We often see disaster movies about the preventing the end of the world or post-apocalypse movies where the world has already ended. But rarely do we see movies that actually depict the world ending. It’s a subject too difficult, too depressing, too devoid of hope. But that is where some truly extraordinary storytelling potential lies, and in 2006, we got a movie that delivered one of the most powerful cinematic meditations on the themes of despair, loss and rebirth ever made, an instant classic of science fiction, political commentary and spiritual examination: Children of Men.
The story takes place in England in 2027, some 18 years after the last human baby has been born. Nobody knows why the human race went infertile, nor does the movie try to give us any answers. It is simply a fact, and now humanity is on a slow march toward extinction, with plenty of time to dwell upon that fact, lose hope, and turn on itself. The United Kingdom is the world’s last functioning government, but it has become a brutal police state that herds endless waves of desperate refugees (or “fugees”) into concentration camps, all while battling pro-immigrant terrorists called Fishes. Everyone else is sleepwalking through a haze of despair and self-medication that eventually results in taking Quietus, a government-produced auto-euthanasia drug. Into all of this, we meet Theo, a cynical burnout whose own world fell apart when he lost his son Dylan to a flu pandemic in 2008. After surviving a terrorist bombing, Theo is grabbed by the Fishes—unexpectedly led by his ex-wife, Julian, who enlists him to escort a young black African fugee girl named Kee to the coast. Kee, it turns out, is somehow pregnant, and Julian intends to get her into the hands of the Human Project, a rogue scientific organization dedicated to fixing the fertility problem. Theo is the only person Julian can trust. Kee is the only thing Theo can put his hope in. And so they all begin a trip across the increasingly perilous and dire English landscape as they contend with murderous bandits, terrorists, and the British army. Everywhere they go, Kee is in even greater danger. Everywhere they go, they are one step closer to getting her out of England. Suddenly having a glimmer of hope in one’s life draws everything into sharper focus, and underscores just how much this world has yet to lose.
When watching movies about the end of the world, we often imagine how we would have survived. But this is a movie where the end is hardly worth surviving, and we are shown again and again just how deeply despair sets in in a world without the drive to build something for future generations. When who we are right now, is all that humanity has left…when there is no hope that somebody better might come along and fix the problems we have made, or become something better than we ever did…there is little room for hope, indeed. As the movie goes on, you start to wonder why everybody in England hasn’t taken Quietus yet. Those who haven’t have found some way to numb the pain enough to get by. For Theo, he drinks heavily, and smokes copious amounts of pot furnished by his friend Jasper, an old ex-political cartoonist who seemed to grasp sooner than most that the fertility crisis in the world was humanity’s end game. And yet, Jasper still maintains a kind of demeanor in which he gets joy from helping others dull their anguish. Our hero in the movie is Theo, for doing what he does to get Kee to safety, as well as those who help Theo along the way, shucking off the temptation to die for nothing so they might live for something. But Jasper is special because he is old, his wife is vegetative, and he has every reason for them to both check out. He doesn’t because he still wants to help anyone who will take it. That is a profound kind of heroism in any world, living or dead.
Much has been said for the virtuoso cinematography in this film and its extremely complex single-take action scenes. For a movie not meant to thrill us with violence, it spends a huge amount of energy thrusting us into the heart of war and chaos so we might best see the hellscape Theo and Kee must cross to get to safety. With each scene, we are reminded that in a world where death slowly comes for everyone, it shows up often enough without warning, too, with a shattering horror that underscores how badly you want to stay alive even in a world where death is everywhere.
Thus jangled, we see the a few different moments of truth when Theo witnesses those who are helping him along eliminated from the story. Every time, it feels traumatic. But never moreso than when Theo’s witnesses one of his friends sacrifice themselves to buy time so Theo can escape some very bad people who want to take Kee for themselves. In a world where every single death truly diminishes the human race, this death in particular seems like an especially tragic loss for Theo, because it was one of his only remaining friends. It is one thing to navigate the idea that the world is dying all around you. It is another thing to feel your world dying with it. And for Theo, who has finally found reason enough to care after two decades of grief only to lose another person who means so much to him…it just feels like more than any one person should ever have to take. But Theo takes it because he knows his own life doesn’t matter. Just the unborn one that might just bring about a better tomorrow simply by existing. Such is the power of hope. And when we see how it determines the outcome Theo and Kee’s journey, we see that it is the only power worth having.