15 years ago, a friend and I went to the cinemas to see a new film called 'Children of Men'. We'd been dazzled by the trailer, promising a killer premise - a dystopian world where women have become infertile, when suddenly, after 18 years, a young women falls pregnant. I've always been fond of dystopias, ever since reading George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' as a teenager, and this film from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón looked like it might be in the same vein. I expected to be entertained, to have a great time, to fall into some great world-building, to enjoy a ripper story from a filmmaker I already knew had considerable skill.
It was one of the most earth-shattering experiences I have ever had in a cinema. By the time the lights came up, I was sobbing, shaking, inconsolable, exhausted, unable to speak, fractured right to the depths of my soul. I knew I had witnessed something remarkable, and that in the act of doing so, understood something about who I was, who we were, who we were capable of being. I knew I'd seen the whole concept of the human race cracked open in a symphony of cries and prayers and screams and tears and silence.
If one was to be purely analytical, you would place 'Children of Men' within the general cinematic aftermath of 9/11. Something had fundamentally shifted in the world, both because of this event and because of the response to it. Our concept of ourselves, of right and wrong, of safety, of justice, of anger and retribution was in a state of chaos, and the work arriving in cinemas reflected this. Much of it suffered from overbearing sentimentality and patriotic flag-waving, but some of these films were special. There were those that stared directly into the storm, such as Paul Greengrass' overwhelming 'United 93' (2006). There were those that used metaphor or fantasy to get to the heart of our paranoia, such as Steven Spielberg's stunning 'War of the Worlds' (2005). Films like these captured the true feeling of the time and faced them head-on, not dressing them up as what we wanted to feel.
And then there was 'Children of Men'. It was a film that didn't so much look into the storm as much as step straight into it, its arms open. In almost every way, the film is an assault - visually, aurally, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. As each masterful minute passes, the enormity of it builds until you are consumed by it, unable to escape. My memory of sitting in the cinema was being curled up in a ball, my hands over my face, watching through my fingers with wide, terrified eyes. My assumptions hadn't been wrong - the film did have a killer premise, the world-building was incredible, it was even genuinely entertaining, but all of this was to serve the creation of a portrait sent from the abyss, an abyss that was as beautiful and hopeful as it was terrible and hopeless.
The world of 'Children of Men' is not one on the verge of collapse. It isn't even one in the act of collapsing. The collapse, total and finite, has already happened. We aren't told exactly how, but we're given snippets - the wars started in retribution to 9/11, a refugee crisis on a biblical scale, overwhelming xenophobia, a flu pandemic and finally unexplainable infertility. The human race is coming to an end, its body vomiting bile and shit as it goes through its slow, century-long death throes. It is a world without hope, without salvation, and most unnerving of all, without children. "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in", says Miriam (Pam Ferris), the ex-midwife protecting Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young pregnant woman being carried in safety and secret from this decomposing society. "Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices."
That despair is made manifest in Theo (Clive Owen), the hapless figure who finds himself moving Kee across the country. He has been present at each stage of the end of the world, fought against it until the loss of his own child and the collapse of his marriage to Julian (Julianne Moore) forces him to simply give up. He has chosen to sit back and wait until it's all over, not fight back or choose an early exit through a government-subsidised suicide kit handed out with food rations. His journey in the film, from nihilistic despair to soul-shattering, thunderous hope digs right at what makes us human: the insatiable will and need to live and survive.
This is the careful balance at the heart of the film - despair and hope - two opposing responses to an overwhelming situation with seemingly no solution. It's very hard to watch 'Children of Men' in 2021, perhaps harder than it was in 2006. In the past 15 years, so many of the catastrophes it speaks of have happened, too many familiar phrases, too many familiar practices. There was a part of me that wondered why people in the film weren't wearing masks. The film was filled with images we recognised in 2006, illusions to Abu Ghraib and Kosovo, Afghanistan and September 11. There are even more to recognise now - "illegal" immigrants in cages, cities reduced to war zones, armies of western soldiers wiping out entire cities, the wealthy creating fortresses to protect themselves while people outside their walls starve. 'Children of Men' was shocking 15 years ago because we thought that future could be a possibility. Now it feels like elements of it are already here, or perhaps we're in free fall tumbling towards it.
