Unpacking the symbols and significance in Children of Men’s dark, dystopian future.
The future is fraught with futility in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Children of Men. Global infertility means there are no children anywhere – and now the world’s youngest person, 18-year-old “Baby” Diego has died in a pub brawl.
Theo (Clive Owen) hears the news in a coffee shop in central London; moments later, a bomb destroys it and any customers left inside. It’s terrible yet routine: Theo simply goes to work with his ears ringing.
What else is routine? The UK’s treatment of immigrants and refugees: all are now “illegal immigrants”, disposable people locked in camps and cages. Rebel forces fight back against this government tyranny, with the war spilling onto the streets … and into coffee shops.
When Theo finds himself on the run with Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the risks couldn’t be higher. Not only is Kee an immigrant, but somehow she’s pregnant – and her child may be humanity’s last hope.
This page unpacks meaning and metaphor in 2006 dystopian drama Children of Men, rather than P. D. James’ 1992 novel. Expect spoilers either way.
Is Children of Men a disaster movie?
Children of Men is most striking for its eerily prescient dystopian future – and yet, it’s also a disaster movie.
For starters, there’s its looming tragedy. In the disaster genre, we see this play out for a group of individuals or a community (Titanic, Volcano), though sometimes against a broader narrative of global apocalypse (Deep Impact, Greenland).
In Children of Men, 18 years of infertility have put the human race on a countdown to annihilation. Despite this, governments and rebel forces are quick to kill survivors who stand in their way, creating a more immediate risk of destruction for our protagonists.
Luckily, disaster stories come preloaded with a saviour, typically a flawed hero in need of redemption. Outbreak has its divorced virologist, Knowing an emotionally fragile father – though every story has its own variant(s).
In Children of Men, the second-rate saviour is hard-drinking, chain-smoking Theo Faron, a cynic who could stand to be a better human … and learns how along the way.
Incidentally, the figure of the flawed father is particularly ingrained the disaster genre. It’s no surprise that, like Knowing’s protagonist, Theo is a grieving dad.
In common with many disaster movie plots, Children of Men is awash with religious symbolism, too.
Knowing has its allegory of end-times and angels. The Poseidon Adventure has a faithless priest (another kind of flawed father!), and a journey from the depths of hell into the light. In Children of Men, there’s a miracle pregnancy and a messiah in sandals.
That characters in disaster movies readily sacrifice themselves for others also hints at the genre’s baked-in spiritual symbolism. Theo’s journey takes him from sinner to sandal-wearer and, ultimately, a saviour of mankind. And, just like Jesus, he too must die to save the rest of us.
Dystopia and disaster stories parallel each other in all kinds of ways; perhaps they’re merely different ends of the same genre. If there are crude differences, it’s that:
- Dystopian fictions extrude present-day societal fears to fantastical extremes (Minority Report, Soylent Green). There may or may not be survivors or resolution at the end.
- Disaster movies focus on catastrophe that can or does happen in our reality (Dante’s Peak, The Impossible). Someone always survives … even if not in the way we expect.
Or perhaps it’s that dystopian tales look to the distant future, whereas disaster plots are closer to the present day.
Either way, Children of Men straddles both genres – and it’s what makes its story so compelling, memorable and frightening.
P. D. James’s source novel, published in 1992, is set in a dystopian version of 2021. Cuarón’s 2006 film looks ahead to 2027. Both imagine a future that looks a lot like the reality we’ve inherited (certainly as regards immigration).
Children of Men, then, breaks an unwritten rule that dystopia is a nightmarish but fantastical depiction of our worst selves, rather than something that could literally happen.
As one more type of narrative mirroring, dystopia takes us through the looking glass, essentially to alternate universes. Children of Men, however, flips the glass … and shows us who we are right now.
If dystopia and disaster stories can be markedly different, what connects them is equally notable. Both offer redemption and repentance narratives, with remedies for individual and societal pain.
