The prime directive for a fiction writer is “Show, don’t tell.” Readers lose interest if the writer offers nothing more than a lecture—telling how the world works, telling how a character feels. Showing requires context—for example, the writer wouldn’t say a character is sad, they would say the character looks out a window, quiet, letting their coffee grow cold. In sci-fi, instead of being told the elaborate, futuristic governmental organization of a group of planets, we would be told of a single family’s experience as colonists on one world, seeing the effect of either the dysfunction or effectiveness of that government upon them.
World building within film often works best in a similar manner. Instead of being told directly about the setting, allowing an organic development of the state of things to be shown to the audience is often more effective at demonstrating the world the characters are living in. Among the most famous examples of this, Blade Runner’s many shots of a decrepit, futuristic LA—smoke stacks spouting fire, strange pyramidal buildings, and glimpses of a Japanese influence that has rewritten the city’s landscape—is the precursor to Children of Men that seems most apt.
Alfonso Cuarón’s use of a roving, neutral camera that observes not just the primary story of the protagonists and their experiences, but also the experiences of the tertiary characters or incidental, background characters are key in experiencing the world of the film. He has used this effect similarly in his earlier movie Y Tu Mamá También, allowing the happenings of the background of the film to affect our understanding of the experiences of the characters in the foreground. In Children of Men, this is used to develop our understanding of the world in its failed, chaotic, infertile state.
The film has been lauded for its immersive, almost invisible special effects: CGI backgrounds that show new digital billboards, or insanely long shots that weave through worn-in landscapes of bombed-out refugee camps. But Cuarón’s more important elements are those that are added in small doses, allowed diegetically into the frame of the film.
Instead of a narration or opening crawl that directly states the film’s premise—no children are being conceived and the world has fallen apart around the social and philosophical results of that lack of population growth—we are introduced obliquely to it by a newscast that the main character is watching in a coffee shop. The news story, however, is not about the high-concept global infertility story, but about how the youngest person alive has died. A crowd in a coffee shop watches the news intensely as Theo [Clive Owen] pushes himself through to place his order, registering the news but cynical about the reality. The news story continues playing over the TVs in the background as Theo walks out and down the street. Moments later, a bomb goes off in the very coffee shop he was just in, throwing the immediate world into chaos.
Cuarón is very smart about how he constructs this sequence—it is the first of the famous long takes of the film, broken by a cut directly to the TV showing the story, then back to Theo. We see parts of the story on the television behind him as well, and the camera follows him out the shop, where more tributes to the dead man are playing on large, billboard-like displays running down the sides of buildings. Theo continues, and the date and location appear explicitly on the screen—“London, 16th November 2027”. He continues to walk, and all of the buildings seem to have these animated billboards on them as well, as do vans and buses. Nothing is so outlandish to take us out of the moment—as of today in 2017, there is nothing in the scene that feels like a dated sci-fi trope. There are rickshaws and dirty vehicles and normal people that are walking the streets. Everything feels grounded and real. This makes the explosion out of the coffee shop all the more jarring.
A short while later, Theo is on his way home from his government job [a detail that is only really made clear as Theo passes a sign that says “Ministry” as he walks into his office] and a propaganda advertisement plays on the train’s television. A series of disasters from around the world are shown [including a mushroom cloud in New York City]. “The world has collapsed,” it says. “Only Britain soldiers on.” Theo’s train is assaulted by rocks and water bottles by protesters standing in front of a graffiti’d billboard. “Last one to die, please turn off the lights,” it says. After he leaves the train, he passes by holding cells for refugees.
The world of the film develops with this constant, organic feeding of information. These details happen in both the background of the scenes as well as in the foreground. Theo meets with his friend, pot dealer Jasper [Michael Caine], and a bus of “illegal immigrants” passes their car. “Fugees,” Jasper calls them, not without some empathy. They drive pass a mass grave of dead horses, smoldering after being set on fire. There’s not been any indication of animal pandemics occurring in the world [and, indeed, there isn’t much else in the film to show why this herd of horses has been killed and incinerated], and so we have to ask “Why?” Whatever reason we come up with is better than what the film would tell us.
So much of the film’s world is introduced first on the fringes of the story—Theo wakes up in his apartment to an advertisement for “Quietus”, later revealed as a suicide/euthanasia drug, and moments later Theo walks past more graffiti stating “The Human Project Lives”—it won’t be until Theo is later kidnapped by his ex-girlfriend and her band of militants that we find out what “the Human Project” even is. These elements exist in our subconscious as we watch the film, later seized on and developed, creating the sensation of a world larger than just what we are witnessing on the screen.
These elements all pay off in the tour de force final sequence set within a “Fugee Camp,” as Theo and Kee [Clare-Hope Ashitey], seemingly the first expectant mother in decades, navigate through in their quest to a boat just off the coast which promises their salvation. The camp is fully-formed, with an entire social order existing within the walls. It is frighteningly reminiscent of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The Human Project, a semi-mythical group of doctors working to solve the fertility issues of the world, has set up a boat off the coast. Kee’s unexpected early labor and the assault of the militants upon the camp [against the British forces, but the refugees are inevitably caught in the middle] make their escape incredibly difficult.
But the moment that the soldiers glimpse the newborn baby and both sides stop long enough for Theo and Kee and the child to leave is transcendent, and it is transcendent exactly because of the specificity that this world exists in. This brutal world, where bombings are matter of course and suicide drugs are all the rage and a descent into despair is accepted as the natural course of things, stops in utter wonder at the hope of a new child.