Children of Men is a 2006 dystopian science fiction film co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It was loosely adapted from P. D. James's 1992 novel of the same name by Cuarón and Timothy J. Sexton with help from David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby. It stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine.
Set in the United Kingdom of 2027, the film explores a grim world in which two decades of global human infertility have left humanity with less than a century to survive. Societal collapse, terrorism, and environmental destruction accompany the impending extinction. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom—perhaps the last functioning government—persecutes a seemingly endless wave of illegal immigrant refugees seeking sanctuary. In the midst of this chaos, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) must find safe transit for Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a pregnant African refugee.
The film was released on 22 September 2006, in the UK, 19 October 2006, in Australia and on 25 December 2006, in the U.S., critics noting the relationship between the Christmas opening and the film's themes of hope, redemption, and faith. Described as a companion piece to Cuarón's Y tu mamá también (2001), both films examine contemporary social and political issues through the epic journey of the road film.
Children of Men was recognised for its achievements in screenwriting, cinematography, art direction, and innovative single-shot action sequences, receiving three Academy Award nominations and winning two BAFTA awards.
When the movie opens, hard-drinking Theo (Owen), an activist turned apathetic bureaucrat, is buying coffee in a crowded coffee shop. There, he learns that the world's youngest human, an eighteen-year-old known as "Baby Diego", has been stabbed to death in Buenos Aires for refusing to sign an autograph. As Theo leaves the café on Fleet Street, a bomb explodes, destroying the coffee shop and killing numerous passers-by. The government attributes the attack to the Fishes, an underground resistance group advocating the rights of "every immigrant in Britain". Shaken, Theo visits his friend, Jasper Palmer (Caine), a former editorial cartoonist and aging hippie. Jasper lives in a secluded hideaway in the countryside and spends his time growing cannabis and caring for his catatonic wife, a former photojournalist tortured by the government.
Upon his return to London, Theo is kidnapped by the Fishes, who are led by his estranged wife Julian Taylor (Moore). Theo is surprised and happy to see her as they broke up shortly after Dylan, their young son, died during the flu pandemic of 2008. Julian offers Theo £5,000 in exchange for his help in obtaining a travel permit for a young African girl named Kee (Ashitey). Initially ambivalent, Theo decides to obtain the permits, as well as escort Kee in exchange for more cash. He visits his cousin Nigel (Huston), a government minister and curator of a repository for rescued art, who arranges for the papers, with the stipulation that Theo must accompany Kee.
The trip begins, and Luke (Ejiofor), a member of The Fishes, drives Theo, Kee, Julian, and Miriam (Ferris), a midwife, toward the first security checkpoint. They are ambushed by a group of renegades before they arrive, and Julian is fatally shot in the neck. The police soon follow but are distracted and then killed by Luke. The group then escapes to a safe house. With Julian dead, Luke is appointed the new leader of the Fishes.
Kee reveals to Theo that she is pregnant with the first child in nearly two decades, telling him that Julian told her that she should only trust Theo. She also tells him that Julian had intended to take Kee to the Human Project, a mysterious group of scientists dedicated to curing infertility. With Julian dead, however, Luke proposes keeping Kee with the Fishes, and she chooses to stay until after the baby is born. Theo suggests that the group go public with the information about Kee's baby, but the Fishes argue that Kee's baby will be taken by the government and used for its benefit.
Just before dawn, Theo awakens to overhear Luke and other high ranking members of the Fishes heatedly discussing the incident that killed Julian. Theo sees the broken motorcycle that was ridden by Julian's killers, and it comes to light that her death was a planned operation, so that the Fishes would be able to use Kee's baby as a political tool. Theo wakes Kee and Miriam and they steal a car and escape to Jasper's house. At Jasper's, Miriam explains that the rendezvous with the Human Project's ship Tomorrow is scheduled at a buoy offshore from the Bexhill refugee camp. Jasper proposes a plan to smuggle them into the camp with the help of his friend and marijuana customer Syd, a guard at Bexhill.
After the Fishes discover Jasper's hideout, Theo, Miriam, and Kee escape with Jasper's help. Realising that his end is near, Jasper euthanises his wife. He refuses to reveal where Theo, Miriam, and Kee are, and is murdered by the Fishes. Theo and the group meet Syd (Mullan) at an abandoned school, and he drives them to Bexhill as faux-prisoners. When Kee begins having contractions while they are loaded onto a refugee bus and taken into the camp, Miriam distracts a suspicious guard from noticing Kee's condition by faking religious mania, and is dragged off the bus into detention. As the bus pulls away, a line of corpses of others who have been removed from the buses is seen, exemplifying the sacrifice Miriam has made to save Kee and her baby.
