This is an academic paper on the thematic, historical, and scene analysis of Alfonso Cuaron’s modern sci-fi masterpiece. Major spoilers ahead.
French philosopher, Paul Virilio, emphasizes that the world’s collapse is going to come about due to the exponential growth of technology. Virilio’s philosophy aligns perfectly with Hollywood science-fiction dystopian classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Blade Runner (1982) that placed conventional Hollywood narratives, and characters in futuristic dystopian worlds filled with technological wizardry and scientific advancements. Though Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 science-fiction film Children of Men, based on the 1992 novel of the same name, generally adheres to the classical Hollywood narrative structure, the film’s visual template and narrative focus largely distinguish it from nowadays science-fiction films. Contemporary big-budget films like Minority Report (2002), and Avatar (2009) use the visual template of historical scientifically-advanced dystopias and expand it infinitely to display flying cars, alien creatures, and entirely new worlds beyond the viewer’s imagination. But, the relatively low-budget Children of Men wants to create a futuristic world that demonstrates the current “state of things.” Children of Men strips its dystopian world off technological advancements to show that technology is just a small cause and casualty of the world’s apocalypse. The film, instead, shifts its focus to humans’ inter-personal relationships, and their integral role in creating a futuristic dystopia. This deviation from the general conventions of science-fiction films grounds Children of Men’s setting and characters in reality. This realism allows it to explore themes relevant to a post-9/11 society like xenophobia, military dominance, and terrorism to warn the viewers that humans’ failing inter-personal relationships, not technology, are going to turn the world into a grim, dirty, and violent dystopia. For this purpose, this paper will focus on the subtle contrast in Children of Men’s thematic representation of ethnic relations among its supporting characters, and the ethnic relations among its central characters. Then, this paper will illuminate the film’s consistent use of realistic mise-en-scène, fluid cinematography, and diegetic sound, to demonstrate that the film delineates a realistic, technologically stripped dystopia that is highly reminiscent of a post 9/11 world.
Children of Men draws from the concepts of growing military dominance, and xenophobia in the United States and combines these themes with the growing global threat of Islamic terrorism to create its dystopian world filled with fractured human relationships. From its conception in 2001 to its eventual release near the end of 2006, Children of Men’s production timeline encompasses several world events that took place after the September 11 attacks on the twin towers. The post 9/11 period demonstrated a massive increase in military and defense expenditure from the United States of America that amounts to approximately $600 billion (34% of the world’s military expenditure). Moreover, the Homeland Security Act immigration policies of the United States increasingly strengthened to allow xenophobia to thrive. In response to these increased restrictions and xenophobic attitudes, the threat of Islamic terrorism, not nearly as prevalent in a pre-9/11 period, began to grow exponentially, with around 28,000 Islamic terrorist attacks reported post 9/11 resulting in the loss of millions of lives. Alfonso Cuarón emphasizes the effect of these post 9/11 era themes on the film in an interview in which he states that he wanted to create a future dystopian world in Children of Men that references current world events taking place throughout the world rather than imagine new high-tech scenarios.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican background further allows Children of Men to have a thematic vision that is different from major Hollywood science-fiction films directed by the majority of American directors in a post 9/11 era. Films like Transformers (2007) and War of the Worlds (2005) from American directors, Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg respectively, focused on the themes of American nationalism, patriotism and post 9/11 paranoia. But, Cuarón’s international background gave him a wider perspective to explore diverse global themes present in a post 9/11 period, resembling the vision of a drama like Babel (2006), directed by another Mexican director. Both of these films focus on themes like failing international relations, increasing militaristic dominance, and the miserable conditions of immigrants that reflect the vision of non-American directors, who aim to examine the global crisis of a post 9/11 era. Cuarón, therefore, unfolds his film like a drama, emphasizing characters and their relationships over action, and stressing on the visual exposition of its dystopian setting to warn the viewer about the impending doom of infertile human relations in a post 9/11 world.
To understand Children of Men’s thematic representation of post 9/11 issues like xenophobia, militia dominance, and terrorism, it is essential to firstly analyze the way in which the film represents its supporting (and background) characters and their ethnic relations with each other. The British militants depicted in the film treat the so-called “fugees” (refugees) hideously. Throughout the film, the visuals demonstrate British militia officials locking up immigrants in cages, hitting them mercilessly, or scolding them in a derogatory tone. The film highlights this attitude in the scene when the central characters arrive in the “prison” state of the “fugees,” Bexhill, a state ridden with war, poverty, and mayhem. A faceless automated voice announces to the arriving “prisoners,” “Britain supports you and provides you shelter. Don’t support terrorists.” This contrast in the British government’s claim of support and actual treatment of “fugees” represents a severely disturbing aspect in Children of Men’s portrayal of the British militia’s treatment of ethnic minorities that is clearly reminiscent of the post 9/11 xenophobic attitude of dominant nations towards ethnic minorities. The major interaction, apart from violence and torture that Britain militants have with these “fugees,” limits to military personnel nonchalantly declaring, “You fucking people disgust me.”
Children of Men highlights this combination of verbal and violent domination of the “fugees” by the British militia even further through the representation of Syd, a British military officer who escorts the central characters to the “fugee” camp of Bexhill. The first-time the central characters meet the character of Syd; they are told to identify him through the password, “You are a fascist pig.” Syd’s character embodies the description of this password. From his first interaction with the central characters, the film portrays Syd as an extremely dominating and uncaring character. He firstly intimidates the powerless central characters, and then goes on to describe his indifferent attitude towards the condition of the “fugees.” He, like the other British militia officers in the film, casually tells the central characters that “he does not care” about them. The film further highlights Syd’s behavior as a “fascist pig” in a pivotal scene when he discovers that Kee has a baby, and he decides not to help the central characters get to the “Human Project.” Rather than discussing the central character’s problems, Syd opts to threaten them violently. In this particular scene, his interaction with another supporting character in the film he identifies as an “Arab gypsy bitch,” represents the complete lack of human interaction shown by the film’s supporting characters. Syd’s only form of communication with Marichka is to either curse her or hit her. Syd’s dominance and xenophobia towards Marichka instigate a violent reaction from her and the central characters, eventually leading to his death. Even though the film does not explicitly focus on Syd’s character or actions, his ethnocentric attitude and violent domination of minorities allegorically portray the harsh reality of the growing post 9/11 themes of xenophobia and militia dominance that lead to the emergence of violence from the minorities, in the form of terrorism.
Children of Men portrays the post 9/11 theme of terrorism through the attitude of the terrorist organization – “The Fishes,” and their ethnic relations with the rest of the society. Much like the British militia and Syd, the film represents “The Fishes” as an organization comprising members of a particular ethnicity who have lost the ability to communicate or relate to other people in the society. The “Fishes,” right from the beginning of the film, resort to violent measures of bombing a café in London to achieve their objective of social equality. The film continues to underscore the terrorist activities of the “Fishes” throughout its runtime, particularly towards the end through their violent “Uprising” movement against the militia. Children of Men delves deeper into the intentions of the terrorist organization in a particular scene when the organization discusses their plan of the “Uprising,” and their use of Kee’s baby in it. Many the members of the “Fishes” discuss the role of Kee’s baby, as a way of “uniting their people” in their fight against the British government. The film focuses on this verbal discussion among the “Fishes” to demonstrate that they do not intend to make peace with the British militia. The “Fishes,” like the British militia, believe that they are superior to the other ethnic group and the only way to achieve parity is to commit acts of violence against the other group.
