A quick perusal of social media or pop culture at the end of 2016 tends to reveal one overarching reaction: 2016 was kind of terrible — an "annus horribilis" for all those fans of slightly rude sounding Latin out there.
Why was it so terrible? Well, take your pick. Perhaps you're still reeling over the death of Bowie? Perhaps you're incandescent with rage regarding the election of Trump? Perhaps you're currently trying to escape Aleppo? Perhaps you're Johnny Depp?
The point is it's not hard to find many things about 2016 that mark it down as a particularly shitty year. Having said that, there is one subtle celebration at the end of the this year to "look forward to," although to be honest, it doesn't exactly improve things much.
December 25, 2016 marks the 10-year anniversary since the release of Alfonso Cuarón's acclaimed dystopian thriller Children of Men. Whereas we should be jumping at the chance to rave about this masterpiece for its cinematic deftness alone, this celebration is slightly tarnished by one thing: Cuarón's apocalyptic world is starting to look a little bit like today.
2006's Children of Men, based loosely on the novel The Children of Men by P.D. James, presents a world in which women have become universally infertile. Indeed, when we join the story in 2027, a child hasn't been born for 18 years. Far from uniting the species together, the slow laborious extinction of our civilization has resulted in global decline, terrorism, environmental destruction, war, fascism and a massive refugee crisis. Sound familiar?
Britain in particular has essentially become a quasi-fascist police state, with ALL immigrants being declared illegal. Those caught face deportation or incarceration in giant, notorious refugee camps.
'Report All Illegal Immigrants' - Insecurity And Fascism
In its broadest sense, the premise of Children of Men does represent some contemporary issues, with nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan facing shrinking populations. However, the infertility storyline most effectively acts as a surrogate for many issues currently facing the liberal West. This is made even more striking when we consider the future Cuarón presents doesn't visually seem like the future at all, but merely an extremely recognizable shadow of today.
At its core, many of the political realities of Children of Men do not seem a million miles away from those emerging today. The virulent anti-immigration rhetoric of the film brings to mind statements made in both the US Presidential election and British European Union referendum, while some of the measures utilized in the film (surveillance of mosques, building walls, deportations, banning entry to ethnic or religious groups) were also recently made in response to immigration fears.
Primarily, Children of Men frames these responses not as "evil" in and of themselves. For example, they were not introduced by some leather-clad dastardly Darth Vader-esque character (indeed, we never actually see who or what runs the British government at this time), but they exist presumably because people were scared enough to allow them to exist.
Furthermore, although anti-government, pro-immigrant terrorist groups do exist, it seems the vast majority of British citizens at least implicitly support the security measures. As far as we know, Britain is still — nominally at least — a democracy of sorts, albeit one under an emergency Homeland Security Bill.
Therefore, what Children of Men expertly shows is how even advanced, democratic and liberal states can quickly become hotbeds of intolerance and unsightly policies when the population feels sufficiently insecure. This is very important, if often overlooked, point. Insecurity can cause even good, rational and moralistic people to turn a blind eye to extreme measures that are introduced in the name of keeping them safe to the detriment of some "other."
The film does this by drawing allusions to two time periods: Germany in the 1930s and a post-9/11 US. One scene in particular, the entry to the Bexhill Refugee Camp, clearly references aspects of the Holocaust. We see a scene reminiscent of the notorious separation ramps at death camp rail yards, while The Libertines song "Arbeit Macht Frei" (which takes it name from the infamous sign hung over the gates of Nazi concentration camps) is being blasted at refugees as they enter. However, Children of Men plays these scenes alongside those that clearly represent contemporary concerns. The same Bexhill scene mentioned above, also clearly alludes to US activities at Abu Graib prison and Guantanamo Bay following 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War.
Watch the group's entry to the notorious Bexhill Refugee Camp below:
The point being expressed here is that there might be a potential link between these two events. That things done in the name of security or through fear can often reach inhumane consequences, often before we've even noticed it's happened. Children of Men reminds us that there is no biological or cultural reason why Germans would be more susceptible to fascism than any other culture. Instead, it places insecurity, fear, uncertainly, and a sense of victimization at the heart of these changes, and then subtly asks Western audiences if we'll allow our insecurities and fears to reach the same point. What's more, often these insecurities are imagined or exaggerated, while our knee-jerk, hardline responses to them may only exacerbate the issue in the long run.
Perhaps the reason Children of Men still seems relevant (or perhaps even more relevant) today is that the insecurities we're currently facing are often traceable back to the very subjects alluded to in the film in 2006. Although the Iraq War was initially waged in 2003, by 2006 it had turned into an even bloodier insurgency, with sectarian violence flaring up across the country and the region as a whole. What's more, we entered a period defined by Bush's War on Terror — a period we haven't left.
This violence in many ways fueled either directly or indirectly many of the issues that are currently playing on our own senses of insecurity, be it ISIS, the refugee crisis or the decline of American influence on the world stage. So, although being made 10 years ago, it seems like Children of Men could very well be commenting on today partly because we're still tackling with the fallout of Cuarón's own concerns in 2006.
'Only Britain Soldiers On' - Nostalgia And Propaganda
When the present time sucks, and the future doesn't look much better, there's only really one way to turn: to the past. This is another contemporary issue that was expertly rendered in Children of Men 10 years ago.
