“And now one for all the nostalgics out there. A blast from the past… that beautiful time when people refused to accept that the future was just around the corner.”
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” arrived in theaters on Christmas Day, 2006, and immediately announced itself as the best and bleakest sci-fi movie of the 21st Century. It has also proven to be the most prescient, anticipating a time when Britain has closed its borders, hateful isolationism has taken root, and xenophobia spores out of walled garden across the world. If once this story provided a window into a dark possibility, recent events have warped it into a funhouse mirror that reflects our new reality. “Children of Men” may be set in 2027, but when Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States, it suddenly became clear that its time had come.
When I woke up last Wednesday morning, I willed myself out of bed, walked across the street to my local coffee shop, and gawped at the television above the bar. Hillary Clinton was delivering her concession speech. A lady in a blue jacket held a small dog whose eyes were busy tracking every morsel of food (I live in Brooklyn; every coffee shop has a lady in a blue jacket holding a small dog). A young woman could be seen crying into the soft of her partner’s chest. On TV, the former future first female President of the United States was concluding her failed campaign with supernatural grace, the kind of poise that has to be earned from a lifetime of people trying to knock you over. “Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it,” she said.
Whether you like Hillary Clinton or not, it’s hard for those of us disappointed by the outcome of her campaign to shake the feeling that she was our last best chance against the bulwark of ignorance and the bigotry of fear — hers was a defeat for anyone who’s been made to feel as though their lives didn’t matter, and for everyone who’s rejected the thinking that makes it possible to marginalize people by the millions. In time, this election may be seen as the dying gasp of white nationalism, but in the moment it feels like a referendum on our ability to sustain the principles of our past and visualize the challenges of our future.
It feels like a referendum on empathy, itself. It feels like we’re fucked. But the more our world comes to resemble that in “Children of Men,” the easier it is to see a way forward, however dim and abstract it might be. The darker things get, the film reminds us, the easier it is to find the light.
Cuarón’s masterpiece tells the story of a future without a future, immersing us in a grim tomorrow where women have been inexplicably rendered infertile, and society has responded to the crisis by hoarding power, normalizing catastrophe, and dehumanizing the disenfranchised. When the film begins, most people have become so afraid of the future that they no longer bother fighting for it. Theo (Clive Owen), a native Londoner whose whiteness allows him to act as though the end of the world is happening to someone else, still goes to work at his desk job every day. Better to accept helplessness than acknowledge hopelessness, at least for those who have the privilege of doing so.
Standing in that coffee shop reminded me of the film’s opening scene, in which Theo’s indifference is all that spares him from the bomb that rips through the café where he buys his morning cup. A crowd of people is glued to the television, thunderstruck by the news that Baby Diego, the world’s youngest person, has been killed. But Theo always thought the guy was a wanker. So he pushes through the densely packed throng — snaking his way past the lady in a blue jacket, past her small dog whose eyes are busy tracking every morsel of food, past the young woman who can be seen crying into the soft of her partner’s chest — and out to the sidewalk where he can add some booze to his breakfast. Apathy saves his life, but it gives him nothing to do with it.
“Children of Men” is the rare dystopian movie that has the courage to convey the fragility of modern civilization, as well as our incredible capacity to live in the shadow of imminent disaster. It’s a movie about a world — this world — in which everyone already knows they’re doomed, and the only remaining struggle is what people ought to do with that information. It doesn’t bother tracing the path between infertility and extinction, between possibility and desolation, it simply creates such a vivid state of hopelessness that you can connect the dots for yourself. The film presents all sorts of competing theories as to how humanity arrived at its final destination (was it an act of God? An environmental catastrophe?), but it keeps them to the periphery where they belong. A crisis has a thousand causes. No one thing is to blame — everything is to blame.
At one point, Theo visits Jasper (Michael Caine) his last remaining friend. Jasper tells a joke about a dinner that the Human Project — a mythical outfit dedicated to sustaining life on Earth — hosted for all of the world’s top scientists and sages: “They’re tossing around theories about the ultimate mystery: why are all the women infertile? Why can’t we make babies anymore? So, some say it’s genetic experiments, gamma rays, pollution, same ol’, same ol’. So, anyway, in the corner, this Englishman’s sitting, he hasn’t said a word, he’s just tuckin’ in his dinner. So, they decide to ask him, they say, ‘Well, why do you think we can’t make babies anymore?’ And he looks up at ’em, he’s chewin’ on this great big wing and he says ‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ he said, ‘but this stork is quite tasty isn’t he?’”
I’ve read dozens of post-mortem pieces about how Trump won the election, or how the Democrats lost it, and that punchline has come to mind every time. “This stork is quite tasty isn’t he?” In the face of disaster, how do we get the taste of helplessness out of our mouths?
For a fortunate few, the easiest option is simply to embrace it.