More than anything, they sound an alarm for change (or at the very least, awareness). As Theo discovers, this illustrates both the hellish consequences of our actions, and what being a better human being might look like.
Children of Men is most on the nose in its portrayal of anti-immigration rhetoric as both raging hysteria and invisible tragedy.
At first, its immigrants are liminal figures, shocking story fragments just out of main view. Meanwhile endless government propaganda instils both a fear of immigrants and the risks of helping them.
Theo sees immigrants stuffed into cages or packed onto buses, but barely reacts. No one does. This narrative is so ingrained, so ubiquitous, that it renders victims invisible and less-than-human.
Theo, then, doesn’t particularly care what happens to immigrants. He supposedly helps Kee for the cash – and because ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) leads the rebel group strong-arming him.
Once he spends time with Kee, though, he comes to recognise her as a human being. No wonder the government wants to weed immigrants out of the population, and into camps, asap – in case tolerance is contagious.
Less answerable is whether proximity alone makes Theo care what happens to Kee. In fact, her pregnancy, and later the baby, are more powerful sources of transformation in a world bereft of children.
Children of Men and the language of dehumanization
Theo’s friend Jasper (Michael Caine) makes an interesting observation about immigration policies:
“After escaping the worst atrocities and finally making it to England, our government hunts them down like cockroaches.”
To treat people inhumanely, first you dehumanize them. Thus the Nazis began describing Jewish residents as lice, cockroaches and vultures before they came to power. “Jews were represented as a being incapable of human feeling”, Miguel Ángel Criado writes – though the tactic persists, even now, around the world.
In 2015 Sun newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins likewise called migrants “cockroaches” and – presumably mirroring Orwell’s 1984 for outrage – wrote about wanting to use gunships on them. Now, almost a decade later, anti-immigration rhetoric remains problematic.
But what most connects the film’s imagined future to our present day is the phrase “illegal immigrants”, another form of linguistic un-peopling.
The phrase dominates news reporting and social conversation in the UK now, but was much rarer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the book and film were first released.
It’s harder to show this definitively online, especially given rates of news digitisation. However, consider that Google UK returns four links for the phrase on The Daily Mail website in 2006, yet 30 pages of results for 2022 (figures correct at the time of writing).
Dystopia: you are here
Like other dystopian stories, Children of Men projects societal insanity to far-fetched and implausible ends. Thus refugees are put in cages, starved, and left to fend for themselves in death camps.
It’s the stuff of fiction, and yet contemporary news headlines report:
- Mexican migrants entering the US were kept in cages
- ‘Heart-breaking’ conditions in US migrant child camp
- Asylum seekers from Turkey routinely kept in cages at the Bulgarian border
- UK government plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda
- The ongoing horrors of the Calais ‘jungle’ migrant camp
- UK plan to house migrants in barracks and barges condemned as ‘cruel’
Like the use of “illegal immigrant”, these migrant solutions seemed nightmarish twenty or thirty years ago but are increasingly common and escalating in scope. Are we living in a dystopia? It would appear so, certainly for those trapped in the asylum system.
Children of Men doesn’t just look ahead, though. Like a lot of sci-fi, the film is also allegory for the present, a measure of human nature.
Director Cuarón has said refugee camps in the Balkans and around Calais inspired the film’s visuals. Similarly, the public grief at the death of Baby Diego mirrors the emotional response to Princess Diana’s death in 1997 (such displays quite unheard of in the UK at the time).
And, coincidence or not, the film’s scenes of burning cattle carcasses brings to mind fall-out from 2001’s foot-and-mouth disease disaster, which saw six million animals slaughtered in the country.
Symbols of salvation in Children of Men
When cinema shows us hell, it often gives us a glimpse at redemption, too. The city is a hellish dystopia in Seven, but despite its famously grim ending, the film’s final message is that the world is worth fighting for.
