Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Children of Men by Timothy Sun

Children of Men by Timothy Sun

And now one for all the nostalgics out there, a blast from the past all the way back from 2003, that beautiful time when people refused to accept the future was just around the corner.

A throwaway line overheard from a radio DJ that elicits a chuckle until you realize it’s not funny at all. This succinct, damning account of the decade we are now closing struck me hard as I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men for the third time. Had I missed this line before? Or did it just take more time, a more reflective moment like the end of the decade for such a judgment to reveal its essential truth? Time magazine called the past ten years the “decade from hell,” and yet it’s amazing to remember that at the start of 2003, despite the 9/11 attacks a little over a year before, America was delusionally ascendant. The Taliban had been driven out of Afghanistan in a mere days-long war; Iraq, if we invaded, would be just as easy to wrap up; Osama bin Laden was nowhere to be found but we’d find him soon enough; we’d emerged from the dot com bubble and post-9/11 slump with a purring economy, ready to roar; if you couldn’t afford something, you could always borrow against your house since real estate prices were only going up; Wall Street was gorging on what would only later become known as “toxic assets”; bird flu was unheard of, much less swine flu; global warming, if it was even happening, was something we couldn’t be bothered with.

We know how well all that turned out. And as the disasters mounted, as more and more revelations of governmental malfeasance and military cruelty surfaced, the more despondent the national mood became. In the fall of 2004, I was in London studying the Iraq war and the larger war on terror; after particularly depressing classes, when it seemed the US and Britain had been sucked into a vortex of self-perpetuating violence, I would sometimes feel sure my next tube ride would end in an explosion (and less than a year later, the tube did indeed explode). On the eve of the presidential elections that fall, one of my classmates admitted in all earnestness, “I’m scared.”

No film of the last ten years has captured what it felt like to live in this decade better than Children of Men. Ostensibly set in 2027 but engaged furiously with the here and now, Cuarón’s magnificently bleak vision emerged out of the darkest depths of the Iraq War, in that particular mid-Aughts period of post-Bush disillusion and pre-Obama hope. It is a vision of a world beset by ubiquitous violence, draconian government oppression and, worst of all, no reason to care.

For 18 years, women have not been able to bear children. With no future, humanity has descended into hopelessness—suicide kits are sold over the counter, “fugees” fleeing their homelands are rounded up into concentration camps, terrorists run rampant. As the film opens, Theo (Clive Owen) gets a cup of coffee from a shop as its patrons watch a report of the death of “Baby Diego,” the world’s youngest person. As Theo leaves, the camera follows him and takes in a panoramic mise-en-scène packed with details. This is London, alright, but dirtier, grayer, uncannily like what we know, yet not. As Theo takes a sip of his coffee, the shop explodes and the camera hurtles forward, revealing, just long enough for the viewer to comprehend, a women holding her own blown off arm.

All of the films rigorous, dynamic formal strategies are on display in this opening scene, and certainly what follows is one of the formal masterpieces of our time. The film’s two one-take action sequences – a roadside ambush filmed entirely inside the attacked car and an immortal tracking shot following Theo as he races through a war zone – have been so remarked upon, however, that their epic virtuosity often overshadows the quieter formal elements that tie such a detailed, fully-formed vision together:1 its wandering camera, its dense mise-en-scène, little snippets of dialogue and glances at TV screens. A tremendous amount of information is conveyed in this way throughout the film, allowing Cuarón to immerse the viewer in his world without having to explain it. While the film adheres strictly to Theo’s point of view, the camera often deviates from him, picking up details – a protest in the streets, for instance – that fill in the milieu. A TV screen on a bus flashes through a montage of world disasters, including a mushroom cloud over New York, so that when Theo asks Julian (Julianne Moore), “Were your parents in New York when it happened?” that’s all that needs to be said.

This strategy also allows the film to make its political points subtly. It is mentioned throughout the film that Theo used to be an activist, the antithesis of the apathetic alcoholic he appears to be. And while it’s never made explicit, photos that the camera casually take in show a young Theo at what appears to be an anti-Iraq War rally; Jasper, the aging pothead photojournalist played with wit and warmth by Michael Caine, has a little knickknack on his shelf that says “BUSH.” And in what has become a cliché, though not at the time of the film’s release, a sidelong glance by the camera reveals a prison guard snapping a black hood over a prisoner’s head, invoking, of course, Abu Ghraib.

