization, there is a suggestion that we really need to start thinking about filling up those goddamn lifeboats.
Science fiction, at its most potent, is a mirror for the current climate of society. It offers an alternative, heightened state of our own reality by offering us a warning reflection: this is what we may become. After all, what is the future if not a causal reaction spurred on from our own present?
Children of Men presents us with such a mirror. The world it presents is not a utopia on the brink of a collapse, but a dystopia on the brink of hope. Clive Owen’s Theo Faron must make a journey to get the first child to be born in an infertile land in 20-some years to the safety of The Human Project. The issue of infertility certainly has religious overtones [as does much of the movie], but even more of an inspiration to the film’s aesthetic may be T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland. After all, the loss of fertility is the loss of any substance of meaning, and in the film, this has resulted in turning London into a wasteland of dead land, burning animals, and fearful populations.
Cuarón makes the actual infertility of the film its focal point, but the film’s brilliance lies in how the societal infertility is placed into the background: Cuarón knows that the social decay has got to be seen in the distance for the film to make its point accurately, and this creates a sort of tension between the foreground and background. In this way, Theo’s hero journey is actually a mirror in itself through which you can see this infertile background even more clearly and make more connections to the heightened sense of reality you’re currently living in.
And that background of detail is never lacking. Through the production team’s amazing sense of detail, we the audience are shown everything it needs to know about the world of 2027 London in mere minutes, and we are also able to make connections to our present reality immediately.
Besides the immigration issues portrayed in the film, there are numerous indications and inferences to be made on what has happened to create this dystopia. The burning animals seen in the film at one point seems like a fairly standard representation of dystopian detail, but the implication is fairly recognizable to today’s world issues: when climate change begins destroying farmland and agriculture, such acts become a necessity of economic and environmental survival. The refugee crisis in the film indicates not just, perhaps, immigration out of war-torn countries, but also an indication of what could result from environmental migration, where fear of community outsiders creates a sort of climate-based apartheid system. Cities become weaponized and nation states arise from a globalized economy where the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger and more distinct, raising tensions even further.
Of course, if you really want to piece together the history of the film’s dystopia, just pause the film during the scene where Theo is put into a room lined with newspapers; the production designers actually created every single one of those newspapers to depict what has happened to London during the past few decades of the film’s history.
The film’s setting of London is important as well, as the metropolis is the center of globalization in the world during the 21st century, which makes sense within the context of the film as well. It also provides the audience with some grounding, for to make the reflection of this society to ours really work, it needs to play off our notion of current reality. References to England’s location, tradition, and history are engraved not just into the movie, but into our own consciousness as well, and this recognizability is key for the movie to perfect its reflection of our world—it is bleak, it is ugly, and most importantly, it seems real.
We can also see how this mirror-reality has decayed gradually. We see [and nearly feel at certain points], how the infrastructure is beginning to decay without any upkeep, how the cars are updated with hodge-podge technology, like an automotive Frankenstein stitched them together from an auto yard, how clothing has become stagnant, as though everyone simply stopped buying clothes twenty years ago, instead keeping the same dirty rags on day after day.
And all the while, the reflection seems unnervingly familiar. This is what makes its message even more clear, and its warning more alarming: civilization is not a resilient thing—it can descend. The realism behind its message, and its relevance, becomes that much harder to ignore.
Cuarón’s filmmaking also draw the audience into this relevance by focusing on a sense of realism. His long fluid camera takes are designed to create a sense of real time, sucking the viewer into the events as they happen, and the documentary style of the filming mimics a sense of realism that makes the world it represents feel lived in and authentic.
The point of this reflection is not to lead us to despair, but come to the film’s central message of hope. This heightened sense of reality should, as the film suggests, wake us up to our own. And in the way every good science fiction tale should, it offers a solution to its warning alarm. After all, the only cure for infertility is new beginnings.
Hope, whether it be from the possibility of getting a newborn to The Human Project, putting a temporary end to military violence through the sudden appearance of said newborn, or even just escaping back reality with a hippie Michael Caine and a bit of the old Strawberry Cough, can really only come from deep despair. It is a despair that necessitates the invention of something new.
As Doctorow writes in his article, “science fiction tells us better nations are ours to build and lets us dream vividly ... of those nations.” What is there to do when all seems hopeless, the world appears to be incessantly crumbling, and community seems to be collapsing under the weight of perceived disaster? Perhaps the answer is back in that half-filled lifeboat floating amidst the sinking Titanic.
Children of Men ends on a similar image: Theo and Kee make their way to a hopeful rendezvous with The Human Project on a small lifeboat of their own, and even though Theo is dying, he has hope in the fact that at least a future generation, one free of the despair of his current society, is possible. The solution is the boat—it is rootless, it floats, and it moves forward directly into the waiting arms of Tomorrow, suggesting that we too, in a sense, are rootless, free floating—a selection of survivors that must go on. Creating a world and story of heightened reality through science fiction’s most singular importance then lies in the fact that it should tell us something distinctly true not about our future, but about our present—that the truth of the matter is that the alternative, heightened sense of reality we have just observed has actually been our present reality all along.