Children of Men further highlights the xenophobia and emergence of terrorism from the “Fishes” through the representation of Luke, one of the leaders of the terrorist organization who plans to use Kee’s baby as a “flag” to propagate the “Uprising” movement against the British. The film underscores Luke’s xenophobia against the British militia and government in a scene when he voices his belief to the members of the “Fishes” that the British government “will not acknowledge the first human birth in 18 years from a refugee.” Luke’s unshakable belief about the attitude of the British causes him to never have any verbal interaction with the British officials at even a single point of the time in the film. Luke’s only actions towards the British is through the act of terrorism. The film demonstrates Luke’s beliefs clearly in one of his final scenes when he questions the central characters, “How can it be peaceful when they [the British] try to take away your dignity?” This attitude of terrorism as a form of only resort against militia dominance allegorically represents the post 9/11 idea of terrorism in the film. Luke’s death after the failed “Uprising” movement and the eventual bombing of the “fugee” state of Bexhill, moreover, represent the futility of Luke’s xenophobic and violent attitude towards other ethnicities.
Though Children of Men largely paints a bleak dystopia through the failing ethnic relations among its supporting characters, the film contrasts this looming sense of dystopia with the utopian relationship among its central characters. The characters of Jasper, Miriam, and Julian completely contrast those of Syd and Luke and embrace all ethnicities. Jasper, and Miriam, in particular, display their genuine belief and love for the black “fugee,” throughout the movie. The film emphasizes the need for these peaceful ethnic relations in a scene in which Kee, Miriam, and Jasper engage over food, UFO’s, faith, and the meaning of the word “shantih.” Though Julian spends less time with Kee, the film hints at the strong relationship between Julian and Kee as Kee places her trust in Theo only because of Julian’s words. The film stresses on the contrast between the supporting character’s ethnic relations, and the central character’s ethnic relations most prominently through the relationship arc between its two central characters, Theo and Kee. Theo’s first interaction with Kee is initiated by him asking Kee, “So what did you do? Rob a train? Blow up a building?” This first interaction puts Theo right in parallel with the other supporting characters in the film’s dystopian society. Like the xenophobic British militants, Theo views “fugees” as criminals. Kee’s first impression of Theo is similarly not of respect, but that of suspicion. Kee questions Theo’s character by asking him, “What the fuck are you staring at?” and moreover, labels him a “drunk wanker.” The tension between the two central characters is clearly reminiscent of the tension that the supporting characters in the film have amongst them. Children of Men, however, breaks down the tension between the central characters throughout the film using moments of humor in which Theo and Kee discuss the name of Kee’s (then) unborn baby. The final scene of the film, moreover, represents the completion of their relationship arc, as Theo sacrifices his life to save Kee and her child, and Kee in response gives her child the name of Theo’s dead child. Through the central characters’ progressive attitudes on ethnicities, and their sacrifice for one another, the film encourages viewers to repair their failing human inter-personal relationships to envision a multiethnic and prejudice-free utopia that is free from the forces of militia dominance and terrorism.
Though Children of Men’s subtly implies its utopian vision through the representation of ethnic relations amongst its central characters, the film’s use of realistic mise-en-scène, fluid cinematography, and diegetic sound throughout its runtime continue to warn the audience about the painstaking similarities between its dystopian world of 2027, and their post 9/11 world. Critics have noted that the film’s use of realistic production design inspired by newsroom footage, and “retro-fitting,” over extravagant visual effects to create its dystopian setting of 2027 is what distinguishes the film from any other science-fiction film of the 2000s. This use of cinematic techniques is particularly notable in the scene which begins with Theo and Kee arriving in the Bexhill refugee camp for the first time and ends with the two central characters, and Marickha, arriving at an apartment in Bexhill. This scene is particularly significant to the film because it uses these cinematic techniques to introduce to the viewers the deplorable living conditions of the immigrants in the Bexhill refugee camp to demonstrate the consequences of the British militia’s xenophobia and dominance, and foreshadow the reasons for the “fugees” xenophobia, and terrorism against the British militia.
