Christmas: Children of Men (2006)


Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men was released in North America in 2006 on Christmas Day, but that is not the reason that it is very much a Christmas movie. A loose adaptation of the novel by P.D. James, it presents a picture of a dystopian future, in the year 2027, where for unknown reasons no woman has given birth to a child in the last 18 years. It is a portrait of humanity slowly inching its way toward extinction. In the world of the film, much of the globe has slid into chaos, facing nuclear war and plagues, while the United Kingdom has sealed itself off from the rest of world in an attempt to preserve its resources and way of life, becoming a kind of police state where refugees are herded into crowded coastal internment camps. Many people still go about their lives, visiting coffee shops, listening to music, and working, but daily activity is undercut by various reminders of how the infertility has changed the world. Terror attacks from a militant refugee rights group, the Fishes, intermittently erupt in London, while characters numb themselves from the reality of the situation of humanity’s extinction with drink and drugs. As one character responds when asked what keeps him going: “I just don’t think about it.”

How, you may ask, is this bleak portrait of humanity a Christmas story? For one thing, Children of Men is an especially sobering science fiction tale for all the ways its dystopia seems eerily close to our own day and age. Produced at the height of the opposition to the American war in Iraq in the mid-2000s, the film effectively utilizes imagery from the “War on Terror,” including the Abu Ghraib photos of hooded and tortured prisoners, and references to “Homeland Security.” Both the main character, Theo (Clive Owen) and his aging friend, Jasper (Michael Caine), recount their time as anti-war protestors. Theo, for his part, has abandoned his youthful activism for drink and a government job, while Jasper has retreated to the countryside to care for his catatonic wife, selling weed to the nearby refugee camp to make ends meet (“Dirty government hands out suicide kits and antidepressants, but ganja is still illegal,” he remarks).

Watching the film more than a decade after its release is an uncanny experience, since, if anything, our world seems even closer to the chaos and malaise that Children of Men portrays. One of the things that the film does wisely is get rid of the dictator from James’s novel; in the film Britain still seems to have a ostensibly democratic government, which, as we better realize in today’s world, is no real barrier to the establishment of authoritarian measures as seen in the film. But those details alone don’t account for the affective power of the film.

The theme of infertility and sterility, of a world absent children, is one that demands be read metaphorically. But as a metaphor for what? It’s not simply a displacement of environmental or epidemiological crisis, but a description of a particular state of being. The late cultural critic and theorist Mark Fisher wrote about the film, suggesting that “the question the film poses is: how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?” For Fisher, the film is a portrait of late-capitalist society that has consumed all of history, culture is merely being preserved, literally in the case of Theo’s cousin, Nigel (Danny Huston), tasked with preserving works of art from Michelangelo’s David to Picasso’s Guernica. In Fisher’s account, the loss of the future is coextensive with the transformation of ritual and belief into merely aesthetic objects, drained of power and force. Much like in our own world, in Children of Men, art merely functions as an object to decorate one’s house or admire, cut off from the time and place of its creation.

So, Children of Men is a film about any society, perhaps our own, devoid of hope suffering from the literal loss of the future. What makes it a film so appropriate to Christmas is that, like the nativity story at the heart of the holiday, it is about the restoration of hope to the world in the form of a miracle: a child.

To read the film through a religious lens is not difficult. The film is littered with allusions to the Bible, beginning with its very title. In the context of the film’s subject matter, “children of men,” a phrase used often in the King James translation of the Bible, is a reminder of humanity’s mortality: “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men” (Psalm 90:3). But the Christmas story is the story of the one who will bring an end to mortality, to the Christ child who will put an end to Death. Likewise, Children of Men is about the miracle that will bring an end to humanity’s death, instilling the possibility of hope.

The hope of the film is the pregnant refugee girl, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who is revealed to be pregnant by unknown means. No, it isn’t a virgin birth, despite her joke to Theo when he discovers her secret, but Kee’s unborn child certainly counts as a miracle. A miracle is simply when the unthinkable, the impossible, occurs. And in a world where no child has been born in 18 years, where no solution to the universal infertility has been discovered, Kee’s pregnancy is a miracle.

In this way, I think the film can reattune a viewer to the power of the Christmas story. Kee and Theo, like Mary and Joseph, must make a journey through a perilous world, across a militarized country, to find the place for the child to be born. While the miraculousness of a virgin birth is either taken for granted, or scoffed at, Kee’s birth is as unlikely in the world of the film. Like the notion of a virgin birth, it defies all common wisdom, but the event of its happening in the face of that wisdom lends it its power..

Children of Men attempts to return a sense of the apocalyptic to the Christmas story. While apocalypse is a term usually associated with the end of the world, certainly appropriate to this particular film, in its original Greek, apokaluptein, it means “to uncover, or reveal.” Just as the story of Christmas is a revelation of God as a man, it is also an inevitable transformation of the world as well. It’s an epochal hinge, one after which nothing is the same (even if you are not a Christian, it can be argued this is marked by our culture as a whole, even if we prefer to use the term “Common Era,” by the event the numbers we mark our years denote).

In the world of Children of Men, nothing will be the same either. At no other point in the film is this more obvious than the scene when the sight of Kee’s infant brings the firefight between the Fishes and the army to a standstill. Kee and Theo pass between the combatants, a silence descends upon all who see the child. The child, in its miracle status, takes on a power to bring peace. While it is short-lived, it points to the power a child can have in the right context. The baby becomes a literal “Prince of Peace,” as the Christ child was heralded.

When the credits of the film roll, the first sound heard against the black screen is the laughter of children, a sound that after two hours of dystopian imagery devoid of children takes on an otherworldly yet lovely character, not unlike birdsong or rushing water. The experience of the film returned to me a sense of the power of children. The loss of children is the loss of hope. For Theo (which may be Clive Owen’s greatest performance) the loss of hope is intimately tied up not just in the generalized loss of children, but in the character’s loss of his son. It was after his son’s death, we learn, that Theo abandoned his activism, his marriage fell apart, and he simply gave up.

One last way that Children of Men ties together issues of fertility, hope, and peace is in its closing epigraph that appears on screen after the credits, repeated at several points by characters in the film: “shantih, shantih, shantih.” This Sanskrit chant, a common beginning and ending for Hindu prayers, means “peace.” Likewise, these are the last lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, another poem riddled with religious imagery and themes of sterility, as the Fisher King is tasked with returning his land to fertility.

Children of Men is a Christmas story of the oldest kind then. It’s the story of the return of hope in the form a child. It’s a prophetic vision of a slow extinction, a visceral film experience full of surprise and emotion, but ultimately it’s a story of hope, of the regaining of a world with the capacity to experience joy and not just simply trudge on. Early in the film, we see the graffiti scrawled on the wall, “Last one to die please turn out the lights.” Children of Men is about the light in the darkness, and what that hope might look like.

10 out of 10

Children of Men (USA/UK, 2006)

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James; starring Clive Owen, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Caine, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan.