Saturday, December 19, 2009

Children of the Apocalypse: An NYU Student's Critical Essay on Children of Men

Note: The following piece is an essay I wrote for my final paper for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. The essay is a critical reflection on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006), a film that just missed my list of The Top Ten Films of the Decade. I want to share this final essay with you, and also reflect on this brilliant film - truly one of the finest movies in recent years.

Audiences love disaster movies. They are escapist entertainment at its most heightened and visceral, offering human stories set against a backdrop of cataclysmic horror and destruction. Many of these disaster movies begin by presenting a broken family in the everyday world unexpectedly faced with surviving a global crisis together. The oncoming apocalyptic disaster keeps the audience interested in the family’s fate and, more importantly, strengthens the bonds between the once-distant family members. During times of apocalypse in many Hollywood films, families once separated are unexpectedly reunited: in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is forced to protect and reunite with his two estranged children when alien tripod machines attack New Jersey; in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), estranged father Jack (Dennis Quaid) and son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) must work together to survive an oncoming global ice age.

Although Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) does not fall into the category of “families-reunited-by-disaster” movies, the film does present a series of makeshift families created in the face of disaster. Cuaron’s film shows a futuristic landscape where humans can no longer produce offspring, and the world is slowly coming to an end in the midst of the ensuing political and social upheaval. One of the many makeshift families formed in Children of Men is The Fishes, a group of political revolutionaries and rebels united by their opposition to the British government’s treatment of illegal immigrants. Another makeshift family is created between Theo (Clive Owen), a political activist-turned-bureaucrat, and his older friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an aging hippie. In a world where there are fewer fathers and sons with each passing day, Jasper and Theo’s relationship most closely resembles a father-son bond.

But there is one family in Children of Men that isn’t makeshift – the broken family of Theo and his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who separated after their young son Dylan died in a flu epidemic nearly twenty years ago. In fact, their relationship in the film leans closer to the “families-reunited-by-disaster” category originally described (although it’s still a little different, as Theo and Julian do not have living children). In one of the first moments of relief and relaxation in Children of Men, Julian and Theo engage in a game that consists of blowing, or popping, a Ping-Pong ball back and forth into each other’s mouths. The situation is still very intense – Theo and Julian are riding in a car, along with members of The Fishes and a mysterious young refugee woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) – but, for a moment, we are privy to a scene of rare intimacy between a once-married couple separated for years but now, in the face of a possible human apocalypse, reunited by a particular circumstance.

But although the trauma of apocalypse oftentimes reunites people, the more obvious and more common result in the face of apocalypse is for human beings to go completely insane. The three opening lines of Children of Men exemplify this idea of chaos creating chaos. As the film opens, we hear three different newscasters reporting the following: “Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle;” “The Muslim community demands an end to the Army’s occupation of mosques;” “The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning. Our lead story.” And the lead story is yet another example of chaotic behavior – the youngest person on the planet, Diego Ricardo, was killed and beaten to death by an angry mob after refusing to sign an autograph. The newscaster’s inclusion of Diego’s exact age at the time of his death – eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours and eight minutes old – is a testament to the importance of every minute to a society teetering on oblivion. Although the tragic death of the youngest man on the planet seems like something that would normally drive people apart, sometimes tragedy brings people closer together – the outpour of mass mourning over Diego’s death brings many Londoners into each other’s arms. On the other hand, disaster just as easily drives people apart, as witnessed by the insane and chaotic behavior described above.

With these two contrasting human reactions to an oncoming apocalypse, the question arises – what informs people’s reactions to an apocalypse? The most important and obvious answer is one’s basic human needs. Water, food, shelter, clothes and good health are among the necessities for human survival, and in Children of Men, the homeless and the destitute are among the most desperate and savage people in the picture. Equally desperate are the illegal immigrants held in internment camps throughout England, many of who are starving and plagued with disease. When Theo, Kee and Miriam (Pam Ferris) ride on a refugee bus into an internment camp, helpless and suffering refugees surround them, most of them coughing, sniffling and wheezing. Outside of the bus, detainees are stripped of their clothes and corpses are stacked against the wall.