The scene at the Bexhill refugee, like many other scenes in the films, focuses more on the mise-en-scène and diegetic sounds rather than its central characters to illuminate its post 9/11 referenced dystopian setting. The one significant character interaction that takes place features at the beginning of this scene. As Theo and Kee pass the checking point to enter Bexhill, the British militia person orders Theo to take his watch off. The soldier’s dialogue suggests that the “fugees” be stripped off much of their belongings before they are allowed to enter Bexhill. This dialogue reinforces the dominance of the British militia over the “fugees” to the viewers, making them sympathize more with the conditions enforced upon the central protagonist and the “fugees.” The film then establishes a medium long shot to demonstrate the cages through which the “fugees” have to pass to enter the Bexhill. The design of the cages is not based on advanced technology, but is, in fact, inspired by past images of the Holocaust as seen in the 1993 film Schindler’s List. This use of “retro-fitting” effectively invokes fear in the mind of the viewers and makes them realize that xenophobia and militia dominance will make humanity revisit the horrors created by themselves in the past. This use of “retro-fitting” and referencing from real life world events is further highlighted as Kee and Theo enter Bexhill. The hand-held cinematography alternates between medium long shots and long shots in a long take to follow the central characters, but more importantly, give depth to the mise-en-scène of Bexhill. The dark lighting, the black and gray color costumes of the people, the dirty and torn production design of shops, the graffiti-ridden walls, and people mourning over burning dead bodies demonstrates the desperate conditions the “fugees” experience in Bexhill. Like the production design of the cages, the production design of Bexhill seems to be much more inspired by newsroom footage of a war-ridden Iraq in 2003, and post 9/11 memorial services than by any futuristic elements.
The lack of visual grandeur and absence of the role of technology in the film’s mise-en-scène highlights the importance the film wants to put on the role of failing human relationships in creating its dystopian society filled with hatred and violence. The hand-held cinematography with long takes and medium-long shots capturing the war-torn state of Bexhill, further give the film an almost documentarian vibe, making the viewer feel that they are experiencing real-life footage of a current post 9/11 environment. The added lack of close-ups and use of deep focus in these scenes forces the viewer to witness the severe effects of xenophobia and militia dominance by the British not only on the central characters but the whole group of “fugees.” Towards the end of the scene, the camera, in fact, leaves the central characters and focuses solely on the people mourning over burning dead bodies to explicitly make the viewer aware of the deplorable conditions the “fugees” experience due to the actions of the British militia. The scene then cuts to the point of view shot of the central characters looking at the graffiti-inscribed sign of “The Uprising” and an Islamic symbol to foreshadow to the viewer the emergence of terrorism due to the forces of xenophobia and militia dominance. The lack of non-diegetic sound further adds to the realistic and grim atmosphere of the scene. Throughout the scene, the film predominantly uses diegetic sounds of people shouting, crying, and dogs barking to add a layer of sadness and hopelessness to the film’s atmosphere to make viewers realize about the horrific condition of the real world in a post 9/11 environment.
Children of Men’s combination of thematic analysis and cinematic techniques delineate the effect of the post 9/11 era on the film. Through its supporting characters, mise-en-scène, cinematography, and diegetic sounds, Children of Men creates a dystopian atmosphere that makes the viewer worried about the current state of the world. The film, however also provides the viewer with a glimmer of hope through the representation of its central characters, who break the barriers of xenophobia, and violent measures to demonstrate the possibility of a peaceful environment in the world. The final moments of the film, in fact, epitomize this glimmer of utopia in a looming sense of dystopia through a wide shot of Kee, Dylan, and a dying Theo waiting in a rowboat for “The Tomorrow” to take them to “The Human Project,” with the bombing of Bexhill occurring in the background. Using this contrast in the climactic scene, Children of Men demonstrates that a post 9/11 society of xenophobia, militia dominance, and terrorism would only lead to destruction and death. And, the only way to repair a decaying post 9/11 society is to start improving the human relations amongst people of all ethnicities and begin to live in a world of peace and harmony.
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