Dull Outcome, No Kids:
A Review of Children of Men
by Gary Westfahl
special to Locus Online
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, and Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby
Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Michael Caine
If you linger until the very end of Children of Men after all the credits, even after the copyright information and the always-startling disclaimer that the preceding film was a work of fiction you will see as a final image the words "Shantih Shantih Shantih." As it happens, this is the Hindu word for "peace," the standard ending of an Upanishad, and the last line of T. S. Eliot’s classic poem "The Waste Land" (1922). Many critics have interpreted the concluding stanzas of "The Waste Land" as Eliot’s rather desperate attempt to impose some faint aura of hopefulness and order onto his grim, chaotic vision of contemporary life, and the fact that director Alfonso Cuarón thought of the phrase may reflect a realization that he is also offering the world a grim, chaotic vision.
Unfortunately, Cuarón is not exactly an artist in Eliot’s league, and the grim chaos of Children of Men clearly stems not from a sincere effort to epitomize the human condition, but rather from the circumstances of problematic source material being reworked by no fewer than five credited screenwriters and who knows how many uncredited contributors a standard sign of a film narrative that everybody agrees is broken and that nobody knows how to fix. And once you get to the seventeenth rewrite, what usually happens is that whatever was special about the story in the first place has largely been lost, fitfully surfacing through leaden overlays of routine material.
While such comments suggest a less than enthusiastic attitude toward the film, no one can say that Children of Men represents a shameful trashing of a science fiction masterpiece. When P. D. James’s The Children of Men (1992) first appeared, science fiction readers defensibly derided its complete failure to offer any sort of rational explanation for its premise in the year 1995, women all over the world suddenly stop having children, apparently dooming the human race to gradual extinction or for its resolution inexplicably, a single Englishwoman suddenly finds herself pregnant. Its sociological extrapolations were equally suspect, as James implausibly posits that the final generation of humans would develop into a distinctive subclass and that some English citizens would react to a childless society by forming bands to roam the countryside and engage in ritual executions of randomly selected victims. Other readers could readily criticize its pointlessly unsympathetic protagonist, Theo Faron, its clumsy style of alternating third-person narrative with Faron’s journal entries, and its listlessly meandering plot, which comes to life only in the closing chapters, when Faron accompanies the pregnant woman on a desperate journey to escape from the authorities. The screenwriters were wise to abandon many of the particulars of James’s story, retaining only the characters and the basic premise the avowedly apolitical Theo (Clive Owen) is drawn by rebel leader Julian (Julianne Moore) into an effort to protect the miraculously pregnant Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) from the oppressive authorities who would exploit her baby for political gain and it was equally wise to hurry through the novel’s preliminaries to devote most of the film to the woman’s quest for freedom. True, Theo is now an office worker, not a professor, the rebel leader is no longer merely an acquaintance, but Theo’s ex-wife, and the pregnant Englishwoman and rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are now of African descent , but these sorts of changes seem to neither improve nor damage the storyline.
Another intriguing change in the film is merely amusing. In the novel, the problem seems to be that all of the world’s men have suddenly become sterile, so that the story’s happy ending is the birth of a (presumably soon to be fecund) baby boy. In the film, the problem seems to be that all of the world’s women have suddenly become barren, so that the story’s happy ending is the birth of a (presumably soon to be fertile) baby girl. Why the difference? Well, novelist P. D. James was a woman, while director and co-screenwriter Alfonso Cuarón was a man, and whenever a couple cannot have children, after all, the woman tends to blame the man, and the man tends to blame the woman.
Something else that should have been changed, but was retained presumably for the sake of dramatic excitement, was the most illogical element in James’s story. If, after twenty years of complete global infertility, a pregnant woman suddenly appeared, everyone around her would logically forget about everything else and solely seek to ensure that she remained safe and that she received the best possible medical care. In both the novel and film, this is how Theo reacts to the news, and it is the only way anyone living in a childless world could sanely react. But the rebels resist this course of action: we cannot turn the pregnant woman over to the authorities, they argue, because the government would only use her baby to further its own evil aims. And government officials refuse to leave the woman alone because, they argue, the rebels would only use her baby to further their own evil aims. Unwilling to abandon such petty concerns even though the very survival of the human race is at stake, then, the feuding factions frivolously allow the world’s only pregnant woman to be chased across the countryside, her life threatened at all times, and the film heightens the absurdity of it all by dragging her through a veritable war zone of machine-gun fire and incessant bombings. It would be nice to posit that all of this is intended as the novel’s, and the film’s, incisive commentary on the unyielding stupidity of human beings, but both stories conclude in a manner suggesting that the decision to risk her life was, in the end, the correct choice which would seem to make it all a commentary on the unyielding stupidity of storytellers.
