Suppose Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib are not merely momentary aberrations, but rather preludes to even stronger responses to the threat of terrorism. After all, in a very short time, we’ve become used to teams of guards in black coveralls carrying automatic rifles as they patrol our airports. Perhaps one day they will travel in squadrons in bus stations and on commuter railroads as well. We’ve grown accustomed to secret prison camps and rendition. Habeas corpus is suspended on suspicion of terrorist activity. We’re no longer surprised to learn that ordinary citizens can have their mail opened, their phones tapped and their luggage searched. We call torture “aggressive interrogation” and see no legal or moral problem with it. In these dangerous times, we tell ourselves that our safety requires extraordinary measures. Once the crisis passes, we earnestly believe, we’ll return to normal. Or will we? Will the crisis ever pass?
Vigilantes patrol our borders in the southwest and the Justice Department launches coordinated raids on meatpacking plants to round up hundreds of undocumented aliens living productively in our country for years. Deportation means separating families, but protecting borders and laws seems more important. Despite the growing hostility to outsiders, more foreigners, fleeing poverty and oppression at home, still flee to North America and Europe. Despised and without legal rights, they become more reclusive and simmer with resentment at their second-class status. Any spark, in the form of a firebrand community leader or cleric, can set off an explosion of riots. Suppose this too is not a temporary situation that a comprehensive immigration law will one day solve. Given the gap between rich and poor nations, it might easily become a problem that continues to grow beyond a solution. As the minorities more frequently turn to violence, the reaction becomes more ruthless. And so the cycle of terrorism and repression builds its mad momentum.
Where will it end? Will we ever celebrate an end to the war on terror with bells ringing, dancing in Times Square and the equivalent of a dignified signing of a peace treaty on the deck of the Missouri, indicating as General Douglas MacArthur put it: “These proceedings are closed.” Suppose it doesn’t end. Suppose it just gets worse and worse, until the entire human race faces extinction.
Children of Men poses this disquieting question in the starkest possible terms. The central figure, Theo (Clive Owen), faces the extinction of the human race by refusing to think about it. He finds distraction in the pint of Bell’s scotch in his jacket pocket. His friend and mentor Jasper (Michael Caine) lives in seclusion with his wife, now catatonic after an aggressive interrogation by MI5 some years earlier. He smokes dope and listens to loud rock music. The troubles of the outside world don’t exist for him. Jasper notes that the government now supplies suicide kits and antidepressants, but he doesn’t feel the need to avail himself, at least not yet.
What happened? The action begins in London in the year 2027. The world’s youngest person has been killed at 18 after a pointless argument in Buenos Aires. For some mysterious reason, for nearly 20 years, the human race has lost its ability to reproduce. The pervasive infertility could be the result of environmental conditions, or perhaps humans see no reason to go on living in the world that has come into being. In any event, his murder sets off a wave of mourning far surpassing the obsequies for Princess Diana. The world senses that it has come one step closer to annihilation.
Like everyone else, Theo is shaken by the news reports. After narrowly escaping a random terrorist explosion, he travels home in a train that appears like an armored personnel carrier, and with good reason. Gangs of vandals pummel the train with rocks as it slides through the crumbling, rubbish-choked remains of the city. Each platform holds a row of steel-mesh pens for the foreigners who have been taken from the trains. Police with machine guns guard them until the buses can take them to “relocation centers.” Refugees, or “fugees,” as they are known, have no right to trial. They are simply sent away. According to the common perception, London has become overrun with foreigners, not only with Asians and Africans, but with Eastern Europeans whose presence demonstrates the stupidity of the European Union. Britons fear they are losing their country and feel they must fight back. The visual allusions to Nazi roundups are unnerving. It shows what people can become when the government orchestrates their fears for its own advantage.
The story, based on a novel by P. D. James, is apocalyptic fiction in the service of moral parable. As a result, the plot has more the quality of nightmare and fantasy than logic. Kidnappers seize Theo and take him to an abandoned building to enlist his services in their plan. A young African immigrant named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) has mysteriously become pregnant. For reasons not altogether clear, both the government and the radicals want to control Kee and her baby. Julian (Julianne Moore), one of the anarchists, offers Theo money to get exit papers for the mother before she delivers her baby. With no particular commitment to any cause, Theo accepts the money and so is drawn into a maelstrom of events he cannot control.
The confusion of motivation underlines the confusion of the times. London has become Baghdad at its worst, with factions killing, bombing and kidnapping one another wantonly for political advantages that are never quite clear. Perhaps they do it simply because they can. Why not? The human race has reached its end point anyway. With no free and just society to build and no legacy to bequeath to future generations, morality collapses altogether. What’s the use of accomplishing anything? A mutilated statue of Michelangelo’s David says it all. The beautiful things we created through the centuries are all crumbling, but it makes no difference because in a few years no one will be around to see them.
In journey literature, like the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy or theCanterbury Tales, for example, the purpose and destination weigh far less than the discoveries the voyager makes along the way. As we accompany Theo and Kee in their rather routine movie escape adventure, director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki present images that smolder in the mind long after the film has ended. A flaming car rolls down a hillside to form a roadblock as a band of terrorists arise miraculously from a once peaceful forest. London streets and country landscapes drift past a dirty windshield, bleached of color, as though they had no life left in them. An endless march of Islamists winds through the rubble-strewn streets of London, chanting Allahu akbar (“God is great!”) and firing rifles into the air. British tanks fire point blank into a British hotel lobby. Faces of captured fugees in their cages stare blankly through the bars, as loved ones depart in buses for destinations unspecified—a slow procession of the living through the opposing armies that seems, if only for an instant, to bring sanity to that field of chaotic gunfire.
“Children of Men” is a profoundly disturbing film that provokes reflection on questions it refuses to cheapen with simplistic answers. If the baby survives at all, what kind of life will it have as the lone survivor of a dying race? Is life itself the issue? Why do so many people sacrifice so much to see that the child lives? Perhaps the mere possibility of life invites people, both the characters in the film and us in the audience, to turn attention from our preoccupation with death and destruction to thoughts of hope and the future.
At the end of this exhausting journey, the film ends in profound, reflective silence. I’m not sure if it is ultimately a happy ending or a tragedy. I don’t think Alfonso Cuarón knows either. And perhaps that is the point of the film. Each of the children of men begins the journey anew, open to fresh possibilities, but as descendants of men they carry terrible burdens with them. Who knows if they will succeed? Or if we will.