This horrendous treatment of illegal immigrants, of course, is legally enforced by the British government, which, along with the other political institutions and groups, represents another important aspect of people’s reactions to an apocalypse. This category encompasses both the government and the various revolutionaries and rebels defying the established system, represented in Children of Men by The Fishes. Although it is stated early on in Children of Men that England is one of the very few countries still operating functionally, the English government still does not hold the state together very well during the apocalypse, as evidenced by their establishment of the immigrant internment camps. Both the government and the revolutionaries may be responsible for recent bombings in the country, actions perhaps caused by their inability to listen to each other’s arguments (the Fishes are fighting for equal rights for every British citizen, and the British government is fighting to maintain Homeland Security). This political warring between the government and the rebels makes the country prime for mass chaos and social disorder among its citizens.

But perhaps the most fascinating factor that informs people’s reaction to an apocalypse is religion. At least nearly everything that society knows and understands about apocalypse comes directly from ancient religious and spiritual beliefs. This connection between doomsday prophecies and religion dates at least as far back as the Reformation Era. Robin B. Barnes, in his article “Varieties of Apocalyptic Experience in Reformation Europe,” describes Europe during the Reformation Era as a God-fearing society believing the apocalypse was closing in, primarily due to “new weapons and tactics, larger armies, and a general militarization of society” (263). Does this description sound eerily familiar? Furthermore, Barnes observes that the Europeans viewed these destructive and corrupting forces as “God’s punishment upon a sinful world” (264). In Children of Men, several scenes show groups of religious fundamentalists with signs and banners proclaiming such phrases as “The Faithless Have Made Us Barren,” “Repent, Repent, Repent,” and “Infertility is God’s Punishment.” The resemblance between the religious fervor in Children of Men and Reformation Era Europe is uncanny.

If England in the year 2027 mirrors Europe during the Reformation Era, what does this reveal about the role of religion during times of apocalypse? Cuaron hints at the answer in Children of Men; he shows us a large diversity of religious activity, and yet throughout the entire film, we virtually never see a scientist. This contrast between the lack of scientists and the diverse multitudes of religious behavior speaks to something very important about human nature – that, in times of apocalypse, there is a tendency for humans to believe. After all, when science cannot provide answers for why women have become infertile, the only answers come from the religious groups, who answer that one must repent to God. It may be a stretch to claim that non-believers are converted into believers during times of apocalypse, but there is certainly evidence to support that humans want to believe, more than ever, in a higher power before the world collapses. Their faith in the government and the political institutions has died, as witnessed in Children of Men through the establishment of internment camps for illegal immigrants and the instillation of desperate measures to defeat supposed terrorists. An addition should be made to the list of basic human needs – hope. At their core, most human beings have a basic need to believe that there is a reason for them to put one foot in front of the other each day. It’s during these times of apocalypse, in both Hollywood films and everyday life, that most people need to believe that there will be something waiting for them after the end of the world.

However, sometimes people believe in absolutely nothing during an apocalypse – in fact, sometimes people are downright selfish. Theo, for instance, is a hopeless, cynical bastard at the beginning of Children of Men. In the film’s opening sequence, Theo walks out of a coffee shop and, as he is buying a newspaper on the street, the coffee shop explodes into flames. When he is later kidnapped by The Fishes, he expresses only his irritation at ‘almost getting blown up’ rather than considering the many people who did not survive the bombing. But there is an important turning point for Theo: when Kee finally gives birth to her baby – the first child born in eighteen years – Theo changes from blatantly cold-hearted and nihilistic to oddly hopeful. Although I won’t claim that Theo necessarily gets ‘religious’ at this point, it’s fair to claim that Theo finds a purpose with this incredible birth, a reason to put one foot in front of the other, something important that he must protect. Theo and Kee eventually form a makeshift family similar to the many others in the film, and he keeps going on his arduous journey – to deliver Kee and her child to a group of scientists known as The Human Project on the coast – for the sake of his new family, both mother and child.

While most humans want to believe that there will be something waiting for them after the end of the world, not everybody believes in life after the apocalypse. But that doesn’t really matter. It is possible to keep going anyway, surviving against the odds, if only for the sake of protecting one’s family – either makeshift or real – and preserving a symbol of hope when the world needs it most.

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