Modern society is obsessed with the threat of apocalypse. Every morning seems to bring new warnings of global-warming catastrophe, a massive energy crisis, systemic failures of our technology infrastructure, or nuclear Armageddon at the hands of rogue states and terrorists. The fear is not paralyzing, but it is nearly always present, a constant ringing in the ears.
Mass entertainment, especially in those quarters occupied by intense, alienated young men, has also taken to speculating on society’s demise. An entire subgenre of generally trashy science fiction chronicles the world’s descent into brutal anarchy. Video games premised on violent exploration of a post-apocalyptic future are as much a cliché as movie trailers that begin with the phrase “In a world…” An obsessive subculture has grown up around hyperviolent Japanese cartoons — called anime — most of which are set in technological dystopias. And of course, there are movies, typically exercises in a rough-and-tumble genre that deal in grungy, punk-rock pessimism: the post-oil biker-gang mayhem of the Mad Max series, the dragon-scorched British countryside of Reign of Fire, the flooded wasteland of Waterworld. To watch the news or scour the offerings of popular entertainment is to be repeatedly told that the constructs of modern existence are on the brink of failure, and that Life As We Know It is always nearing a swift and spectacular end.
At first glace, Children of Men might be mistaken as of a piece with these crass prophesies of doom and gloom. Certainly, the movie, which takes place in a near-future Britain struggling to maintain some semblance of order after the human race has inexplicably lost its ability to bear children, shares some fears with its apocalyptic counterparts. But whereas its predecessors tended to be premised on a sudden, grand failure of infrastructure, usually due to some human folly, director Alfonso Cuarón’s movie posits a slow, painful decline caused by a mysterious loss of biological will. Instead of looking far into the future after civilization’s collapse, it presents a near-future in which humanity lies on its death bed — an end-times vision of demography-as-destiny, in which demography has failed and the only destiny is the grave. It’s a subtler take on humanity’s destruction, but unfortunately, not subtle enough.
The movie is based on a novel by P. D. James, but like so many book-to-film adaptations, it bears only a loose resemblance to the source material, and it suffers for it. James, a former British civil servant with an intimate understanding of the workings of British bureaucracy, imbued her book with a sense of wintry resignation and a fine-grained interiority. The end was coming, but this was cause mainly for reflective sadness, not bedlam.
She foresaw a post-birth landscape in which the British government had stepped in to preserve the dignity and stability of its people — or at least its citizens — offering them tasteful suicide ceremonies, managing infrastructure preservation, and restricting immigration so as not to allow outsiders to freeload on British resources. In her futuristic Britain, calm and tradition would prevail. True, the country’s youths had a wild, riotous streak, and would sometimes wreak havoc, but this was mostly taken in stride. As she saw it, the British people would approach the death of civilization with typical reserve, doing their final duties with diligence and minimal uproar. Her book speculated not only on what society would do in the face of biological calamity, but what individuals might think and feel.
Cuarón, on the other hand, is all external. His future Britain crackles with chaos as society breaks down in its final days. The state has tried to preserve order, and has had more success than have other nations, but for the most part, chaos reigns. Terrorism is rampant. Immigrants are herded into cages and treated like animals. The country has devolved into a militaristic police state. James’s book gave humanity a quiet death; Cuarón’s movie forces the race to expire in violent tumult.
In keeping with this more aggressive vision, Cuarón has stripped away the book’s finely tuned, character-driven narrative and replaced it with an episodic tour of the future’s nastier developments. Like the book, it’s focused on Theodore Faron’s (Clive Owen) quest to help move a young pregnant girl — the first in two decades — to safety. But other than this basic premise, there’s little that’s similar. Where the novel was high-minded, pondering how man might attempt to preserve his legacy and giving us access to the minds of those in charge of managing humanity’s final days, the movie is concerned with the chaos on the streets, carrying us from one grimy, rundown locale to another and trading the book’s thoughtfulness for action and physical peril.
Owen, despite the thin material, is excellent, as always. Unshaven, unkempt, dressed in drab colors, he slumps and shrugs, beaten down by apathy, as if gravity’s pull has grown slightly stronger. The coming expiration of humanity drags on him like a physical weight.
Cuarón seems intent on replacing the book’s personal musings with political statements. But instead of actually developing ideas, he simply tosses out references. The premise — saving humanity by saving a baby — has a vague pro-life edge to it. We’re also exposed to a violent activist group that has risen up to fight for immigrant rights, and we see glimpses of Islamic militant groups marching through bombed out streets waving flags and shouting propaganda. Commercially packaged suicide kits are advertised on television. But Cuarón doesn’t feel the need to explore the implications of any of these ideas. He simply tacks them on in hopes of gaining political relevance through proximity.
At times, the movie’s kinetic rush is enough; Cuarón has little to say, but he coasts well on the strength of his directorial bravado. He has clearly fussed over the look of his film. The marvelous production design is a dour inversion of the shiny technological utopia prognosticated by today’s gadget-obsessed consumer magazines. Instead of providing luxury and extending life, technology serves only as a crutch and a distraction. And Cuaron’s frenetic, documentary-like photography is equally stunning, playing like raw footage from a futuristic war zone. One extended action sequence in an immigrant camp is staggering; you’ll swear the bullets are whizzing past your ears and the debris is flying above your head.
Such flourishes are impressive, but with nothing to anchor them, they are also hollow. In Cuarón’s future, the death of humanity is breathtaking, yet pointless. Like the movie, it is an empty spectacle where everyone dies in vain.