Theo and Kee enter Bexhill, a resort on the southern English coast which has been converted into a squalid detention centre for refugees. Here they meet Syd's contact, Marichka, a Gypsy from Romania. She provides them with a room where Kee gives birth to a girl. Syd reappears the next day and, after discovering the baby, attempts to kidnap Kee and her baby to collect a bounty. With Marichka's help, they manage to fight him off and escape. The Fishes then break into Bexhill, attempting to capture Kee and her baby amidst the commotion of a refugee uprising. The uprising quickly gains momentum and the British Army moves in to quell the rebellion.
The Fishes recapture Kee, but in the chaos Theo tracks Kee and her baby to a besieged apartment building and frees them. Luke shoots at Theo as they make their escape. Luke is then shot and killed. When the soldiers and the armed insurgents hear the baby crying, the fighting stops and the combatants look on in awe. Theo, Kee, and the baby leave the building in safety, walking past the astonished soldiers.
As the fighting resumes, they join Marichka and make their way to a small boat, and Theo rows Kee and her baby out to the buoy that marks the rendezvous point. Kee sees blood in the boat, and Theo admits that he was shot during their escape. Kee then says she will name her baby Dylan, after Theo's deceased son. As the Tomorrow emerges from the thick fog, Theo loses consciousness and slumps to the side of the boat.
The film switches the infertility from male to female but never explains its cause: environmental destruction and divine punishment are considered. This unanswered question (and others in the film) have been attributed to Cuarón's dislike for expository film: "There's a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations.... It's become now what I call a medium for lazy readers.... Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I'm very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema." Cuaron's disdain for back-story and exposition led him to use the concept of female infertility as a "metaphor for the fading sense of hope". The "almost mythical" Human Project is turned into a "metaphor for the possibility of the evolution of the human spirit, the evolution of human understanding." Without dictating how the audience should feel by the end of the film, Cuarón encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions about the sense of hope depicted in the final scenes: "We wanted the end to be a glimpse of a possibility of hope, for the audience to invest their own sense of hope into that ending. So if you're a hopeful person you'll see a lot of hope, and if you're a bleak person you'll see a complete hopelessness at the end."
Rowin, along with film critics Jason Guerrasio and Ethan Alter, observe the film's underlying touchstone of immigration; Alter notes that the film "makes a potent case against the anti-immigrant sentiment" popular in modern societies like the United Kingdom and the United States, with Guerrasio describing the film as "a complex meditation on the politics of today". For Alter and other critics, the structural support and impetus for the contemporary references rests upon the visual nature of the film's exposition, occurring in the form of imagery as opposed to conventional dialogue. Visually, the refugee camps in the film intentionally evoke Abu Ghraib prison, Guantánamo Bay detainment camp, and The Maze. Other popular images appear, such as a prisoner in a pose resembling the photograph of Satar Jabar in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal, and a sign over the refugee camp reading "Homeland Security". The similarity between the hellish, cinéma vérité stylized battle scenes of the film and current news and documentary coverage of the Iraq War, is noted by film critic Manohla Dargis, describing Cuarón's fictional landscapes as "war zones of extraordinary plausibility".
In the film, refugees are "hunted down like cockroaches," rounded up and put into cages and camps, and even shot, leading film critics like Chris Smith and Claudia Puig to observe symbolic "overtones" and images of the holocaust. This theme is reinforced in the scene where an elderly refugee woman speaking German is seen detained in a cage, and in the scene where British Homeland Security strips and beats illegal immigrants, a song by The Libertines, "Arbeit Macht Frei", plays in the background. "The visual allusions to the Nazi roundups are unnerving," writes Richard A. Blake. "It shows what people can become when the government orchestrates their fears for its own advantage."
Cuarón explains how he uses this imagery to propagate the theme by cross-referencing fictional and futuristic events with real, contemporary, or historical incidents and beliefs:
They exit the Russian apartments, and the next shot you see is this woman wailing, holding the body of her son in her arms. This was a reference to a real photograph of a woman holding the body of her son in the Balkans, crying with the corpse of her son. It's very obvious that when the photographer captured that photograph, he was referencing La Pieta, the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the corpse of Jesus. So: We have a reference to something that really happened, in the Balkans, which is itself a reference to the Michelangelo sculpture. At the same time, we use the sculpture of David early on, which is also by Michelangelo, and we have of course the whole reference to the Nativity. And so everything was referencing and cross-referencing, as much as we could.