While clinging to its most egregious flaw, the film disappointingly also contrives to downplay the most interesting aspect of James’s novel namely, the effort to imagine what a human society without children would be like, previously attempted (and, in my opinion, less successfully) in Brian W. Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964). Despite its egregious shortcomings, the novel did offer a filmmaker any number of ideas for fascinating and disturbing scenes of a childless civilization: deserted playgrounds and abandoned toys; college classrooms filled with senior citizens; demented women pushing around baby strollers containing dolls who are treated like children; people obsessively staring at photographs and videotapes of children. Surprisingly, Cuarón’s film offers very little along these lines: for example, one brief scene in which Theo, Kee, and midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) visit an rundown school, and Kee sits on a swing set, goes by too quickly to have any impact, and the film’s ubiquitous cats and dogs, apparently everyone’s substitutes for children, are never brought to the forefront as such. Instead, we are simply told that the absence of children has terribly saddened everyone, resulting in widespread insanity, violence, and governmental oppression; but we rarely observe the sadness itself, only the effects of that sadness the bombs, the gunfights, the strange rituals, the caged prisoners, and so on. Thus, the film seems to be childless in two respects: there are no children around, of course, and neither the filmmakers nor the characters really seem to be thinking very much about children as they deal with various secondary crises.
Instead of confronting the issue of childlessness, the film chooses to address other, more familiar problems afflicting human societies of the past and present. First, as a Mexican national, director Cuarón is surely opposed to heightened American efforts to arrest and deport illegal immigrants from Mexico, and so he chose to have the British authorities focus their repressive energies on rounding up and abusing their own illegal immigrants, drawn to the country because its brutal regime has at least prevented the chaos now destroying other nations. And changing the novel’s pregnant woman from a British citizen to an illegal immigrant seems a transparent device to further underline the injustice of it all. At times, then, the director seems intent upon twisting James’s story into an argument to the effect that any vigorous action to curb illegal immigration will inexorably turn a society into a fascist dictatorship; and this also represents a crude exaggeration of the novel’s somewhat more humane policy toward immigrants, who are freely allowed in as exploited "guest workers" until they reach the age of sixty and must be deported.
In addition, the film seems to randomly borrow from other nightmarish visions of totalitarian futures, and while watching it I was variously reminded, for example, of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the films Soylent Green (1972) and Blade Runner (1982). Repressive societies of the past are also referenced: scenes of citizens running through city streets dodging bombs and gunfire brought to mind the sectarian violence of Beirut in the 1980s, while images of burning bodies and people stripped to their underwear being shot to death are clearly derived from the Nazi Holocaust. Going either farther back in history, the wall of one building being bombed displays a version of Picasso’s classic painting Guernica (1937), as duly noted in the final credits, recalling the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, and the film’s half-serious linkage of Kee’s story to the Christ story Kee jokes that she is "a virgin," and upon hearing she is pregnant, the first thing Theo says is "Jesus Christ" even brings King Herod’s violent efforts to eliminate the Christ child into the picture. The overall message seems clear enough: then, now, and in the future, you can be sure that governments will always gleefully seek to slaughter, brutalize and oppress their helpless citizens at every opportunity. It is an attitude straight out of the counterculture of the 1960s, an era represented in the film by the pot-smoking and I Ching of Theo’s eccentric friend Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), by background songs like John Lennon’s "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)," the Rolling Stones’s "Ruby Tuesday," and King Crimson’s "In the Court of the Crimson King," and by the code phrase Jasper gives Theo to identify himself as an ally to a friendly official named Syd (Peter Mullan) "you’re a fascist pig." Again, this represents a departure from the more nuanced stance of the novel, in which the British dictator Xan only briefly seen in the film as Ian (John Sharma) is a fully developed character who is allowed to argue, with some degree of persuasiveness, that his repressive regime represented a necessary response to an otherwise disintegrating society. But Cuarón wants no shades of gray to spoil his black-and-white vision of virtuous innocents opposed by fascist pigs. (And is this why, when Ian shows Theo the view from his lofty window, we see a huge balloon in the shape of a pig?)
Thus, unwilling or unable to fully explore the novel’s singular premise, and overly inclined to drift into more familiar territory, the multiple screenwriters of Children of Men have failed to create a film about an awful dystopian future without children; instead, it is simply another film about an awful dystopian future well done in its own way, perhaps, but offering nothing that science fiction filmgoers will regard as particularly distinctive. At one point in the film, Miriam muses, "Very odd what happens in a world without children’s voices," yet the bulk of this film is unfortunately not very odd at all, at least to these eyes.
And this is why I find it very surprising that Children of Men is being promoted as an Oscar-worthy film, conspicuously opening in a few Los Angeles theatres during the last week of December in order to qualify for the honors. However, the film strikes me as too laden with gratuitous violence, especially in its interminable final sequence, to really appeal to film connoisseurs, and its calmer intervals of Masterpiece Theatre-style acting, despite all those British accents, are frankly not that impressive. For instance, the filmmakers were possibly hoping that multiple nominees Julianne Moore and Michael Caine would be recognized for their supporting performances, yet both actors are (unusually) given little to do in the film and (unusually) do not do it particularly well. But Caine does have one interesting speech in which he describes life as a "cosmic battle between faith and chance." So, if one’s faith in the ability of filmmakers to deal with science fiction is not rewarded with this film, there does remain the chance that, someday, another filmmaker will return to the evocative theme of "a world without children’s voices" with more interesting results.
Gary Westfahl's recent projects include Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy; samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His next book, Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, is scheduled to appear in 2007.