Psalm 90:3: Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. This verse out of the King James Bible was the inspiration behind P.D James’ Children of Men, a novel inspiring the film of the same name, in 2006 under the influence of the film’s visionary director, Alfonso Cuarón. The film was released on Christmas day the same year, nominated for three Oscars including Best Writing, Best Achievement in Film Editing and in Cinematography. The film includes a wide variety of themes and references to both the secular and sacred, with particular techniques in single shot takes that add to the versatility needed for the film to present itself with adequate articulation and pace. The themes in the film will be discussed, as well as their overall connection as a significant and more so, a required situation to explain the film’s take on human existence and the illusion of the lead story.
The story takes place in a grunge-like bleak London winter in the year 2027. The story displayed on the screen is mostly the account of Theo (Clive Owen), a retired political activist turned apathetic civil servant, through his journey in taking Key, the first pregnant woman in 18 years, to the Human Project. The film is set in futuristic context but not your average Blade Runner-esque style in flashy random advancements, but instead a future that looks similar to the present, one that can simply relate, with most of the world in utter collapse, Britain barely holding on to its own order, refugees being beaten and killed in the streets, many of the upper class lining up for government sponsored euthanasia kits, Quietus. The Human project is apparently this “almost” mystical group of intellectuals and scientists who achieve contact with Julian, Key’s protector and Theo’s ex-wife, who entrusts Theo with taking Key to the Human Project to bring her baby to safety, and ultimately save the human race. After being ambushed by rebels while driving to the docks, Julian is killed, and the others flee to a rebel hideout, only to discover it was hit done within the group, with the Fishes being behind the execution and wanting to kill Theo next for killing one of the fishes in the attack. Having heard this under layer of plot, Theo takes Key and her mid-wife as they flee from the Fishes, to his friend and pot dealer Jasper, played by Michael Caine. The film continues to follow Theo in a linear path as he escorts Key to the Tomorrow, the boat by which the Human Project is said to be arriving for them, meeting a variety of opposition in their march across the neo-conservative state, with the background filled with the literal and metaphorical state of chaos in London and the world around Britain. After making it to the boat, the movie ends with Key and her baby alone with the deceased Theo, having been shot before making it to boat in an earlier conflict. The Tomorrow is shown heading towards Key, three fishermen at the bow, looking out towards Key and her baby. With few futuristic stand-outs in the film, the aim is obvious that any lessons taught are not displayed in a future unknown to us. Instead this future is one we can relate to, one we can envision coming, depending our immediate decisions. The refugee camps portrayed in the film were based on the U.S.’ Abu Ghraib Prison as well as Auschwitz, extreme examples of world powers displayed a recklessness in method as well as referencing to fear mongering leaders such as President Bush and Adolf Hitler and the devastation that fear can bring in people. Differences from the book were relatively minimal excluding the fact that in the novel, it was men that were infertile instead of women, Cuarón changing this detail for reasons on which I will discuss further on, the other side of the coin, the Religious and secular references in the film, that incorporates both literal and metaphorical.
Throughout the film, more specifically along Theo’s journey with Key, there are numerous symbolic messages hidden right in front of our eyes, hidden in the background. Most references refer to maternity, fascism, and the ultimate questioning of the cruelty of men. These include the lines,” Shanti, shanti, shanti,” by Jasper early in the film, referring to the Upanishads on the cosmic epitome of peace among men as well as a segment in T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, a five section essay collection on various pre modern topics on both man’s future as well as fertility in a world wasting away. More references come in heavy irony when Theo visits his cousin Nigel at his “Arch of Arts”, a palace of maintaining both classic and modern art. Pieces included in the film began with Banksy’s Cops Kissing, a reference an artist with a history of pieces attacking the ideals of unmarked capitalism and conservative social standards still awake today. The next is when he arrives to Nigel’s apartment, Michelangelo’s David in center of the background with Nigel casually walking in from the side, ashamed he couldn’t save La Pieta, saying it had been destroyed before he could acquire it for his apparent collection. The references continue with three more major references in his visit, Picasso’s Guernica covers the back wall, an irony in its work being based on unchecked ventures of modern war and fear mongering sentiment clash with the blissful and uncaring Nigel, a wealthy bureaucrat who fights to save the pieces of art, but to destroy the ideals behind them. This unraveling of Nigel’s character is better symbolized by the pig floating in the sky, a reference to Pink Floyd’s Animals, itself being a loose reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the book being a satire of Stalinism, power for few and suffering for many, in the name of security and upholding nationalism. Even farther into the background plays King Crimson’s in the Court of the Crimson King, drifting to a dark side of the soundtrack in comparison to the variety of classic rock used in the film, further developing the “Arch of Arts” scene. Other examples include the rebel group known as the Fishes being a reference to early Christian groups using this symbol, the song Arbeit Macht Frei by the Libertines used when passing through the refugee camp, a reference to the similarities between the film’s camps and concentration camps in WWII Germany. When Key reveals to Theo of her importance being in her pregnancy, she stands in a posture based on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, yet another reference to fertility in the sacred. While many, if not all, of these references are fantastic in their precision to their placement, what is the overall connection between the secular and religious in the context of the film? This connection is strong but cannot be further explained without holding a meditation over one of the most acclaimed aspects of the film, the cinematography and editing.