In the closing credits, the Sanskrit words, "Shanti Shanti Shanti" (pronounced as śānti), appear as end titles. Writer and film critic Laura Eldred of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, observes that Children of Men is "full of tidbits that call out to the educated viewer". During a visit to his house by Theo and Kee, Jasper says "Shanti, shanti, shanti." Eldred notes that the "shanti" used in the film is also found at the end of an Upanishad and in the final line of T. S. Eliot's poem, The Waste Land, a work Eldred describes as "devoted to contemplating a world emptied of fertility: a world on its last, teetering legs".
According to Cuarón, the title of P. D. James' book (The Children of Men) is a Catholic allegory derived from a passage of scripture in the Bible. (Psalm 90(89):3 of the KJV: "Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.) James refers to her story as a "Christian fable" while Cuarón describes it as "almost like a look at Christianity": "I didn't want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes," Cuarón told Filmmaker Magazine. "But I wasn't interested in dealing with dogma."
The film has been noted for its use of Christian symbolism; for example, British terrorists named "Fishes" protect the rights of refugees. Opening on Christmas Day in the United States, critics compared the characters of Theo and Kee with Joseph and Mary, calling the film a "modern-day Nativity story": Kee's pregnancy is revealed to Theo in a barn, alluding to the manger of the Nativity scene, and when other characters discover Kee and her baby, they respond with "Jesus Christ" or the sign of the cross.
To highlight these spiritual themes, Cuarón commissioned a 15-minute piece by British composer John Tavener, a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church whose work resonates with the themes of "motherhood, birth, rebirth, and redemption in the eyes of God." Calling his score a "musical and spiritual reaction to Alfonso's film", snippets of Tavener's "Fragments of a Prayer" contain lyrics in Latin, German and Sanskrit sung by a mezzo-soprano. Words like "mata" (mother), "pahi mam" (protect me), "avatara" (saviour), and "alleluia" appear throughout the film.
The international infertility epidemic and subsequent downfall of every country except the United Kingdom is introduced within the first couple of minutes of the film, thanks to a voice-over news broadcast. Because news reports are generally considered objective explanations of what is going on in the world, they provide an interlude to the commentary the film makes about society and politics in this fictional world.
Brian Ireland argues that crossing cultural boundaries in road films is a “reflection of the wider cultural context in which the movie... is placed”. In the first scene of the film, Theo gets coffee in a cafe where all the patrons are glued to the news on the television about the youngest person on earth having been killed. As soon as he leaves, a bomb goes off in the cafe. Shortly after the bomb goes off, Theo drives to visit Jasper, his mentor and good friend. Jasper suggests that it was the government that blew up the coffee shop and then expresses his sentiments for all of the immigrants that are flocking to Britain because of the state of their own countries. Once the audience receives the objective information from the newscasts about the state of the world and culture within the movie, the film immediately responds with commentary about how the government is managing the crisis.
According to David Laderman, author of Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie, rebellion is the, “engine driving the genre” There are three strong rebel forces in the film. Theo’s friend and mentor, Jasper, is an aging hippie, ex-political cartoonist who now lives off the grid and illegally sells marijuana to government workers. The Fishes are a rebel group planning a violent uprising against the government. Finally, Theo himself, along with Kee, are the ultimate rebels in the film because they go against not only the government, but the Fishes as well.
Cuarón chose to shoot some scenes in East London, a location he considered "a place without glamour". The set locations were dressed to make them appear even more run-down; Cuarón says he told the crew "'Let's make it more Mexican'. In other words, we'd look at a location and then say: yes, but in Mexico there would be this and this. It was about making the place look run-down. It was about poverty." He also made use of London's most popular sites, shooting in locations like Trafalgar Square and Battersea Power Station. The power station scene (whose conversion into an art archive is a reference to the Tate Modern), has been compared to Antonioni's Red Desert (1964). Cuarón added a pig balloon to the scene as homage to Pink Floyd's Animals. Other art works visible in this scene include Michaelangelo's David, Picasso's Guernica, and Banksy's British Cops Kissing. London visual effects companies Double Negative and Framestore worked directly with Cuarón from script to post production, developing effects and creating "environments and shots that wouldn't otherwise be possible".
Cuarón had already experimented with long takes in Y tu mamá también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His style is influenced by the Swiss film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), a favorite of Cuarón's. Cuarón reminisces: "I was studying cinema when I first saw [Jonah], and interested in the French New Wave. Jonah was so unflashy compared to those films. The camera keeps a certain distance and there are relatively few close-ups. It's elegant and flowing, constantly tracking, but very slowly and not calling attention to itself."