Early in the film, Theo visits a cousin named Nigel (Danny Huston), a high-ranking government official who hordes the great artworks of humanity in his penthouse apartment — an “Ark of the Arts.” Picasso’s “Guernica” stretches across his dining room like wallpaper, embarrassed at its fate. Michelangelo’s “David” stands pointlessly in his foyer, a metal rod jammed into its broken leg. Theo can’t help but laugh. “A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at any of this,” he says in disbelief. “What keeps you going?” Nigel responds with a shit-eating grin: “You know what it is, Theo? I just don’t think about it.”
The fertility crisis wasn’t new, it was just a period on a sentence that civilization had been writing for several generations. But people like Nigel always had the luxury of ignoring it. Everything looks peaceful from a penthouse apartment. Even when the clock is ticking down towards the final seconds of human civilization, it remains an abstract threat for people like him; even at the end of the world there are those who can still afford to just look away. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy the privilege required to ignore unhappiness (a privilege that always comes at a great cost). This is why 51% of Trump’s proposed tax cuts will go to the top 1% — it doesn’t matter how much the people on the bottom are suffering so long as the people at the top don’t have to see them.
It’s also why Cuarón lines his frames with images of despair, hiding all sorts of human tragedy in the fringes where they can be ignored just as easily as they’re seen. “Children of Men” is a visually astounding film, full of legendary long-takes — it creates a wholly believable world that’s tactile and terrible in equal measure. And yet so much of its power is rooted in what we don’t see, or what we’re not instructed to focus on. He favors deep focus, he makes it easy to choose what you want to look at and what you’drather ignore.
Even major characters are ethered away from our attention: As Kee and Theo are driven into Bex Hill refugee camp at the end of the film (riding right past a hooded man who’s posed in a way meant to evoke the torture conducted at Abu Ghraib), one of their closest allies is simply disappeared from the narrative. There’s no follow-up, no shot of her body — she’s just gone.
And we have to make sense of it.
The human brain is constantly looking for equilibrium, it’s a mechanism designed to make sense of things. Every dream is a mess of random neuronal firings that your brain is desperately trying to fit into some kind of narrative order, and so is every nightmare. In “Children of Men,” despair has been normalized to the extent that suicide — in the form of a drug called Quietus — is widely available over the counter and advertised on every square inch of available real estate. Hopelessness has been branded for profit. There is truly no end to what people can get used to.
“I can’t really remember when I last had any hope,” Theo says at one point, “Since women stopped being able to have babies, what’s left to hope for?”
Kee doesn’t exist in the P.D. James novel from which “Children of Men” was adapted. She was never born. In the book, the miraculously pregnant woman who kickstarts the plot is a white political dissident — Julianne Moore’s character in the film — but in the movie, the future isn’t only female, it’s also forgotten. The future is played by a black teenage prostitute with a thick accent of African origin.
Clare-Hope Ashitey, then only 18 years old, is the kind of actress who Hollywood often overlooks, and she was playing the kind of person who Theo seldom sees. Her parents both emigrated to the U.K. from Ghana before they had her, and she tapped into that heritage for her performance, asserting her family’s history into the newly created role by playing Kee as a heavily accented immigrant whose voice tethers her to an unextinguished past. When her daughter is eventually born (in a refugee camp on the brink of becoming a war zone), Kee sings the child a Ghanian lullaby she learned from her parents called “Kaa fo,” or “Baby do not cry.”
Ashitey, who shot the film during her gap year between high school and college after landing the part during the third audition she’d ever been on, felt more comfortable as a newcomer on such an enormous set because she was able to imbue the part with so much of herself. “I didn’t know who those people touching the lights were,” she told me when I rang her up in her London flat in October, six weeks and a million years ago. “I didn’t know what anyone’s job was. It was all very bewildering, so it was very nice to have those things that I felt I brought with me.” Did she know who Alfonso Cuarón was? “Not a fucking clue.”
Ashitey wasn’t able to fully wrap her head around the immensity of the movie she was starring in until they shot that scene where Kee and Theo are driven into the Carpenter-esque Bex Hill. Ashitey remembers being struck by the horror of the fiction that Cuarón had created for them on his massive south London set, the galling reality of his mass scale make-believe. She remembers looking out the window of the bus that takes them into the camp and seeing the legions of extras shackled and caged on the side of the road. “For me, that was the moment when I was like ‘Well, I’m at work, but somewhere a couple of hundred miles away this is literally just happening for some people.’ That’s the moment where I went: ‘This is an important thing that we do, and this is the thing that matters, and it’s a responsibility that we have.”
Ashitey — so chipper, candid, and blazingly smart over the phone that it’s easy to hear Kee flowing through her — has no shame in reflecting on whatever naïveté she may have had during her first major gig. That was a crucial moment for her, the moment when she recognized that helplessness isn’t real, but merely a failure of the imagination. It was vital that Ashitey experience that epiphany as an actress, because the character she was playing was crucially responsible for sharing it with Theo, jolting him out of the helplessness that had consumed him since the death of his baby son a few years prior. Theo’s world had been eroded by the loss of a single human being, and it would need to be restored by the discovery of another.
