Film Reviews

Children of Men Alfonso Cuaron

Rating - 6/10

Alfonso Cuaron's career has swung widely from acclaimed adaptations of Dickens (Great Expectations), through the darkest teen movie I've seen (Y tu mamá tambien) to directing an admittedly acceptable Harry Potter franchise movie, and now finds him busily consolidating his reputation for distopian pessimism. In many respects Children of Men, a nightmarish envisioning of a world without children, is a failure as a film. Adapted from PD James's rare venture into sci-fi, Children presents London in 2027, 18 years after the last human birth. Its opening scenes are chilling: an all-too-familiar grey London morning - some minor technical advances noted - is punctuated by a bomb in a shabby post-Starbucks coffee shop. As our alcoholic, washed-out antihero, Theo (Clive Owen), stands shakily by a dustbin pouring scotch into his coffee, we glimpse in the smoke-wreathed background a women staggering out of the wreckage, one arm holding the severed other like the girl in WG Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction whose suitcase carried the charred remains of her child killed in a firebomb attack.

After the set-up - the world is collapsing, a neo-fascist authoritarian government maintains some sort of order in the country, immigrants are victimised, rounded up and ghettoised, and scare-mongering, divisive propaganda adorns every lcd display - the thriller part begins: Theo is in fact a former activist, and his long-estranged ex-wife, the ever-stunning Julianne Moore, needs his help on a mission on whose success or failure - gulp - may depend the whole future of humanity.

And from here on, as a film, Children of Men fails. Beyond the racist undertones in the portrayals of massed hoards of immigrants, beyond the incendiary images of jihadists in Bexleyhill, the central problem is a lack of plot: effectively, the movie turns into a lengthy chase, with no twists, surprises or apparent logic. The ending, of course, is wholly predictable.

But at the same time as Cuaron fails to create a tense, engaging movie, he does something far more potent: he creates a vision of the future. The novel was published in 1993, and it's hard not to imagine it as, in essence, a warning about the lengths to which an increasingly nasty Conservative government might have gone (remember Peter Lilley, anyone?). Instead, what we see echoes strikingly a number of developments in recent years; beyond the civil chaos and environmental ruin, both seemingly direct results of the loss of hope for the future that an absence of further generations brings, the politics of fear, biopolitical authoritarianism, and overt racism is oddly familiar. Although we never meet the leader responsible for the thuggish little-Englander politics - in James's version he is Theo's cousin - his or her worldview could all too easily have been scripted by an unchained John Reid or one of the nasty old-school Tories who lurk behind Cameron and whose job it is to appease the rabid readership of the Daily Express/Mail/Telegraph etc. Much of the chaos is the result of low-grade terrorism, some of which is apparently orchestrated by governments. But just as Saramago's plague of blindness in Essay on Blindness is an allegory for selfishness as the defining trait of late capitalism, the central trope of a lack of children functions as a cipher for a loss of faith in the future. Perhaps the underlying message of the green movement and the civil rights lobby is the appeal to future generations: from the famous anti-Franco poster "If you tolerate this then your children will be next" to the encouragement to consider the effects that global warming will have, if not on our lives, then on our children's.

Much of what Children of Men warns us is already happening: GWB's new laws allowing military trial without access to the prosecution's evidence and what in effect amounts to torture as part of an interrogation. In Brazil, a selection of politically motivated scandals are being orchestrated by the massive Globo network to undermine the progressive government of President Lula da Silva; in Argentina a man who testified against a military torturer disappeared the next day; in Children an investigative reporter is tortured into catatonia. Meanwhile back in the real world the police are pressing for more money to carry out their "terror plot" investigations and airports are locked down for the flimsiest of motives. Habeas corpus is about to bite the dust in this country.

Setting the film in 2027 is a neat trick: it's far enough away to be believable, near and familiar enough to be terrifying. The message is clear: get ready for the future, because it's much, much worse. Deliberately or not, Cuaron has made the loudest wake-up call since Fahrenheit 9/11.