When I went to see Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men last week, the lineup to get into the theatre stretched outside. Everyone waited glumly in place, like they were heading into a mass dental appointment. People filed in one after the other, in a series of zigzagging rows, a phenomenon, which oddly enough, was exactly echoed in the film when detainees are herded into an internment camp. After the film was over, I stepped out into the grey Vancouver bleakness and thought, "Well, it's not quite that bad...yet."
The appeal of dystopia is that it offers a glimpse of reality through the funhouse mirror of fiction. You can still make out the real ideas and events that inspired the story, and here, they aren't even all that distorted to begin with. Children of Men looks terribly familiar. Set in 2027, the future is pretty much like today, with the addition of a few more barbed-wire fences and soldiers with guns. But even as the world collapses, life goes on.
The one thing that the film gets right is the sense that people can adapt quite easily to horror; they still need to get coffee in the morning and trudge off to work. Theo (Clive Owen) is one such dead-eyed trudger. A hollow crust of a man, he takes his small comforts wherever he can find them -- a flask of whiskey, or the mellow pleasures of "Strawberry Cough," a marijuana hybrid raised by his aging hippie friend (played with evident glee by Michael Caine) -- anything to erase the hopeless present and bittersweet memory of what came before.
For the past 18 years, the piping voices of children have slowly vanished from the Earth. No babies equals hello-goodbye, and the human race is slowly dying out, courtesy of infertility. Everywhere in the world, society has disintegrated into a constant state of guerrilla warfare, with the exception of Britain, where through sheer dint of tradition, a semblance of order still stands. The class system putters on and Buck House is still there. Outside of the immediate environs of London, however, the country is over-run with refugees, and anti-government terrorist groups. Even with the end in sight, humanity is still fighting over the scraps like a pack of mongrel dogs.
The thin wash between present and future tense occasionally borders on the corny, with dead Diana-type banks of bouquets, and carbonized cow corpses burning in England's green land, but the feeling of genuine dread rings true. Much of this veracity is due to the presence of Clive Owen as Theo. Whether it's a kitten crawling up his leg, or the ringing in his ears that precedes the dying frequency of his senses, his is the view through which we see and understand this world. As such, he is an honest guide. Theo's confusion, grief and ultimately flinty determination give the film its core.
When Theo is kidnapped by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), a leader of the revolutionary band called the Fishes (read Christians perhaps), he's dragged into the heated middle of what could be the tipping point of humanity's future. The Fishes have stumbled onto a miracle, because lo, unto them a babe is born. When Theo is introduced to Kee, a young woman with the swelling belly of eight months of pregnancy, all we see is his face and the wash of emotion that overtakes him -- the heat flash of shock, followed by a dawning wonder. It's a beautiful moment, and the fact that it takes place in a manger is telling. Mary, meet your Joseph.
Non-Christian nativity story
If the Biblical implications of a saviour baby are explicit, the film has no ready agenda to push. It takes a few gentle pokes at old Jesus, but the archetype of mother and child goes so deep, it's almost beyond religion, or at least conventional religion. One of the things that jumped out at me when I visited the art galleries of London and Paris was the endless, and I do mean endless, images of mother and child, with nary a father in sight. The sheer repetition of this iconography was striking because it's so damned old, and really, motherhood is the ultimate miracle. The image of the Goddess and her child was co-opted quite nicely by Christianity, playing as it does to the deepest and most instinctual impulse people have. Children of Men also uses this image deftly for maximum impact.
Kee's unborn child is already claimed by different factions as a means to their ends, but it is a mysterious group called the Human Project, that has a nice little place on the Azores, that seems to offer the only hope. Theo and Kee take it on the lam, and the film evolves into a long chase sequence that is as nerve rattling as it is grim. Violence comes suddenly and peace is fleeting. Some of the set pieces in the film are literally terrifying to behold; there are scenes that you might have to watch through your fingers. A tiny newborn trapped in the middle of a firefight of machine guns and tanks is enough to make anyone remotely human collapse in horror. In the midst of concussive blasts, people scamper like rats for cover. The immediacy of this moment is captured in the tiniest details, like Theo's fingers twitching in preparation for a sudden bolt into the fray, or the blood that spatters the camera lenses, as if some phantom documentary crew were filming the entire thing.
The film bludgeons you into whimpering submission, until all you can think is, "Please don't hurt the little baby." The constant juxtaposition of fragile life and near constant death is held up as the twin sides of human experience. They are also the stuff of story telling -- beginnings and endings and the need to continue. The only true heroism in such a world is to fight for the preservation of life.
Unlike other dystopian science-fiction movies, there are no flying cars or cool shiny outfits here. Everyone looks pale, grimy and cold. The future is a touchable, understandable place, the physical sensations of which we already know in our hearts and guts, hence its draw to people who're looking ahead with no small amount of discomfort. It's useful to see a film like this with an audience where the communal act of watching the movie is as much about the people in the theatre as it is about the story on the big screen. David Denby's recent piece in the New Yorker about the differing impacts that format can have on a film experience -- the difference between watching a film on an iPod or a big screen, for example -- was literally born out for me while watching Children of Men.
People sitting beside me wept openly. And after the film was over, the audience remained hunched over in their seats, as if reluctant to leave the shared space of the theatre.
In reality, you still have the benefit of being able to walk out, to emerge blinking into the daylight and think, "Well, it was only a movie." But perhaps at some point in the immediate future, the thin line between fiction and reality will forever blur. (In many places in the world, this has already happened.) The statement, "It was just like a movie!" might come to mean that what was once sublimated to the big screen -- explosions, bullets flying and the screams of the dying -- will emerge in three dimensional life. Caught in the middle will be women and babies, and a few bewildered men. Then maybe we really will wish to retreat back to the controllable, comprehensible world of fiction, where we are safe and warm and huddled together in the dark, watching the future unfurl.