I recently watched Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s wonderful semi-autobiographical take on early-1970s Mexico City, which reminded me that I still had the dvd of Children of Men lying around somewhere, unwatched and wrapped in plastic. It seems even more topical now than when it was released in 2006.
Children of Men is a dystopian sci-fi thriller set in 2027, which still seemed far away in the future in 2006, but is little more than five years from now. This is worth keeping in mind when thinking about 2030 or 2040. The film tells the story of Theo, played by Clive Owen, a bored civil servant, who is asked by a former lover, played by Julianne Moore, who is the leader of an anti-government resistance group, to help bring a pregnant woman to safety. Humanity has been struck by an infertility pandemic and the youngest person on earth was born in 2009. On their way to safety they encounter violence, betrayal and kindness.
As Slavoj Žižek comments the storyline is pretty banal. What makes Children of Men interesting is the background. The film is set in the UK, which has been disrupted by climate change, nuclear accidents and rising inequality. Borders are closed and illegal immigrants are held behind fences and transported to ghettos where they are forced to survive under horrid conditions, occasionally beleaguered by heavily armed security forces.
The film opens with a bomb blast, a terrorist attack on a coffee shop, which now looks eerily familiar. The streets of London seem only slightly more shabby than they are now and are crowded by rickshaw drivers, which again doesn’t look all that different from the Uber and Deliveroo couriers that now drive around London.
What makes Children of Men unnerving to watch is that it comes uncomfortably close to reality. Many people will have forgotten it by now, but in August 2011 London was the scene of riots, with shops looted and buildings set on fire. And that was before Brexit, Trump, France's yellow vest protests and the Syrian refugee crisis.
I don’t have a solution to the climate crisis, the refugee crisis and the shimmering economic crisis either. I still believe that the refugees who try to make their way to Europe, the US or Australia would much rather stay in their homeland with their family and friends. They flee because they are desperate and risk their lives in doing so because they don’t see any other way out. The political focus should be on the systemic conditions which force them to flee. In the meantime refugees and illegal immigrants should be offered a more humane treatment, which of course is easy for me to say.