"Children of Men" dir. Alfonso Cuarón

After attempting last night to ensnare my father in the addiction to Battlestar Galactica that has such a vise-like grip on my mother, my boyfriend, my roommates, and myself, my parents and I moved on delightedly to last year's Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of a dystopic fertility-drama by P.D. James. I have been wondering of late why two of my favorite sci-fi shows, LOST and Battlestar, are so enthralled by issues of fertility (and particularly by the idea of women being stolen away from their community to serve as birthing vessels or harvested for ovaries). What does this say about the reproductive politics and anxieties of our age? And Children of Men continues that theme, making (I have heard) a crucial adaptation to the source novel's plot (from the standpoint of the title's logic, at least): in James's book, the world's population is growing older and dying out because human men are no longer fertile. In the film, it is the women of the world who begin miscarrying, and then no longer become pregnant. But unlike its television brethren, Children of Men fails to make much of these anxieties about fertility by (for instance) tying them in any kind of a complex way to the perils of hybridity.

But, under the benign influence of Adam and Sam at Filmspotting, who have a rule that their reviews should always begin with the positive, perhaps I should begin by admiring Cuaron's cinematographic choices, most notably a long, LONG shot that forms the spine of a painstakingly choreographed battle scene. Explosions are constant, limbs and limbless people litter the scene, and when blood spatters the camera lens, the spatter remains for several more minutes of violence. The whole film partakes in a grittily realistic aesthetic that strives to make the apocalyptic future seem as much the same as our present day as possible. Virtually every time you think that the Hollywood demand for a peaceful, happy ending has triumped, a new outbreak of terror and violence disillusions you.

Much as I like the attention to detail that is the film's hallmark, it all seems rather mannered: heavy on intent and light on meaning. The constant evocation of the political iconography of our times (hooded prisoners, a freedom fighter's funeral with crowds of Arabs chanting "Allahu Akbar") seems flippantly citational rather than coherently allegorical. Overall, the film has the air of being all ending: characters consistently fall by the wayside of the film's central quest (to deliver a miraculously pregnant woman to safety) before we feel we know them, which minimizes both our narrative engagement and our sense of the characters humanity. This is a troubling narrative strategy, since many of these characters are, in fact, the ignored and dehumanized of society, made at best into symbols and vessels for other people's feelings. And that is indeed what the film's only non-expendable character remains at the film's end.

Even the realist aesthetic leaves something to be desired, in the end. Apocalypse and dystopia can easily seem mannered, which is why so many of the best films of this genre (consider Bladerunner) exploit an extreme aesthetic that makes allegory, symbolism and philosophical speculation seem less contrived.

But this brings me to a question: why is the UK such a magnetic setting for apocalyptic and dystopian fantasies (think 28 Days Later or Brave New World)? Is it something to do with being an island culture, with borders more easily closed and guarded against danger, help and otherness? Or is it an inheritance of the Blitz mentality and the accompanying peril of occupation? Does anyone have any theories?

Children of Men
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

4 Responses so far.

  1. kookie says:

    I'm not sure the UK has a preponderance of the apocalyptic tales, Ariel.

    Think 'The Stand', 'The Road', 'Earth Abides', 'Alas Babylon', the tv show 'Jericho'. All of these take place in the US.

    That being the case, I'm surprised your theory doesn't actally play into it, as England would seem to be an excellent setting ie 'Darwinia' and 'Night of the Triffids'. Hmmm, food for thought.

  2. Yeah, but it is never as striking that the US shows a preponderance of a genre, when we are producing such a huge bulk of the world's films (rivaled by Bollywood, of course). We are showing a disproportionate amount of interest as a nation in virtually every genre, besides the musical, I would say. In other words, a US preponderance (an interest cultural anxiety in its own right, I agree), doesn't erase the fact that it might be an interesting cultural phenomenon in the British context as well. It is only if every (or at least most) literary, cinematic and visual culture in the world shows the same interest that UK and US investment in the issue becomes insignificant.

    So I would be interested to hear if any other nation (especially non-English language ones that I have less exposure too) shows the same expansive (obsessive?) interest in alternative/dystopic/apocalyptic futures as Britain does in literature and film.

  3. Another British dystopia (apart from, perhaps most famously, "1984" and "A Clockwork Orange") was Daphne du Maurier's "Rule, Britannia" about a Britain occupied by the Americans. And of course, the British have a long, LONG history of interest in utopia and dystopia, beginning with Sir Thomas More's coining of the term and moving on through Jonathan Swift to Orwell, et al.

  4. kookie says:

    I agree that the UK has a disproportionate output of post apocalyptic fare (both literary and cinematic). It seems like Americans didn't get into the game until the dawn of the Nuclear age (I wonder why). I wonder which (the American or the British) has had a bigger influence on the culture.

    I would also be curious to see apocalyptic material coming from a non-English speaking source. I can't think of any.

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