Alfonso Cuarón may well make history at the Academy Awards this month. The Mexican maestro’s visually ravishing autobiographical drama, Roma, has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, best director, best foreign language film and best actress. This is an extremely rare feat for any film, and unprecedented for a Spanish-language feature. Already garlanded with multiple prizes and awards, Cuarón’s Netflix-backed nostalgia fest has been universally hailed as a career-crowning masterpiece.
As the director of Y tu mamá también (2001), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Gravity (2013), Cuarón is no stranger to critical and commercial glory. But his best, darkest, most underrated film to date received a much more ambivalent reception back in 2006. A dystopian thriller layered with religious, cultural and political symbolism, Children of Men painted a desolate but disturbingly recognisable picture of a near-future world pushed to the brink of extinction by mass sterility and social unrest. Cuarón called it the “anti-Blade Runner”.
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Despite earning positive reviews and festival prizes, Children of Men performed poorly at the box office and plunged Cuarón into a long, soul-searching career hiatus. However, like many great cult films, this social-realist sci-fi classic has grown in stature and significance during its restless afterlife. More than a decade later, it now appears to be loaded with uncanny portents of the War on Terror, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, Abu Ghraib, Brexit, Donald Trump and the global refugee crisis.
Watching Children of Men today, with its stark scenes of caged “fugees” forcibly detained in militarised border camps, it feels unnervingly like a grim prophecy of our current climate, a world reshaped by right-wing populism and homeland insecurity. In August 2016, the political scientist and bestselling author Francis Fukuyama claimed Cuarón’s film “should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump”. Just weeks later, Vanity Fair’s chief critic, Richard Lawson, suggested Children of Men “should be required viewing for anyone grappling with feelings of dread about modern civilisation. Which is to say, probably everyone.”
The roots of the film, however, were much less overtly political. Adapted from a 1992 novel by the veteran British crime author P.D. James, Children of Men takes place in Britain in 2027, an authoritarian state weakened by a mysterious worldwide cataclysm that has rendered the entire human race infertile. As Britain is one of the last remaining semi-stable nation states, it becomes a magnet for migrants fleeing plague and war in their homelands, only to find themselves demonised and imprisoned in vast coastal internment camps. Terrorist bombs and violent extremists have reduced London to a grimy, grubby, low-level war zone.
Struggling to find hope in this fallen world is the film’s sardonic anti-hero, Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a former activist who is cajoled back into political engagement by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), the leader of a pro-immigrant revolutionary cell called the Fishes. Julian shares a miraculous secret with Theo: these underground radicals are harbouring the world’s first pregnant woman for two decades, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey).
But after Julian dies in a roadside ambush, Theo breaks free from the treacherous Fishes and goes on the run with Kee, hoping to deliver her to a secretive fertility research group called The Human Project. He is aided along the way by his old friend Jasper, an ageing hippie radical played by Michael Caine in one of his most unusual autumnal roles. Caine suggested to Cuarón that he model Jasper on John Lennon, and the results are delicious.
Premiered in Venice in September 2006, Children of Men struck a timely chord, earning positive reviews and Oscar nominations. But as an almost unrelentingly bleak, morally complex thriller whose biggest headline star is killed off in the first half hour, its commercial appeal was always going to be tricky. In the States, Universal effectively dumped the film with a Christmas holiday release. It went on to earn an underwhelming $70m, less than its $76m budget, and was soon filed away in the canon of well-regarded flops. Cuarón then dropped off the radar for “the five most intense and difficult years of my life”, but eventually bounced back with the hugely successful Gravity.
In the middle of preparing to shoot Roma in Mexico City, Cuarón reflected fondly on Children of Men for a 2016 interview with Abraham Riesman of Vulture magazine. But he rejected suggestions that the story was some kind of cautionary future prophecy. Even before making the film, he recognised the grim landscape it depicted was already a reality for millions of global citizens, especially those living outside the fragile ‘green zone’ of wealthy western democracies.
“Children of Men, more than anything, was an essay, a diagnosis of the state of things at the time,” Cuarón told Reisman. “It was so obvious already then… but it needed to be so gruesomely obvious before the media would notice.” Early in the project’s gestation, the director made the inspired decision to shoot the story in hand-held documentary newsreel style rather than opting for effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle. As he told his co-screenwriter Timothy Sexton: “the future isn’t some place ahead of us, we’re living in the future at this moment.”
Children of Men is equally noteworthy for its striking visual style as for its rich socio-political resonance. Cuarón and his team gave the film a purposely degraded aesthetic of crumbling urban infrastructure, grubby streets and low-tech Betamax futurism. Their aim was to make London “more like Mexico City”, amplifying the inequality and danger lurking just below the well-heeled surface. Technology is not going to save humankind in this dishevelled, unshaven, kitchen-sink sci-fi gloomscape.