For some, the end of the world must not be with a whimper but with a bang, as if violence and revolt will be loud enough to assert our existence before we fade away. For others, the walls are shut and the gold has been hoarded and let's just wait until we're the last ones left to turn the lights off. But there are those that want the world to die with dignity, to let things slip away with a grace that speaks to who we are as a species, even if there will be no one to remember us when we are gone. Deep down, this is what every human being in 'Children of Men' wants, but to accept this is to accept the end, and that is a very hard pill to swallow. It feels like giving up, even though they know there's nothing they can do.
'Children of Men' was shocking 15 years ago because we thought that future could be a possibility. Now it feels like elements of it are already here, or perhaps we're in free fall tumbling towards it.
And yet, despite the fact that despair drives so much of this film - despair that Cuarón renders with an alarming immediacy unmatched since - a despair that throttles forward with each of Emmanuel Lubezki's impossible, cataclysmic single-shot sequences, what survives at the beating heart of 'Children of Men' is hope. You see it on the face of every person who sets eyes on Kee's pregnant belly. It's even there in Kee's eyes, a terrified hope that this living thing inside her might actually make it. That hope is then rendered in every small act of kindness they encounter along the way, small and tender moments of goodness in the midst of madness. That kindness often comes from those right in the heart of the nightmare, and that kindness is driven by the hope Kee offers, that there is a way out of this, a future that isn't dark and finite.
Alfonso Cuarón is one of our greatest living filmmakers. One could argue that he has, in the last 20 years, delivered an unbroken string of perfect or near-perfect films, each possessing moments of awe and majesty very few of his contemporaries are capable of. Of all his work though, none are as thunderous, as incredible, as monumental and as earth-shatteringly moving as the moment in 'Children of Men' when despair falls away for a moment and hope, pure and radiant and devastating, fully emerges. After the single greatest shot in cinema history, a passage through a war-zone hell that still defies technical explanation, the sound of guns and explosions fall away to the sound of a crying baby. Everyone is left dumbstruck. People stare in awe. Those wounded or dying forget their pain and reach out to touch the baby's tiny feet. Soldiers drop their weapons, fall to their knees. For some, the best they can do is gently sing to the baby. For one brief moment, the world stops as Theo and Kee carry the baby from the shattered building, and all of hope itself stands in awe. Whenever I revisit this film, it is this moment that breaks me. All they want is hope. All they want is to know that everything is going to be okay. They thought it was gone, they thought they were abandoned, they thought they would fade away and be forgotten. And then a baby cries - a sound they have not heard in nearly 20 years, a sound they never thought they would hear again - and suddenly there is the glimmer of a future, the glimmer of a way out of this. Even death doesn't matter now, because there is now also hope, and that hope comes not from within the safe walls of the rich or elite, but from the very bodies they have been trained to distrust, to dehumanise, a body of colour, the body of an immigrant. In that moment, who the fuck cares where we are from or what we look like? This baby is alive. We are alive.
It has been said many times over the past 15 years that 'Children of Men' is "a film we need right now", regardless of when "now" actually is. Honestly, I find that assessment of the film lazy. That's a pithy catchphrase to describe something impossible to categorise. That's why the film wasn't a success in 2006, why Universal didn't know what to do with it, probably why it didn't decimate the Oscars as it deserved to. How can you reduce this film to some easy capsuled statement when it is so fucking enormous? The truth is, we'll always need 'Children of Men'. It goes beyond the post-9/11 anxieties in which it was made and speaks directly to who we are capable of being and what we are capable of becoming, the terrible things we can do to one another and our planet, and the incredible acts of kindness we are equally capable of. Perhaps it is a guide to preparing for the end, or perhaps it is a warning of what might happen, but regardless, it reminds us that we are human beings with a soul and a heart, that want love and kindness, home and belonging, safety and purpose, and to strip a human being of these things is to give in to despair, accept the end of the world, even bring about that end. 'Children of Men' is one of the finest films ever made, this I have been certain of since I emerged from the cinema in 2006, but not because it is clever or technically impressive. 'Children of Men' is a masterpiece because it is humane, as humane as one could ever hope for cinema to be.