In the Age of 'The Handmaid's Tale,' it's Time to Revisit 'Children of Men'
Like 'The Handmaid's Tale,' the dystopia of predecessor 'Children of Men' is of the moment.
Like the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 The Handmaid's Tale, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, from 2006, is also based on a novel about dystopian futures without new life. Both films focus on fertility, or, rather, its lack. It's fascinating that infertility (caused by some unknown environmental disaster) was an element of Atwood's 1980s, novel as well as James' book, published in 1993, which goes to show that the clouds have been rolling for some time now, and that there is a relationship between all of these works based on a terrifying, but very possible, vision of the near future.
Unlike the Hulu Handmaid's series, however, the plot of P.D. James' 1993 fable was significantly changed by the director for the movie version of Children of Men. In fact, the infertility theme is one of the only elements Cuarón elected to keep. Aided by the incredible cinematography of ongoing collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the director crafted a future so bleak that watching it was, and is, an uncomfortable experience—which is, perhaps, the highest compliment one can pay to a dystopian work.
At the time, the film was a flop, failing to make back its high-budget of $76 million. But today Children of Men has a 92% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a recent BBC poll ranked it as the 13th best film of the 21st century. At first consideration, this is surprising, as Nicolas Barber points out in this essay for the BBC, "Nothing goes out of date more quickly than films set in the future." Indeed, films set in any future take significant risks by determining what that future will look and feel like, and most get it laughably wrong.
Children of Men gets it completely right...the future never happens all at once.
Where Children of Men gets it completely right is in its observation that the future never happens all at once; like in Terry Gilliam's absurdist dystopia, Brazil, the future is cobbled together from pieces of the present. Just look around you: you're surfing on a high speed, wireless internet connection that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, and yet if you look outside, there are cars from the '90s that are still running fine. In an interesting choice, aside from a few glimpses of technology (the high-tech video game played by his rich young nephew), there is no newfangled technology in Children of Men. Well, except for these "futuristic" advertisements that linger in the background of the film, the product of the erstwhile British design house Foreign Office (which are, in their digital omnipresence, far from far-fetched. It's amazing to watch the work, too, put into such a tiny detail.)
But tiny details are a large part of what make this film so indelible. Lubezki's stunning cinematography and the several long take set-pieces that punctuate the film (many of the film's scenes, not only the justly famous long-takes, are cut in a loose way, teeming with life and motion), provide a 360-degree immersion in a world much like ours, only tilted a few degrees to the left.
Though it might seem almost uncannily prescient in 2016, the fact is that the mood of much of western culture has been decidedly dystopian for a long time now, certainly before the new millennium, and most assuredly at its dawn (the release, in 2000, of Radiohead's Kid A was, at the time, a very freaky cultural event). It was the attacks of September the 11th, though, that arguably set the mood for much of the ensuing decade, and the attacks indirectly inspired the film version of Children of Men.
According to an interview with the director last year that appeared in New York Magazine and on Vulture, when the attacks happened, Cuarón was screening Y Tu Mamá También at the Toronto Film Festival. Stranded for days, the director attempted to figure out "what was going to shape this new century." While he had previously rejected the idea of adapting James' novel, finding the plot too much "like a glorified B-movie," after the attacks he felt he had a way to approach the material: “We’re at an inflection point. The future isn’t some place ahead of us; we’re living in the future at this moment.” Only keeping a few key elements from the book (which he didn't read), he plunged ahead.
According to Cuarón, he was reading about issues related to refugees, environmental crises, and political upheaval at the time—and those issues dominate headlines even more today. Like many great works of art, Children of Men captures a moment when there is a feeling in our culture that things are beginning to pivot, to shift away from where they have been and into some unknown. And, he says, "...I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present. But I’m very optimistic about the future.”
Children of Men is a work that comments on the present by way of the future, that takes a tiny part of the world and makes it universal. The film speaks to eternal truths, as well as present ones, and this is why it only grows in cultural import as time goes on. And, really, more than anything, it's just a good movie. It almost never lets up, creating unbearable cinematic tension, and providing moments of false relief, transitory comfort. And yet, for all this, the film doesn't feel sadistic: rather, it is terrifically entertaining, an ostensible sci-fi movie (probably part of the reason Universal had trouble marketing it) that is really a genre unto itself.
"I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present. But I’m very optimistic about the future.” -Alfonso Cuàron
Unlike in 2006, dystopian stories are practically the rule today, rather than the exception. A few years ago, during the height of the Ebola panic in the U.S., The Walking Dead, a zombie soap opera—but still, a show about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse—beat the NFL in the ratings for the first time that anything had ever beat the NFL in the ratings. The world has caught up to Children of Men, and so have the content providers of the world, who, in today's streaming universe, have more hours than ever to fill with our collective (bad) dreams.
Both Children of Men and the latest dystopian fare The Handmaid's Tale seem to portay a world without hope. But remember the final shot of Children of Men: the movie does not end on a note of false triumph, but, rather, on one of quiet possibility, of a precarious feeling forward in the dark, which is, after all, the best we can do, and that's even during the best of times.