What initially made this film stand out and what ultimately set it up for award nomination was the unique procedures in the filming process, mainly the single shot takes. Cuarón makes a point that many films take many short shots, always centered on the foreground, the lead story, as the linear story revolves around this character for an individual point of view, with hopes to show the uniqueness of said character in association with the skill of the actor/ actress in the portrayal. That being said, many films revolve around the foreground and its dominating power over the setting, the background. This contrast is flipped in Children of Men, with the background actually dominating every aspect of Theo’s journey. This docu-newsreel style of filming is refined through Cuarón’s usage of single shot takes. These takes include the opening scene as Theo goes through the coffee shop incident, the most famous car chases from the rebels and escaping the fishes’ hideout, and the longest take being when Theo searches for Key among the war-torn refugee camp, a technique Cuarón utilizes in his other films (Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity). These single shot takes show what many films fail to use around them, the background. This fore-centric illusion gives an unrealistic look of a narrow-minded fairy tale, when in reality outside the camera foreground has the least influence in the world around it. Theo merely watches as the background destroys his old world and forces him into a journey to which he is entrusted by Julian, by the background itself. What is important to take from this angle of the film is that while we may try to live in our little bubbles of foreground, our short-sighted visions influenced on a basis of blind trust by media, fear mongering leaders, ironic art collectors and their out of context collections and ever-growing capitalist giants, but eventually the background, the world around us, the higher power, will come crashing down upon us with a fate harsher than death, the true state of things. When the camera occasionally breaks from Theo, it attempts to show us this presence that is otherwise impossible to see with our own eyes: The world naked and bare for open observation, putting London under subjectivity of the true state of things, to finally see the background slowly crashing around us.
While recognizing the significance of the symbols and concepts in mix with the filming techniques used masterfully by Alfonso Cuarón is beneficial to the partial understanding of the film, but only partial. The main focus is the state of things, the state of the background, the world around us and all powers within it. Within this background we are propelled into chaos much like Theo but at the same time, this background, interlaced with an unlimited depth of references to secular and religious art, not to have us appreciate the usage of the individual piece, but more so a reminder of root of all art, the root of all classical, modern, and futuristic art, where it comes from, its roots. Art is born as a product of the background, envisioned through the foreground, the artist who only sees the individual piece, not the connection between every figment of art and design the world as pushed to shore. This theme is perfectly demonstrated in a scene in which Theo and Key make their way with the baby and the refugees, leaving a building towards the docks. As they leave the building site, they pass by an older woman, most likely intended to be a mother holding her dead child, screaming in pity and cursing the cruelty of those who brought this destruction upon her foreground, in a pose based on Michelangelo’s La Pietà, a piece that shows Mary holding the dead Jesus, questioning the cruel nature of men, holding her child in despair and question. This shows the background overwhelming influence on our existence, the origin and inspiration of art itself didn’t come from prodigious works sitting atop palaces of marble and crimson, didn’t arise from pillars of art collection monoliths, it came from the ground, from the raw and dirty ground. This connection has become somewhat lost in modern art, with the overall disconnection with the background around us. Theo had lost this connection with the world. A retired political activist to an apathetic bureaucrat, filled with despair, looking for a purpose in his existence, and only focusing on his foreground. Theo is us, we are all Theo, and just like Theo, the background, higher power being God or Jesus, can change everything in an instant. The film connects the audience back to the world, London as a person, bleeding from within from the fearful and sterile nihilism, and the possibility of humankind being saved, the virgin Key being taken by the appointed Theo, as Joseph the apathetic shepherd turned bureaucrat by a once well acquainted Julian out of almost prophetic in his journey from despair and disconnection from the world and the beauty or art it creates to a reawakening of hope and faith in possibility of peace and faith in one another. In opening on Christmas Day, Cuarón creates a modern nativity story, one that is relatable, one that connects us back to the background, the world, origin and birth of art, and faith in the higher being around us, through the usage of particular to deepen our connection, while occasionally breaking from the foreground to show what we fail to see or simply choose to ignore everyday of our lives, the state of things, not just the lead story.
The ending of the film shows Theo dead, having given his faith unto the Human Project, or the belief in humanity to have faith in the sacred, and Key alone with her baby, the apparent savior of humanity, possibly the second coming. This interpretation of the ending is entirely subjective and according to Cuarón, not the only possibility of how one can interpret this ending, this film, and still be accurate. It all goes back to a connection to faith and chance Jasper describes as the ultimate controller of the universe, and a common balance in many religions.
What one may interpret as the ultimate direction in this film is purely and intentionally decided upon the hope within the viewer. If you see the world in your foreground as bleak, full of despair, and somewhat pointless in faith in one another, then the Tomorrow and the Human Project were a hoax, it was the wrong boat, Key and Theo would ultimately end up with all the loss and terror brought to them be in vain. But if you are one who sees the hope in humanity, someone who believes in the possibility of peace and the sacred, then Theo completed his journey and may pass in peace, having brought Key and her baby to the “Wise men” scientists who will help save humanity, and as the soldiers and rebels momentarily regained this faith in the sacred in the sight of the baby, so will the world in the days to come. To look past the lead story, to look past the angles of media corrupted by capitalist greed and militaristic foreign policy imprisoning those looking with faith by leaders imprisoned by their own fears. Children of Men is a patient meditation of a background, with this exposure comes the weight of the variance surrounding, a seemingly endless space of chaos, yet shows beauty and almost, ease, back to the state of things. After all, art came before the textbook.