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Theological Moviegoings: Children of Men

childrenofmen

Director Alfonso Cuarón claims to have deliberately avoided reading Children of Men by P.D. James before he made this adaptation of her novel, although his co-writer did. Cuarón reportedly wanted to avoid being “sidetracked” from his own vision, which was to use the premise of global infertility erasing humanity’s hope for the future to explore contemporary social and political attitudes. The novel, while in some ways just as political, is more contemplative than this chase film (as it might be generically described), and a good deal more spiritual. Or is it?

The plots of both novel and film are driven by a miraculous pregnancy, which an anti-government organization calling themselves “Fishes” hopes will give them political leverage. However, the novel is full of meaningful religious referents, from its title to the names of characters and of the “Fishes” themselves. Many of these labels remain intact in the film, but they don’t seem to point anywhere. In semiotic terms, Children of Men seems to be full of signifiers without a corresponding signified. Still, even half a sign can hint at deeper things.

Even on its surface, this is a story of a spiritually-dead man who is reawakened to hope and new life by the birth of a child. Theo is a stoic unbeliever surrounded by fervent true believers: his ex-wife Julian, fiery terrorist leader Luke, aging flower child Jasper, and earnestly-simple Miriam. All of these people (in some sense) lay down their lives for Kee and her fetus, finally leaving only Theo to witness the single most important event in the history of this fictional world: the baby’s arrival into the world. Eventually he will lay down his life as well, and his journey from self-serving to self-sacrificing is paralleled by his change in footwear. Partway through the film he loses his shoes and is forced to replace them with a pair of flip-flops (sandals).

Although there are several action set pieces in the film, visually Children of Men doesn’t operate like a contemporary action film with frenetic editing and jump cuts. Instead, most scenes are constructed out of very few shots, as though the camera is spontaneously capturing events as they happen. The setting of the story, England in 2027, unfolds in the same gradual, natural way. The film opens as Theo hears a news report in a coffee shop that the youngest person in the world has been killed. Moments after he exits with his coffee, a bomb goes off inside. As chaos erupts, the screen cuts to black, revealing the film’s title over a high-pitched whine that evokes the ringing in Theo’s ears caused by the explosion.

The stark dystopia created for the movie is subtly undercut by its soundtrack, which consistently communicates feelings of quasi-religious reverence. There is very little music in the actual world of the film, with the exception of that supplied by Jasper’s character (who seems to have a soundtrack for his own life). He plays grating, atonal tribal music twice, first as a joke to lighten Theo’s mood, and later as part of the alarm system when the perimeter of his property is breached. However, he also plays a beautiful, haunting cover of “Ruby Tuesday” as he administers the suicide drug “Quietus” to his wife before the Fishes arrive.

The odd thing is that the former type of music would seem more in keeping with the film’s aesthetic, but it is the latter type which underscores the real thematic unity. The music is most noticeable in the scenes involving Kee and her baby. There is a sort of high-church, almost heavenly choir supported by quiet strings indicating that (despite the surroundings) this is not the ordinary birth of an ordinary child.

Meanwhile, although a great deal of exposition and setting is established through studiously-incidental dialogue and hints dropped in the margins, this is a film that makes its most important points visually. At one point, Theo, Miriam, and Kee stop off in the ruined shell of an elementary school, and while Miriam describes her experiences as a midwife when the infertility pandemic first began, the impact of the account is overshadowed by the even more potent images of the abandoned school. Later, Miriam is hauled off of a prison bus on the way into a refugee community, pushed to her knees, and “bagged” at the end of a line of prisoners with similar black hoods (a deliberate reference to Abu Ghraib).

The latter example is the sort of politically-charged image that the message of the film is constructed around. However, there are also a number of explicitly Christian references. Theo discovers that Kee is pregnant as she stands in a stable (barn) surrounded by livestock. The sight of her swollen belly provokes a shocked “Jesus Christ” from him. This is later echoed by another character who discovers the baby after it is born. The sight of the baby also brings a full-scale urban battle to a complete halt, at least for a few moments, late in the film as soldiers fall to their knees and cross themselves. I would argue that the movie’s theological imagery, and the underlying story it represents, ultimately overwhelms the film’s political message.

Theo’s purpose in all of this is to bring the child to a rendezvous point with the so-called “Human Project,” which he isn’t even sure exists. His leap of faith is rewarded in the final seconds of the film, but he doesn’t live to see it (or, presumably, need to). By contrast, Luke has a very different purpose in mind. There is a moment in the midst of the previously-mentioned battle when Theo has arrived to rescue Kee and her baby from the Fishes and he is confronted by Luke, who tells him: “Julian was wrong. They thought it could be peaceful. But how can it be peaceful when they try to take away your dignity?”

Unlike Julian, Luke thinks violence is the means to his political end, and he hopes that the miracle child will be the conquering Messiah his cause needs. What he fails to understand is that, like Jesus, this child represents a hope for humanity’s future that has nothing to do with temporal political agendas. Similarly, as time passes the more topical, political fragments of Children of Men continue to lose force, but its spiritual elements only grow more and more pronounced.

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~ by Jared on September 22, 2009.

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