Despite these nods to our current affairs, the film’s politics remain purposely vague—there is no real call to action for a specific cause or any particular issue to rail against. It is more interested in the general sense of a world going to shit, and a preoccupation with Iraq and terrorism. A fresh viewer of the film today may even see it as dated, our litany of crises having moved on to Afghanistan and the economy. Provided the world takes a turn for the better, future generations may look at the film as a curio—what was all the fuss about in the 2000’s? But one of the film’s themes is the commonality of humanity’s evils and virtues throughout history. In the climactic third act, set in a refugee camp that looks exactly like a Jewish ghetto from 1940’s Europe, the conflicts of the present – as represented, for instance, by a Muslim march through the streets with cries of “Allahu Akbar” – are conflated with the conflicts of the past, as iconified in the setting’s Holocaust imagery. And as urban warfare consumes the camp, the dominant frame of reference is Fallujah. “The whole idea,” Cuarón said in an interview, “is to try to bring the state of things, what is happening outside the green zones that we happily live in and what happens if we bring the world into the green zones.” For a public that has largely been sheltered from the sacrifices that our two wars demanded on the few, the intensity of the combat in these scenes – and the helpless desperation that Theo, our surrogate, clings to for survival – is about as close a glimpse of what it meant to be in a war zone this decade as most of us will get.

The conflation of the past, present and future can be construed as simply political naiveté, but I think Cuarón’s aim is to generalize the indignities and crimes humans (and their governments) have committed against each other for centuries – the last decade being only the most immediate example – to set in starker relief the eternal hope that has sustained people through the ages. For that is, in the end, what the film is about. As Theo and Kee, the miraculously pregnant refugee placed in his care, wade through the soldiers and bullets, the sound of a crying baby sings out over the carnage and the combatants’ guns are silenced. Soldiers and fugees alike look on as Theo, Kee and the baby pass, not so much in amazement as gratitude, a reason for living having finally been granted. There is no purer expression of the universal desire to create a better world for our children, no more transcendentally moving moment in the past decade of cinema than this.

The revelation of the child is an almost holy moment, Theo’s Joseph and Kee’s Mary shepherding the Baby Jesus through a baptism of fire. Yet the film wears its Christ allegory lightly, even playing it for laughs. The first time Kee reveals to Theo that she’s pregnant, Theo’s response is, “Jesus Christ.” It is tempting to read Christian motifs into the film, though like its politics, Children of Men does not translate well into a one-to-one representational correspondence either with current affairs or religious allegory. Indeed, the only outright displays of spirituality in the film are by Jasper and Miriam, the midwife accompanying Kee and Theo on their journey. Both characters are conspicuously non-Christian; at separate times, they each chant “shanti shanti, shanti,” a Buddhist/Hindu mantra of peace. T.S. Eliot ends “The Wasteland” with the same chant, a repudiation of Christendom in the wake of the global cataclysm that was World War I. Perhaps Jasper and Miriam – and the film – enduring similarly cataclysmic times, arrived at a similar rebuke.

Rather than religion, rather than government, the film puts is faith in people. This bleakest of films gives way to the brightest of hopes – despite its brutality, despite its cynical condemnation of this decade just closed, it is a celebration of our capacity for personal redemption, our striving for a dignified existence and our essential goodness. And as we say goodnight to this dark decade, the film provides a simple, perfect symbol for all our hopes for a better future: an approaching ship called Tomorrow.

  1. Yet even the large set pieces, allowed to function on their own within the film without all the cinephilic praise, do not draw attention to themselves, as such cinematographic flourishes are wont to do—the first time I saw the film, I was not even aware that the car sequence had been shot in on take, so enrapt was I with the on-screen action. Emmanuel Lubezki’s work here, taken in conjunction with his work on Terrence Malick’s The New World, rightfully places Lubezki on the short list for World’s Best Cinematographer.


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