“Children of Men” traces that awakening against a backdrop of ultimate horror and inhumanity, effectively blurring the line between individual and collective suffering. Against a backdrop of increasingly imaginable horror, the film asserts that we are never helpless so long as we have the power to hope, and we are never hopeless so long as we have the power to help. The Talmud says that whoever saves one life saves the world entire, and “Children of Men” proves the value of that wisdom by taking it to the most literal extreme (eat your heart out, Oskar Schindler).
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that a citizenry motivated by fear and hatred and the politics of grievance — motivated by the implicit understanding that it’s easier to delegitimize a problem than it is to solve it — will cut off its nose to spite its face. And they’ll do it because they don’t feel as if they have any other choice. This, of course, is a lesson that people have been learning time and again since antiquity, but we have a way of erasing the wisdom that can be found in the margins of history. We forget that we can always help each other, and that helping each other is the best way to help ourselves. We forget to listen. We forget that systemic failures are felt by victims long before they are by bystanders, and that when the water in the well begins to rise, it’s the people standing at the bottom who are the first to feel it pool around their feet. We forget that we’re all in this together.
“This year has been such a crushing disappointment,” Ashitey confessed. “When you think of things like racism and sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, you think, ‘It’s slow, but we’re getting somewhere. Look at where we are compared to the state society of 100 years ago. Look at how far we’ve come.’ There was a pride in going, ‘My generation is going to keep going and take that progress and make it bigger and make it better and get us somewhere.’” There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. “And then Brexit happens, and then Trump happens, and you just go, ‘Why do we bother? Why does anyone bother?’”
In the immediate wake of the election, it’s hard not to feel as though we’ve just been flattened by the same boulder that we’ve been pushing uphill for the last eight years. And the 240 before that. And the centuries before that. It’s hard not to feel as though the world has decided that it doesn’t want to be a better place for all people.
“Sadly,” Ashitey told me, “I think that ‘Children of Men’ has only become an increasingly relevant and realistic portrait of where we are in the world.” Those are difficult words to hear from anyone, but especially so coming from someone who saved the world when she was just a teenager — someone who survived a global pandemic, delivered our entire species from the brink of extinction, and filled her character with enough life and fire to pierce a pinhole of light into a future that had all but succumbed to the darkness. “You look around and you think, ‘Given the chance, if we can get away with it, people are going to be nasty to each other,’” she continued. ‘“They’re going to pull up the draw bridge, they’re going to draw up the ladder and try to live in this little bubble without giving anything to anyone else — without even receiving anything from anyone else.’”
She exhaled. I could almost hear her closing her eyes from across the ocean. “It’s just been so awful in terms of looking around at each other. You look at people walking down the street, and think, ‘What’s in your head when you look at me?’”
I thought of the journey she takes in the film, and how it plays like a perverse smuggling mission. Kee is struggling to reach help for the benefit of all humankind, but she and Theo need to keep her baby like a state secret, because even at the end of everything people cannot be trusted to act in their own self-interest. Even in the hellscape of Bex Hill, which is hours from being razed to the ground by a fleet of Royal Air Force bombers, people are still slaughtering each other and fighting to exploit Kee’s pregnant body. Inhumanity is fueled not by evil, but rather by inertia.
Inertia, however, can be stopped. Sometimes it requires mass protests and the collective voice of an entire population, and sometimes it just requires the feeble cry of a single baby. In a film comprised of one indelible scene after another, there isn’t a passage more striking than the one in which the unmistakable sound of Kee’s mewling newborn manages to stun a war zone into silence and clear a path through a shellshocked rabble of soldiers and scavengers. They have assimilated despair into their lives so completely that they are frozen by its sudden absence. The fighting stops. In all of that madness and violence, everyone present decides to give tomorrow a chance.
Cuarón’s masterpiece doesn’t offer hope as a panacea, but rather as a choice that we all have to make for ourselves over and over again. “Children of Men” is such an essential, enduringly relevant film because it knows that we can’t afford to normalize the worst of our natures, we can’t afford to forget that the future is a promise that the present makes to itself every day.
“That’s always what’s been in my head when I’ve looked at you,” I wanted to say to Ashitey, or at least that’s what I want to say to her now. “That’s what’s in everyone’s head when they watch you on screen.”
But it was Ashitey who ended our conversation by finding a measure of light, she who has always been gifted at doing just that. “I guess it’s like taking tiles off the wall,” she piped up, “and the wall behind it is so moldy and rotten and it looks shittier than when the tiles were off. But at least, now, you can fix the wall and put the tiles back up. There’s no point in keeping them up there, because the wall was fucked in the first place.”
Her voice was insistent and suddenly familiar. “So that’s how I feel about humanity: it’s a moldy wall underneath some pretty tiles. We’ve taken the tiles off; now we’re addressing the mold. Then we have to repair the walls. There’s a tiny, tiny bit of hope, I hope, somewhere in there.”