2016 has certainly seen its fair share of political and cultural nostalgia. If the endless reams of reboots and reunions isn't proof enough, our politicians have also climbed on the "things were better back then" bandwagon — as hilariously satirized in this year's season of South Park.
Randy explains the connection between nostalgia, Star Wars and Trump below:
However, it's not just Trump's rallying call of "Make America Great Again" that appeals to nostalgia. The Leave campaign in the British Brexit referendum also fought a campaign on "taking back" something that was lost — on going back to our good ol' glory years.
Children of Men also shows a society that increasingly harks back to the past. For example, the British propaganda machine utilizes nostalgia heavily, especially in its looping video that claims "The World Has Collapsed. Only Britain Soldiers On," complete with waving Union Flag and Big Ben chimes — conjuring up pride of Britain's imperial glory years and, ironically, its standing alone against fascism in the early stages of World War II.
Grab a dose of nostalgic propaganda in the video below:
In fact, in Children of Men, all the classic British pomp and pageantry seems just as healthy as ever. The government even goes so far to spend considerable time and effort to find and protect great works of art, a slightly noble quest, but one that seems slightly misplaced in terms of priorities. For example, when Theo's cousin, who maintains the Ark of The Arts mentions that "thing in Madrid being a real blow to art," Theo retorts, "not to mention people."
In reality, nostalgia is rarely very useful, especially considering it is often predicated on a fantasy: that things were universally better "back then." Often this simply isn't the case, or at the very least is extremely open to perspective. For example, although you might remember the 1990s for F.R.I.E.N.D.S and N64, someone from Sarajevo might have some slightly different recollections. Sure, 2016 wasn't great, but as any historian will tell you, it's phenomenally better than the vast majority of years the human race has experienced. What we need to remember is that those who cling to nostalgia often do so because they have no tangible plan for the real future — much like the British government in Children of Men.
This nostalgic fallacy is nicely represented in one of my favorite subtle messages from Children of Men in which a radio station is playing some music from 2003 for all the "nostalgics out there." Interestingly, the DJ describes this year as "that beautiful time when people refused to accept that the future was just around the corner.” This simple background line hits us in two ways. Firstly, it specifically mentions 2003, the year of the Iraq War, which Children of Men references so explicitly. The suggestion it was a "beautiful time" is therefore loaded with dramatic irony for the viewer and illustrates the often fallacious nature of nostalgia. Secondly, the line also represents another theme of Children of Men — the loss of hope and the abandonment of the future.
'Too Late. World Went To Shit' - Breaking Nihilism
Political and personal nihilism in Children of Men is perhaps best illustrated in its main character, Theo Faron. The former political activist turned alcoholic pen pusher seems practically bored with the situation of the world, instead preferring to spend this days in a hungover stupor. Now in 2027, Theo has decided it's too late to save the world as it has already gone "to shit." Indeed, he concludes it was "too late before all the infertility stuff happened, for fucks sake."
And Theo is not the only one. Children of Men shows a world of almost universal nihilism and cynicism, which is perhaps slightly understandable considering there seems to be literally no future of the human race. Conversely, despite a plummeting population, human life has seemingly become less valuable in Children of Men's world, perhaps because there will be no positive future for it to experience. This dynamic is perhaps most startlingly shown by the fact the government hands out suicide kits to those who can't take it anymore (no point having them use up resources, right?).
The apathy of the general population to the plight of refugees or other humans is expertly rendered by Cuarón's use of the background. Although we often see the more violent apparatus of the state, the actual instruments of the regime are hidden away in scenes and dialogue. For most people, it's now just part of their everyday world, something that inspires no unusual comment or attention. Even Theo, a former political activist, now accepts the policies as part of the norm.
Ultimately, however, Cuarón shows this cynicism as extremely fragile and open to rapid change. For example, Theo is immediately broken out of his decade old rut when he reunites with a former love, and most importantly, meets Kee, a young refugee who is seemingly pregnant. Additionally, when gruff fighting men in the heat of battle suddenly hear the cries of a baby, they are immediately rendered peaceful primarily because in that moment their faith, and shared humanity, has been restored. This peace however, doesn't last long, perhaps showing a rather dark perspective on human nature.
Watch the scene in question below:
The rediscovery of hope acts as one of the central themes of the film, but it also plays into its political commentary and Children of Men's relevance in 2016. At the moment, there appears to be a lot of nihilism and cynicism flowing around, the belief that the future is already irrevocably screwed — especially in the minds of the younger generation. Although Theo might live in a world plagued with infertility, this depressed response to it is not a million miles away from many people's reactions to the events of 2016. For those who cannot see a bright future, there often seems little point in continuing what seems a losing struggle.
However, Children of Men shows that although there might be some kind of masochistic comfort in throwing your hands in the air and saying "fuck it" and/or moving to Canada, it is rarely a helpful solution. Instead, it suggests that when people lose hope or become cynical, they simply stop caring and more nefarious forces can take, and then keep, control.
This could be a challenge for our generation going forward, as we do not really need the end of the world for us to lose faith in the future. But as difficult as it is to look at the world today, we must always to try to contextualize our experiences, empathize with other people's experiences and try to maintain some kind of faith in the human race.
Sure, this might all sound a bit flowery and wet but, as Children of Men shows, the alternative is often not a pleasant place. And, unlike the film, in the real world there will be future generations to judge us on how we deal with the world's issues today. Let's try not to be remembered as bastards, right?
Do you think our future will look like Children of Men?