Cuarón also loaded Children of Men with dense layers of visual and cultural allusion, from T.S. Eliot to Radiohead, Michelangelo to Aphex Twin, Picasso to Banksy. Indeed, the director even met with Banksy’s manager in a bid to recruit the secretive Bristolian street artist as a collaborator. Only after the meeting did Cuarón come to suspect that the shadowy figure at the next table was probably the elusive graffiti maestro himself. Banksy ultimately declined to work on the film, but he did allow one of his pieces, British Cops Kissing, to appear in the ‘Ark of the Arts’ scene filmed at Battersea Power Station, which pays witty homage both to Pink Floyd’s Animals album and the then-new Tate Modern gallery.
But the film’s boldest stylistic flourish was a series of long, technically complex set-piece sequences captured in single travelling shots by Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki. One of the most memorable is the four-minute ambush scene, filmed inside a fast-moving car, which was achieved with a custom-built ‘Doggicam’ protruding through a hole cut in the roof as crew members worked on platforms bolted to the vehicle’s front and rear ends.
Later comes an even more dazzling six-minute shot, in which Theo escapes capture by the Fishes at Bexhill-on-Sea refugee camp and runs out through a sprawling, raging war zone. Paying homage to Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 drama The Battle of Algiers, this bravura sequence took almost two weeks to choreograph. Even then, the finished shot was nearly ruined at the last minute when fake blood droplets splashed onto the camera lens. Lubezki persuaded an exasperated Cuarón it was better to continue shooting, and rightly so, as the blood now looks like an inspired visual effect rather than a random accident.
Spoiler alert: some of the apparent single-shot sequences in Children of Men are actually digital composites, but this scarcely matters. Their visceral, kinetic energy still serves Cuarón’s intention of immersing viewers in the disturbing close-up realism of civil unrest rather than distancing them with the fast-cut ‘glamorous violence’ of action movie convention.
Another reason why Children of Men retains its enduring cult appeal is the supple richness of its subtextual depths. P.D. James, author of the source novel, was a Conservative peer and devout Anglican. With its biblical title, derived from Psalm 90:3, the book is at least partly a cautionary parable about a spiritually barren, amoral, godless world. While some Christian reviewers berated Cuarón’s film for downplaying this dimension, others praised its unfashionable religiosity. Faith is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
The Biblical resonances are certainly hard to miss in Cuarón’s skewed nativity story. The recurring spine of the musical score is Fragments of a Prayer, a specially commissioned piece by the devoutly religious composer John Tavener. And when Kee’s immaculate conception is revealed, in a barn surrounded by lowing cattle, Theo responds with an awestruck: “Jesus Christ”. Get it? Thankfully, such sledgehammer symbolism is rare in an otherwise generally subtle, suggestive film.
Many left-wing observers, meanwhile, received Children of Men as an excoriating critique of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. The late cultural theorist and author Mark Fisher began his feted 2009 manifesto Capitalist Realism with a paean to Cuarón’s dark masterpiece. “What is unique about the dystopia in Children of Men is that it is specific to late capitalism,” Fisher argued. “For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political stricture that remains, notionally, democratic. The War on Terror has prepared us for such a development.”
Fisher also detects in Children of Men an echo of the apocalyptic aphorism, sometimes attributed to the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”. In a neat piece of symmetry, Zizek himself appears in the extra features on the film’s 2007 DVD release. “I think that the film gives the best diagnosis of ideological despair of late capitalism, of a society without history,” he says. “This, I think, is a true despair of the film. The true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience.”
But Cuarón’s own political intentions in Children of Men are harder to read. The film’s most committed leftist characters are the Fishes, a guerrilla group tearing themselves apart with nihilistic violence and back-stabbing factionalism. With their plans to exploit Kee’s baby to incite anarchy, these old-school revolutionaries are clearly portrayed on screen as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Judean People’s Front? Splitters.
Cuarón himself grew up with Marxist sympathies. But looking back on Children of Men in his 2016 Vulture interview, he suggested that his generation was “tainted by ideology” and should step aside to make way for younger, less dogmatic idealists. “Ultimately, ideologies are mental tools of separation,” he concluded. “I’m a pessimist about the present because I know my generation. But every time I see younger generations, I’m hopeful.”
Perhaps this helps explain the enduring power of Children of Men in the era of Trump and Brexit. Like Roma, it feels like a radical plea for empathy in dark and divided times, a tiny beacon of hope bobbing on stormy seas.