As Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian action movie “Children of Men” approached its tenth anniversary, film critics poured on the love, naming it the 13th greatest film of the twenty-first century in an international poll. Hosanna after hosanna also tended to emphasize how the film, which includes a refugee crisis, has become even more “relevant” or “prescient” in 2016, the world of the European migrant crisis, Brexit, and President-elect Trump.
Unfortunately, the critical adoration for “Children of Men” is largely misplaced. The movie is technically brilliant, but fails even as the sort of political agitprop its admirers would like it to be.
Many spoilers follow.
Let’s Start with a Plot Overview
The basic concept of “Children of Men”—both the film and the P.D. James novel Cuarón and his team of co-writers largely abandoned in their screenplay—is a hopeless near-future world that has been infertile for a generation. The collaborators pile on nuclear wars, environmental catastrophes, terrorism, and a tidal wave of refugees to weigh on the United Kingdom as the globe’s last functional government (or so we are told by a media likely controlled by the statist government).
Theo, once a political activist, has become a cynical bureaucrat following the death of his child in a flu epidemic shortly before the mass infertility emerged. Nevertheless, Theo is ultimately convinced by his estranged wife Julian, the leader of a militant immigrants’ rights group named the Fishes, to assist the group in spiriting a refugee named Kee out of the country.
During this operation, Kee, Theo, Julian, and two others (Miriam and Luke) are ambushed by a gang; Julian is killed. The survivors retreat to a safe house maintained by the Fishes, where Luke is elected as the group’s new leader.
Theo learns from Kee that she is miraculously pregnant and that Julian instructed her to trust only Theo. Kee was supposed to rendezvous with “The Human Project,” a possibly mythical scientific group working to cure the world’s infertility, but the Fishes debate and decide that it is now safer for her to remain in the UK until the baby is born.
Later that night, Theo overhears the Fishes and discovers that Luke engineered Julian’s assassination as part of a plot to politically exploit the coming miracle birth in service of an uprising against the government. Theo informs Kee and Miriam (revealed as Kee’s midwife) of the plot, and the three embark on a dangerous escape to meet the Human Project’s boat.
Their journey eventually takes them through a hellish seaside refugee camp, where Miriam is seized by guards, but Kee later secretly gives birth. The next day, the Fishes assault the camp, attempting to ignite their uprising while abducting Kee and the child. Theo rescues Kee and the baby from Luke, who is killed during the warfare. The battle abates momentarily when the baby and its protectors spontaneously are granted safe passage from a building under siege.
The three take a rowboat to meet the Human Project. Theo loses consciousness or dies from his battle wounds as the scientists’ ship emerges from the fog.
The Movie Murders the Book, To Its Detriment
To understand the film’s failure, it is useful to know that the screenplay is almost utterly divorced from the James novel “The Children of Men” on which it is ostensibly based. Only the idea of global infertility and some of the character names are retained.
Beneath its sci-fi veneer, the novel is an essentially Christian nativity tale that strongly suggests that the global infertility (and resulting statism) is the product of a civilization that became so godless and hedonistic that children and family were no longer the future of humanity. The movie avoids identifying an express cause of the infertility, but presents divine judgment as the theory of crazed, masochistic zealots.
In the book, the Five Fishes are a Christian group whose primary subversive activity is sabotaging the Quietus, state-supported mass suicides of the elderly that may not be entirely voluntary. The connection to the underlying pro-life theme is obvious, as is the miracle birth’s effect on politics of the nation.
In contrast, the movie turns the Quietus into a home suicide kit that ultimately plays no significant role in the plot. The Fishes, who apparently have a history of bombing attacks bad enough to have become a PR liability, are focused instead on the plight of refugees.
The novel presents the civil rights of immigrants, not refugees, as a secondary political concern of the Fishes. The enticement of foreigners to come to the UK is justified by the government on entirely familiar political arguments: better overall living conditions and that immigrants do the dirty and menial jobs Britons will not (and increasingly cannot) do.
James’s book refers in passing to immigrant camps. The camps depicted in Cuarón’s film more closely resemble the book’s penal colony on the Isle of Man (or Nazi concentration camps, given the unsubtle presence of “Arbeit Macht Frei” in the soundtrack).
‘Children of Men’ Doesn’t Like Deeper Themes than Politics
Conservatives might complain that the movie is a textbook example of the entertainment industry bowdlerizing an original work in service of a secular and progressive political agenda. The film’s key problem, however, is that the bowdlerization fails to make the film’s narrow politics resonant.
Cuarón told Filmmaker magazine the “book is almost like a look at Christianity, and that wasn’t my interest. I didn’t want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes but I wasn’t interested in dealing with Dogma.” Aping the style of a nativity pageant while trying to deny the substance of one turned out to be impossible for Cuarón and his crew.
The movie expressly states that Theo lost his political faith when his child died of the flu. Yet the miracle of Kee’s pregnancy does not restore his political faith. To the contrary, by the time Theo’s supposed true motivation in carrying out the perilous mission is revealed, Theo and Kee have fled the political revolutionaries, whom they continue to resist until the denouement of the film.
And why would Theo and Kee (the characters with whom the audience is meant to identify) want to be associated with the militant refugee rights group? The Fishes were involved in terror bombings Theo opposed, traitorously murdered Julian, and wanted to politically exploit the miracle conception as much as the government might have.
Consequently, the political conflict in “Children of Men” is reduced to an exquisitely designed and filmed backdrop, serving as a plot obstacle for Theo to overcome. It chiefly functions to underscore Theo’s rejection of political activism throughout the film.
If Theo is only personally motivated by the loss of his child, the stakes for the audience are fairly low. If his loss personifies society’s loss, the movie does not escape the moral gravity of the book it attempted to discard.
Film critics wondering why “Children of Men” flopped financially upon release and has only gathered a cult audience in the ensuing decade generally fail to confront the fatal flaws of the screenplay. It turns out that the audiences for nonsensical action films and progressive disaster porn generally have little overlap (“The Day After Tomorrow” notwithstanding).
The otherwise excellent performances, direction, production design, and cinematography could not overcome these fundamental narrative and marketing problems. “Children of Men” is, ironically, a stillborn film, not a great one.