The creation of the single-shot sequences was a challenging, time-consuming process that sparked concerns from the studio. It took fourteen days to prepare for the single take in which Clive Owen's character searches a building under attack, and five hours for every time they wanted to reshoot it. In the middle of the shot that appears in the film blood splattered onto the lens, which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki convinced the director to leave in. According to Owen, "Right in the thick of it are me and the camera operator because we're doing this very complicated, very specific dance which, when we come to shoot, we have to make feel completely random."
Cuarón's initial idea for maintaining continuity during the roadside ambush scene was dismissed by production experts as an "impossible shot to do". Fresh from the visual effects-laden Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón suggested using computer-generated imagery to film the scene. Lubezki refused to allow it, reminding the director that they had intended to make a film akin to a "raw documentary". Instead, a special camera rig invented by Gary Thieltges of Doggicam Systems was employed, allowing Cuarón to develop the scene as one extended take. A vehicle was modified to enable seats to tilt and lower actors out of the way of the camera, and the windshield was designed to tilt out of the way to allow camera movement in and out through the front windscreen. A crew of four, including the DP and camera operator, rode on the roof.
However, the commonly reported statement that the action scenes are continuous shots is not entirely true. Visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill has indicated that the battle sequence was filmed in five separate takes over two locations and then seamlessly stitched together to give the illusion of a single take . Similarly, the car sequence was filmed in six separate takes over three locations and then stitched together, along with various other CG elements including a CG roof. In an interview with Variety, Cuarón acknowledged this nature of the "single-shot" action sequences: "Maybe I'm spilling a big secret, but sometimes it's more than what it looks like. The important thing is how you blend everything and how you keep the perception of a fluid choreography through all of these different pieces."
Tim Webber of VFX house Framestore CFC was responsible for the three-and-a-half minute single take of Kee giving birth, helping to choreograph and create the CG effects of the childbirth. Cuarón had originally intended to use an animatronic baby as Kee's child with the exception of the childbirth scene. In the end, two takes were shot, with the second take concealing Claire-Hope Ashitey's legs, replacing them with prosthetic legs. Cuarón was pleased with the results of the effect, and returned to previous shots of the baby in animatronic form, replacing them with Framestore's computer-generated baby.
Cuarón uses sound and music to bring the fictional world of social unrest and infertility to life. A creative yet restrained combination of rock, pop, hip-hop and classical music replace the typical film score. The mundane sounds of traffic, barking dogs, and advertisements follow the character of Theo through London, East Sussex and Kent, producing what Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Crust calls an "urban audio rumble". For Crust, the music comments indirectly on the barren world of Children of Men: Deep Purple's version of "Hush" blaring from Jasper's car radio becomes a "sly lullaby for a world without babies" while King Crimson's "The Court of the Crimson King" make a similar allusion with their lyrics, "...three lullabies in an ancient tongue".
Also notable is a remix of Aphex Twin's "Omgyjya Switch 7" to include devilish screams during the scene in Jasper's house, where the main character is sampling Jasper's "Strawberry Cough" - a potent, strawberry-flavoured blend of marijuana. This remix has not been heard commercially and is sought after by fans of Aphex Twin, the elusive Cornish braindance musician.
During the second half of the film, less popular music is used. For the Bexhill scenes, the film makes use of silence and cacophonous sound effects such as the firing of automatic weapons, and loudspeakers directing the movement of "fugees" (illegal immigrants). Here, classical music by George Frideric Handel, Gustav Mahler, and Krzysztof Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" complements the chaos of the refugee camp. Throughout the film, John Tavener's Fragments of a Prayer is used as a spiritual motif to explain and interpret the story without the use of narrative.
As the closing credits begin, background sound effects of children laughing appear. Two political songs, John Lennon's "anti-nationalist rant" "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda Peeple)" and Jarvis Cocker's "Running the World", close out the film.
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Children of Men also obtained Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Film Editing (Alfonso Cuarón and Alex Rodríguez). The British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominated Children of Men for Best Visual Effects and honored the film with awards for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the 60th British Academy Film Awards. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won the feature film award for Best Cinematography at the 21st American Society of Cinematographers Awards. The Australian Cinematographers Society also awarded Lubezki the 2007 International Award for Cinematography for Children of Men.
The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films bestowed the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film on Children of Men, and it received the nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention.