First As Warning, Then As Threnody: On Cuarón's 'Children of Men'
With his prescient film, Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón hasn't flipped Hegel onto his head, as Marx and Engels were accused of doing -- he's knocked him off his feet.
During an epoch marred by a global resurgence of authoritarianism, mass migration, and unchecked capitalism, few other works of art are as helpful to the conversation about our species' future than Alfonso Cuarón's film, Children of Men (2006). By using German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's philosophy of history, the film, in part, predicted our current social-political situation—and even provides a stark warning of the future if our way of life doesn't drastically change. Cuarón makes Hegel accessible to the masses while reformulating the philosopher's belief in a rational end to history.
Cuarón's use of intertextuality makes the film an ideal primer on post-9/11 politics, aesthetic interpretation, and the multiple crises we face in the 21st century, allowing for an analysis of the film to simultaneously serve as a critical discussion of the intersection of Donald Trump's presidency, immigration, and the Climate Crisis. It is an example of what I call "ethical art"—pedagogical art that transcends the aesthetic sphere and makes a positive impact on the social, political, and ethical spheres.
The film's plot takes place in England in the year 2027. According to audio and visual cues in the background, most notably found in the opening scene, the rest of the world has fallen victim to civil war and ecological and nuclear disaster. "Only Britain Soldiers On" reads the ubiquitous propaganda. Due to the collapse of nation-states across the world, England has turned into a military dictatorship that ceaselessly hunts down "fugees"—what migrants are commonly referred to in the film. Moreover, more than 18 years have passed since the last recorded birth.
The plot centers around Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an alcoholic activist-cum-bureaucrat. Theo escorts the world's sole pregnant woman, a refugee named Kee (Claire Hope-Ashitey), through a barren wasteland, to rendezvous with a shadowy group of scientists known as The Human Project, avoiding armed insurgents and the British Army along the way. Mostly ignored upon its 2006 holiday release, the film has since found a second-life due to its topical storyline and being ranked amongst the greatest films of the 21st century by numerous critics.
The Hollow Men: Hegel, Infertility, and Climate Change
The driving force behind the plot of Children of Men is infertility—no woman has given birth in nearly two decades and no one knows why. Infertility serves as an ambiguous villain that has robbed humanity of its children, in turn draining all hope and rationality from society. We are witness to this lack of hope, replaced by rampant desperation, through constant advertisements for a government-sanctioned suicide kit known as Quietus (with its ominous tagline of "You Decide When") and encouragement to take fertility tests. The world has come to a standstill as it awaits death.
As Mark Fisher describes in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, the "catastrophe in Children of Men is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened…it is being lived through." This is extinction—not with a bang, but with a prolonged whimper. And it is within this lived-through extinction that Cuarón introduces himself as a unique Hegelian.
History, in the film, is quite literally "over". However, Cuarón's end of history differs from Hegel's. According to philosopher Peter Singer, writing in Hegel, Hegel's "thoughtful consideration" of history sought to "present its raw material as part of a rational process of development, thus revealing the meaning and significance of world history." He believed that human history was undergirded by a driving force, the progress of freedom. For Hegel, history would end when freedom was attained in the modern nation-state. This ultimate actualization of freedom would mark the logical end of the dialectic, which marches forth through time under the guise of theses, antitheses, and syntheses—contradictions confronting and ultimately synthesizing with opposites that in turn confront new contradictions (and so on and so forth).
However, due to infertility, the dialectic in Children of Men has reached an insurmountable impasse. Instead, the nation-state of Cuarón's film is one under strict totalitarian control, a xenophobic nation that has turned away from the "rational process of development" of Hegel's ideation, instead embracing the irrationality of militarism. Cuarón hasn't flipped Hegel onto his head, as Marx and Engels were accused of doing, he's knocked him off his feet.
screengrab: Universal Pictures official Children of Men film trailer (via YouTube)
Cuarón's new refutation of Hegel's philosophy of history and the theme of infertility lend themselves to discussion of a real-world issue threatening current and future generations: The Climate Crisis. In Children of Men, humanity is robbed of reproduction, its greatest biological gift. In our world, rampant reproduction, of both ourselves and modern industries, has severely strained our relationship to the planet. Marx and Engels, writing in The Communist Manifesto, compared industrialists to the "sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."
This notion of overdevelopment is echoed by philosopher John Gray in The Possibility of Hope, a short documentary that serves as an addendum to the film. In it, Gray wonders if humanity "understands" or "accepts" that it has "overshot the capacity of the planet." We find ourselves, as Cuarón has said, in the midst of a "spiritual infertility". He references reproduction in an ant colony as an act beneficial to the overall state of the commune, whereas human reproduction, due to "rampant [neo-]liberal capitalism", has become hedonistic. Thus far, bureaucrats have proven sterile in their efforts to confront this crisis rooted within the spirit of capitalism and the disasters accompanying it. While the notion of biological infertility is one of fantasy, ideological infertility has undergirded much of the 21st century.
According to a report released in late-2018 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have little more than a decade left before an increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels unleashes unprecedented disasters across the world. As previously mentioned, the future in Children of Men has already been ravaged by these catastrophes. The film presupposes a world in which the IPCC's warnings are ignored.
In just the past decade, we have witnessed record-breaking storms, unrelenting wildfires, and mass migration—all due to a warmer climate. World leaders have tried banding together through initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 by 195 countries, which aims to drastically curb the impact of global warming by 2100. However, there are a number of authoritarian individuals who continue to borrow against the future to consolidate wealth and power.
Clive Owen as Theo Faron and Julianne Moore as Julian Taylor, leader of The Fishes (IMDB)
Political theorist Francis Fukuyama warned of such individuals, whom he deemed the "last men" of history in his oft-discussed work, The End of History and the Last Man, a meditation on how the collapse of international communism potentially ushered in Hegel's "end of history". Fukuyama paints a portrait of the last man as the seemingly satisfied citizen of the modern democratic nation-state. After centuries of countless bloody wars and revolutions, the last man no longer has greater purpose to strive for other than material goods and his well-being, for history has been lived for him. The last man has no commitment to values, for his is a time of relativism, in which the mediocre are valued alongside the great and strong.
Along with Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, amongst others, Donal Trump is a last man who sees no just cause in fighting for, so he struggles against the just causes, both those fought for in the past and those lying in our future. Trump and those of his ilk do this because, according to Fukuyama, they cannot imagine a world without struggle, as if acting due to a "certain boredom". He has proven himself a selfish man aware of the dire crises facing both his nation and the planet yet opting to act in a selfish manner. Trump made it a priority to have the United States exit the Paris Agreement. Instead, his energy is devoted to forcing migrant children into camps along the southern border, deploying troops to prevent other migrants from reaching the US, and attempting to have a physical barrier erected between the US and Latin America.
In Children of Men, "fugees" are caged up and sent to Bexhill Refugee Camp, a massive, dense, ghetto-like encampment reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto or the Gaza Strip. Trump's rampant nationalism and thirst for power, a staple of post-9/11 conservatism, echoes that of the invisible strongmen in Children of Men. Both in reality and in the film, the left has failed to offer a viable political alternative to the hard-right. In the film, The Fishes, a far-left insurgent group, place a greater focus on politicizing the birth of Kee's baby as opposed to ensuring her safety and that of humanity as a whole. They resort to kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations in the face of unparalleled military might. Trump's influence, like that of many other right-wing populists, relies on a fear of the "other" and resentment for outsiders. The film's treatment of refugees was not only a reflection of its time but eerily accurate in predicting the metastasizing of the crisis.
The desire for a barrier to be erected on the southern US border is the concrete replication of rhetoric used by European leaders in the wake of the mass migration crisis the continent has dealt with since 2015, what some called the beginning of our "Children of Men moment." This migration crisis has seen millions of individuals from the Middle East and Northern Africa leave their homes due to war, crime, and warming temperatures. After a peak of one million migrant entries in 2015, four European countries, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, have refused to take in additional asylum-seekers. Migration has become a core issue in European elections, leading to the rise of far-right politicians all across the continent, most notably in England, Austria, Germany, and Italy.
Clare-Hope Ashitey as Kee / screengrab: Universal Pictures official Children of Men film trailer (via YouTube)
In England, xenophobia and the notion of an immigrant "invasion" were weaponized to garner support for Brexit, which will see the nation legally exit the European Union, soldiering on alone, as propaganda in the film shows. This scenario seems like a precursor to the film, in which refugees are ruthlessly hunted in a state stripped of all but its militaristic functions. Kee, whose pregnancy represents hope, is an undesirable in English society. When The Fishes are discussing what steps should be taken with Kee's pregnancy, Theo suggests it be made public. Miriam, a former mid-wife and Kee's caretaker, scoffs at the idea, suggesting the birth would be credited to a "posh black British woman". The England of Cuarón's film has blinded itself with rage and will not accept that its future doesn't rely on one of their own.
Though xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes are common place across Europe, EU leaders are not yet caging and executing asylum-seekers on a wide-scale, as seen in the film. However, according to a late-2017 report by The Guardian, various observers believe that the number of migrant arrivals in the EU is set to skyrocket yet again, once more due to war and climate change. Cuarón and his team of collaborators foresaw these events escalating, hence their prominent role in Children of Men. As the arrival of asylum-seekers proves to be an unending crisis continuously paraded for political power, proposed solutions may yet prove to be rash and barbaric.
