We learn early that children mark the hope of the species. But what if women stopped conceiving? How would a world look without hope?
In ‘Children of Men’ (2006) humans have become a sterile species. The plot, loosely adapted from a book (1992) of the same name – and quality – by the great mystery writer, P.D. James, envisions a world where the last child, just murdered, had been born 18 years before.
The world has dissolved into chaos. Unwelcome immigrants flood the last refuge, Britain, threatening to overwhelm Homeland Security and its troops.
Miraculously, a very young woman becomes pregnant. ‘The Children of Men’ is the story of her flight with her infant daughter, shielded by a man who is neither her lover nor the child’s father.
Brilliantly imagined by Alfonso Cuarón (‘Gravity’ (2014)), the London and Sussex they flee across are familiar, the vehicles the same as today’s. Nothing stretches credulity, not even the deterioration and degradation of the streetscapes. Heavily polluted air swathes all. The sun never shines through. Nothing makes the future more poignant than its resemblance to today’s fears.
The concentration camp (something the British invented in South Africa during the Boer War) for illegal immigrants toward which they run has taken over Bexhill-on-Sea, a town about 75 miles south of London. There, they hope to meet a ship, the Tomorrow that will take them to scientists in the Azores, the Human Project, dedicated to restoring human fertility.
Clive Owen who appears in almost every scene is convincing, heartbreaking. He’s also the only hero in an action movie I can recall who never picks up a gun. He has plenty of chances – and reasons – to arm himself.
Instead, he plays a 21st century Joseph shielding Mary and the infant Jesus from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents on the Flight into Egypt. Scene after scene, contemporary as they are, recalls Renaissance paintings of the infancy of the Saviour of Mankind.
The scenes in Bexhill, where the captives have rebelled, are as familiar as this year’s news footage from Gaza and Syria. A company of soldiers attacking a five-story apartment building halts in wonder at the sound and sight of the infant. Filthy hands try to brush the baby’s naked foot. The shepards of St. Matthew and St. Luke have become soldiers.
I had only seen ‘Children of Men’ on a home screen. It had staggered me, the story, the film and the acting. I thought it is as good a dystopian thriller as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Soylent Green’. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Michael Caine.
Many frames – especially, but not only, those with television monitors or bulletin boards in them – fill in crucial details to the story. Alfonso Cuarón insists on your full attention to the each detail. Again, like a Renaissance painter.
On Sept. 22, I saw it in Brookline, Mass., on the Coolidge Corner Cinema’s big screen as part of its Science on Screen series. Dr. David Ryley, ‘a reproductive endocrinologist, infertility specialist, and Director of the Fertility Preservation Program at Boston IVF‘, introduced the movie.
Dr. Ryley began by dismissing in a sentence the notion that ‘Children of Men’ could happen. He spent much of the next 15 minutes talking very positively about what his practice, Boston IVF, can do for infertile couples.
I found his talk in implication scarier than the movie.
Ryley’s pitch – and it was one – targeted those having difficulty conceiving. The women were in their 30s and 40s; the men, the same and older. His practice could help.
He acknowledged, but didn’t overplay, the hazards of parenting and childbearing in those brackets. Younger parents have fewer miscarriages, fewer children with genetic and birth disorders. The rate goes up vastly as parents age.
But every economic force in our society drives the beginning of parenting later and the number of children fewer: student loans, the necessity of two incomes to maintain a middle class lifestyle, the impermanence of employment, the challenge of health care costs, the expenses of raising a child, the demands of aging parents….
The calendars of our midwives and obstetricians have emptied, but no mystery surrounds it.
I returned to Cambridge a couple of days before seeing ‘Children of Men’. The late afternoon was warm, so I opened the windows. A sound from the back gardens of the townhouses behind my building startled me: the mingled voices of small children happily playing.
In the 13 years I’ve owned my condo, I’d never heard that sound at my desk. I felt enchanted.
Now I know why the old sit by playgrounds.
H/T: Son John who insisted I see ‘Children of Men’ and pointed out many of its details.