by Brandie Ashe
“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”
Three years ago, when I was thirty-three years old, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Truth be told, it wasn’t an entirely surprising diagnosis, based on my health at the time (though I was rather young to have gotten that particular disease, according to my doctors), and neither was the proposed treatment—a total hysterectomy. My oncologist asked me beforehand if I would like to freeze my eggs; my mother wanted me to, “just in case,” but I decided against it. For one thing, the procedure is offputtingly cost-prohibitive. And, more importantly, on some level, I’d decided years ago that I just didn’t want children. I’d never had the maternal instinct, never had any kind of drive to reproduce or to “mother” a child that wasn’t of the four-legged variety. The decision I made that day was an easy one for me, but I’m here to tell you, everyone and their mother (and mine) had an opinion about it. It made me somewhat of an aberration within my own family, who didn’t quite know what to do with that decision, and even a bit of an outlier in a society that still judges those “women of a certain age” who haven’t reproduced, as if it’s their duty to do so.
And yet, much as we may not want to admit it to ourselves, on a biological level, that’s somewhat true, isn’t it? The purpose of a species is to propagate itself, to flourish and thrive and ensure the survival of the species for centuries and eons to come, as long as life is viable. Science has made it even more possible for humanity, as a species, to do this. But what happens when every effort—both natural and scientific—fails, when women simply stop getting pregnant for an extended period of time, threatening the very existence of the human animal?
That scenario forms the backbone of the world of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 science-fiction masterpiece Children of Men, based on the 1992 novel by P.D. James. In the year 2027, mass infertility has struck the earth, and no babies have been born anywhere in the world in eighteen years. Globally, fears of human extinction have led to chaos; across the world, governments have collapsed, and one of the few remaining structured governments, England, has become a totalitarian state, silencing dissidents and forcibly detaining and mistreating immigrants from other lands.
As the film opens, the youngest person on the planet, an eighteen-year-old man referred to as “baby Diego,” is reported to have been stabbed outside of a bar; the news of his death is met by sorrow and fear from the British citizens who watch the report in a local coffee shop. So valued is life-span in these dark times that the news report of his death marks his age as having been “eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours, and eight minutes.” One patron, Theo (Clive Owen), watches dispassionately as he orders his coffee before walking out onto the street, pausing only to remove a flask and pour some liquor into the cup. Seconds later, the coffee shop he’s just left explodes.
Cuarón sets the tone for us immediately. This dank, dreary, desolate version of London is the most uncertain of worlds. Train speakers warn of the dangers of illegal immigrants, cautioning citizens that helping immigrants will lead to trouble. The train stations are bordered by cages—pens to hold in the illegals, to keep them at bay and out of the population, for the more precarious the world seems, the more fear it breeds. Billboards advertise that fertility testing is mandatory—a way to keep hope alive, perhaps, that one day the great problem will miraculously fix itself. But hope is a useless commodity, it seems, in a world with no perceivable future.
In such a seemingly doomed world, humans—most of them, anyway—no longer seem to know their place in it. Theo has found his as a civil servant drone, but it’s an unhappy existence in which he’s buried himself to escape memories of the past, and he’s soon yanked from the hole in which he’s hidden himself when his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), reappears in his life to ask for help. She is the leader of a group called the Fishes: labeled by the government as a terrorist organization, their purported mission is to provide aid to illegal immigrants. Julian needs Theo’s help in obtaining transit papers for a young immigrant named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). Kee, as it turns out, is eight months pregnant, and Julian has arranged for a group known as the Human Project to take in the young woman and her child, fearing that otherwise the baby will be used as a political tool.
Julian’s hope is that the baby will bring peace; the rest of her group hope for war, for resistance against the government’s brutal regime, and it’s this divide that causes them to plot her death, and drives Theo to take up Julian’s cause to ensure that Kee reaches the Human Project. He is the hero who doesn’t want to be a hero—cynical to extremes, haunted by the loss of his and Julian’s son nineteen years before the events of the film, Theo is a bitter drunk, content to merely exist until his time comes. He’s somewhat nihilistic, having lost all faith when he lost his son: as his hippie friend Jasper (Michael Caine) explains, “Theo’s faith lost out to chance. So why bother if life’s going to make its own choices?” He has difficulty understanding how others can just go about their days while ignoring the looming threat of extinction, even questioning his cousin, a high-ranking minister of art-related things tasked with protecting relics like Michaelangelo’s David: “A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at any of this. What keeps you going?” and shaking his head at the response: “You know what it is, Theo? I just don’t think about it.” He has little to fight for, until Kee comes along, but in helping her find her way to safety, he finds a reason to live, and something to hope for, too.
That’s what the film really comes down to: it’s the question of hope, and how to maintain hope in the direst of circumstances. In such a situation, how would we maintain our lives? How would we stave off despair? Would we fight for our continued survival with every tool we have, or turn on one another and devolve into chaotic ruin? All people die, in their own time. We know this; it’s part of the deal of being human. You get your certain number of days—some of us get a good many, some not nearly enough—but you get your time, and then it passes. But we leave with the certainty that we leave something behind. Our lines continue. Humanity continues. There’s a particular amount of comfort in that, even for those who fear death. But in a situation without that certainty—without the knowledge that humanity will soldier on—can there be that same level of comfort in the passing on? It’s a philosophical exercise, of sorts, that can make the watching of Children of Men somewhat uncomfortable, but it’s one that guarantees that the movie will stay with you, long after the screen goes black.