The treatment of migrants in Children of Men serves as a teaching opportunity, due to its close relationship with post-9/11 political sentiment and the War on Terror. In a 2016 interview with Vulture, Cuarón recalls director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki remarking that "we cannot allow one single frame of this film to go without a comment on the state of things." This technique is put into practice throughout the film. For example, the buses leading to Bexhill and the signs adorning the camp read "Homeland Security", a reference to the cabinet department of the US federal government created by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversees counterterrorism efforts, cybersecurity, and immigration, amongst other tasks. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, with the creation of the DHS and the passing of the USA Patriot Act (2001), which provided sweeping powers to the executive branch in relation to the monitoring and detaining of suspected terrorists, critics believed civil rights would further erode during the War on Terror, an unending and ambiguous endeavor. The political actors in the film, riding the wave of fear as politicians across the world have done post-9/11, act with impunity. Indefinite detentions and questionable military operations permeate the film and reality. Cuarón notes the impact 9/11 had on the production of Children of Men, as it wasn't until after the terrorist attack that he felt the story was worth telling.
As Theo and Kee enter Bexhill, another reference is made to a controversial aspect of the War on Terror. Prisoners in the background are forced into poses mirroring those seen in the sadistic images stemming from Abu Ghraib prison. During the occupation of Iraq, Abu Ghraib was used by coalition forces to house prisoners. In 2004, leaked pictures from the prison showed coalition soldiers happily torturing and humiliating prisoners. The image referenced in the film is the infamous The Hooded Man, which displays a prisoner in a Christ-like pose, stripped of his clothes, eyesight, and personal safety, as he has electrical wires wrapped around his fingers.
Ultimately, a photograph could never convey the experience of war to spectators who have never been near a combat zone. However, cultural critic Susan Sontag, writing in Regarding the Pain of Others, states that "photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore." Thus, it was this photograph, an unintentional work of art, that widened the conversation in reference to the West's controversial role in the Middle East.
The Ark of the Arts: A Heap of Broken Images
Early in the second-act, Theo visits his cousin Nigel in hopes of securing transit papers for Kee. Nigel lives in a luxurious apartment within Battersea Power Station, itself located within a heavily fortified section of London, which houses the wealthy. Nigel runs the government's Ark of the Arts, an arm of the government in charge of securing and "preserving" art from around the world. When Theo enters Nigel's apartment, he sees him standing under Michelangelo's David, striking a similar pose to the statue. He casually tells a story about how he and his team tried saving La Pieta, another Michelangelo masterpiece, but it was "smashed up" when he arrived. Nigel laments that an unspecified catastrophe in Madrid was "a real blow to art". Theo has to remind a sedated and uncaring Nigel that what happened in Madrid was disastrous for people, too. The Ark of the Arts scene, running at just under five minutes, contains a wealth of material both crucial to the plot and any analysis of the film's politics.
Nigel's job is to remove art from society, to display it in a bourgeois non-environment littered with anti-depressants. In removing art from any meaningful context, Nigel's apartment is a gallery suspended outside of history. As Cuarón described it in a 2017 interview with Vulture:
scene with Pablo Picasso's Guernica in background (IMDB)
Cuarón's usage of cross-reference is key. During the climactic long-shot at Bexhill, the camera momentarily deviates from the main action to linger upon a grieving mother holding her martyred son. The shot is not only a reference to Michelangelo's La Pieta, but also to George Mérillon's photograph La Pieta du Kosovo, a winner of the World Press Photo of the Year award, and itself a nod to Michelangelo. Michelangelo's La Pieta may have been blown to bits in the film, but Cuarón's mise-en-scène places the artwork back within a cultural context. Nigel participates in the appropriation of art, while Theo lives through the horrors that inspire it.
As Theo and Nigel sit at the dining table, they are watched over by Pablo Picasso's Guernica, a powerful lamentation on the barbarities of modern warfare and one of the more recognizable works of art from the 20th century. Picasso's work "commemorates the decimation of Guernica by Nazis, Italian fascists, and Spanish Nationalists" in the service of General Francisco Franco. It has gone from embodying the horrors and absurdities Europe faced in the lead-up (and during) the Second World War, to merely serving as wallpaper.
Guernica foreshadows the destruction of London, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in the Second World War, and Sarajevo, Damascus, and Aleppo during our own epoch (1991-). Interestingly enough, several shots frame Theo within Guernica, foreshadowing his eventual confrontation with the British army and The Fishes at Bexhill, which results in an air raid that levels the camp. Once again, Cuarón masterfully returns art to the outside world, where events occur.