Children of Men doesn’t just hint at redemption, though; it’s built on symbols of salvation. Most obvious are its echoes of biblical imagery and the birth of Jesus:
- Kee may not be a virgin, but her pregnancy is no less miraculous than Mary’s
- Kee reveals her pregnancy to Theo in a stable
- Theo protects Kee yet, like Joseph, isn’t the father
- Theo transforms from cynic into a good man willing to die to save others
- Along the way he sheds his old clothes – and at one point even wears sandals (flip-flops)
- The guerillas are known as “the Fishes”, mirroring the symbolism of the Christian fish
- After Julian dies, Luke takes over as leader (the name a nod at the disciple Luke, perhaps).
Then there’s the significance of the title, from Psalm 115:
“The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.”
The psalm promises children to God’s faithful, and bequeaths the planet to their descendants … no small irony for an infertile species. If “children are a gift from the Lord”, barrenness speaks of punishment and damnation; of being cast out of Eden and cut-off from God.
Ultimately, Theo dies saving the world – but while the plot’s saviour, he’s not humanity’s messiah. That’s Kee: her body holds the secret to humanity’s salvation.
In the film’s universe, that a Black woman might be humanity’s saviour is unthinkable – doubly so as an “illegal immigrant”.
After all, for a government committed to denying asylum, acknowledging pregnancy means accepting refugees as human, vulnerable and deserving of care. Awkward indeed.
It can be troubling how often mainstream films filter stories of outsiders through people like “us”. I Came By, for instance, tells its tragedy of immigrant exploitation through the lives of Londoners.
Similarly, in Children of Men, Theo (white, male, British) is the story’s conduit. The point, however, is that anyone can find themselves seeking asylum. Theo’s journey is from sinner to saviour, but also from citizen to refugee. The transformation happens in the blink of an eye.
Dystopian attitudes to immigration are morally lacking for sure but, like the physicality of borders, can seem nonsensical, too.
Human evolution is bound up with migration; we remain a migratory species, always drawn to movement. When people flee their homes because of war, disaster, or targeted killings, there’s no choice in it, anyway.
The xenophobia that underpins anti-immigrant rhetoric is doubly unsound. Incomers could plug shortfalls in labour, skills and even – if you want to get gross about it – food.
This, then, is the other significance of Kee’s pregnancy. It satirises the kind of mindset that only values the lives of others when they’re useful, or directly enrich our lives .
Consider also Theo’s brother, who saves works of art but not the cultures that made them (and see also Indiana Jones).
A world without children
Do we owe others anything if there’s no immediate reward? Should we act in the interest of people we’re not related to? And are we able to go without to benefit strangers, or generations not even born yet?
Well, in our dystopian fictions, such humanitarian thinking is often lacking. That’s what makes them dystopian: they’re all ‘me’ and no ‘we’. Instead, systematic inequality thrives, while hope, joy and freedom dwindles.
In Children of Men, the government at least gives people an easy out (“Quietus: You decide when”) – though it just goes to show that, in a dystopia, merely staying alive can be an act of resistance.
It’s no coincidence there are no kids in Children of Men. Without them, society grows stale; we forget how to care for each other, or to find value in enriching the lives of others.
In contrast, the mere sight and sound of Kee’s baby is enough to stop war, and draw people together. For a few minutes, anyway. For Theo, it heals the hurt of losing his son. It shows him the world goes on, that life has meaning beyond our successes and failures as individuals. And it gives him the courage to live – even if it means dying as a result.
In the end, this is the salvation of dystopian and disaster stories. We’ve come to embrace the literal bones of “hell is other people” and, my word, it can be true. But maybe, and maddeningly, redemption lies in what we bring to the lives of others.
Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón
What to read or watch next
- Children of Men (1992 source novel by P. D. James)
- The Day After Tomorrow, The Day the Earth Stood Still (disaster, annihilation, religion)
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopia, infertility)
Picture credit: Allec Gomes