Whenever Theo and Nigel stand near the former's window and look out towards the city, yet another allusion is on display for the vigilant viewer. The iconic pig from Pink Floyd's Animals album hauntingly floats above London, going unmentioned by both men. Pink Floyd was paying homage to George Orwell's Animal Farm, a satirical riff on a society Orwell felt had lost its air of coherence: the Soviet Union under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin. The positioning of the pig represents the safety of the ruling class in Cuarón's dystopia, displaying them residing in heavily armed enclaves within London, embodying Orwell's oft-quoted line from Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
Clive Owen as Theo Faron and Danny Houston as Nigel (© 2006 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved. / IMDB)
The State of Things: The Politics of Hope and an Absent Future
The world of Children of Men, aesthetically reminiscent of our world, is decidedly non-futuristic, for there would be no reason for innovation if we were on the precipice of extinction. It is a society which functions without the "politics of hope", that utopian yearning which guides humanity toward a brighter future. In The Possibility of Hope, activist and writer Naomi Klein refers to utopianism as the "impulse to dream…to dream your way out of the present." Cuarón's world imparts a lesson: Though our current situation is bleak, this is what the world will look like devoid of all hope.
Ultimately, Theo's character, and the transformation he undergoes in the film, is symbolic of how the "politics of hope" can be rediscovered in a new era. At the beginning of the film, we meet Theo as a cynical bureaucrat who constantly drinks and smokes, seemingly numb to the world around him. He mirrors the decrepit state of the world he inhabits. Mere hours after witnessing the bombing of a coffee shop, he is picked up by Jasper (Michael Caine), an old hippie in the mold of John Lennon and his only friend.
On their way to Jaspers' home, while Junior Parker's cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" quietly plays in the background, Theo hints at having recently contemplated suicide. We learn that in his youth, Theo, along with his estranged wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), was a voracious leftist activist: Living in squats and unafraid to confront police officers—a far cry from the salty man from the first act of the film. However, Theo is awakened from his apathetic slumber after he is contacted by Julian, now the leader of The Fishes.
Julian needs Theo's help to get Kee to the coast. Initially, Theo doesn't know that Kee is pregnant, and is simply helping Julian in exchange for much-needed money. After Julian is assassinated by seemingly unknown assailants, Kee reveals to Theo that she is pregnant, and the stakes reach unimaginable heights, heights only surpassed after The Fishes attempt to murder Theo. Midway through the film, Jasper claims that life "is a mythical cosmic battle between faith and chance."
Michael Cain as Jasper / screengrab: Universal Pictures official Children of Men film trailer (via YouTube)
It is Theo's restored faith in humanity that undergirds his and Kee's journey to rendezvous with The Human Project, and it is through a series of chance happenings that they succeed. Theo becomes an ethical actor, even a messianic character, after being exposed to a glimmer of hope: Kee's pregnancy, "the miracle the world's been waiting for."
As has already been discussed, in Children of Men humankind is living through the apocalypse—the path to the end is long and desolate, full of agony and despair. Mark Fisher remarked that the world projected in the film "seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it." Unlike other dystopian films and novels, which imagine drastically different scenarios for society, Children of Men holds a mirror up to society.
Cuarón, Lubezki, and their supporting cast studied the foremost criticism of their day and anxiously watched as the dust from the World Trade Center settled. As events began to unfold, it was clear that history had picked up where it left off, events were no longer "on strike", as Jean Baudrillard once remarked.
The world drastically changed on 9/11, as the catastrophe set off a chain reaction of events—wars, elections, revolutions, etc.— that has not stopped. Children of Men's place in film history is unique in that it is one of the first major reactions to this new world, while also serving as somewhat of a documentary from this new world's future. It goes beyond the Platonic role of art as mimesis, or imitation of reality, as discussed in Susan Sontag's seminal essay, "Against Interpretation". In it, Sontag claims that, for Plato, the "painting of a bed is no good to sleep on", art can be visually stunning, but it cannot be anything beyond that. This is in stark contrast to the artistic potential of Children of Men, a rallying cry, a reminder that tomorrow's bed is not promised.
While we shouldn't expect that a film, or any work of art, will save the world, works such as Children of Men hold as much pedagogical merit as T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" or Picasso's Guernica. These works function not just as laments but as desperate calls for mass self-reflection. The film is worth teaching due to the conversations it enables, whether amongst seasoned leftists or teenagers becoming acquainted with the world of cinema.
As Theo, Kee, and baby Dylan escape Bexhill on a small wooden boat in the waning moments of the film, they float amidst the fog. It is here, by a buoy, that The Human Project arrives on a large fishing boat called Tomorrow. The name of the boat is an apt metaphor, for humans are a nomadic species. We spread out across the world after Homosapiens left the Horn of Africa tens of thousands of years ago.
Today, humans seek new homes due to economic exploitation, war, and climate change. The question at the root of this is: Are we going to truly make the effort to accept and understand that we are an interdependent species? If we are to embark on the Tomorrow, as opposed to nihilistically whispering that which is quiet and meaningless as the Titanic sinks, then we must do it hand-in-hand.
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