Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
Rewatching Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in 2023 sparks a disturbing sense of familiarity.
At the time of its release in 2006, it was perceived as a stern warning about xenophobia, totalitarianism, and the rise of the security state. A powerful indictment of the post-9/11 cultural landscape, the film vividly distils what Naomi Klein would go on to write about in The Shock Doctrine: how the chaos resulting from crisis creates opportunities for the powerful.
Watching it today, Children of Men – loosely based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel – has moved from the uncanny to the borderline prophetic; taking on a deeper and even more sinister salience. It all too painfully reflects a broken Britain devoid of hope and purpose.
The film follows protagonist Theo (Clive Owen), a depressed activist-turned-bureaucrat living in an austere and climate-ravaged London in 2027. A pandemic stemming from pollution and ecological decline has rendered humanity infertile, giving way to myriad overlapping crises and plunging the globe into chaos. Propaganda bulletins throughout the film declare that “the world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on”.
Theo returns to his radical past when he is reunited with his insurgent ex-wife (Julianne Moore), who tasks him with getting transport papers for a migrant woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), from his cousin in government. When Kee turns out to be pregnant, Theo is forced to fight through both insurgents and military police to get her to a team of scientists that can save her – and potentially the human race as well.
Cuarón missed very little in his projection of modern Britain.
The procedural dismantling of democracy by unchecked executive power mirrors the authoritarian legislation and lawless conduct of Boris Johnson, including the real criminalisation of peaceful protest and efforts to abandon human rights. The nihilistic rejection of climate science and utter failure to act on climate change implied in the film reflects our own critical failure to invest in a sustainable future. And the xenophobic vitriol towards refugees paired with a frenzied nationalist pride in “soldiering on alone” uncannily resembles the Brexit campaign – to the point that some of the propaganda in the film could almost exist in the real world.
But the most resonant part of the film is the harrowing illustration of a country that has lost all hope. Systemic failures pile on top of each other one after another, and no light is visible at the end of the tunnel.
At the extreme end, it speaks to the rising tide of ‘doomerism‘ that is increasingly prevalent among the younger generations today – the notion that we are on an irreversible downward spiral of collapse and there’s no way out. In Children of Men, the feeling of stagnation and malaise created by the crisis of fertility (which can be seen as symbolic of humanity’s very real global climate emergency) leaves a defeated and lifeless Britain, with no hope of repairing itself, simply trudging through the chaos as the last lights of civilisation slowly fade out.
Dystopias exaggerate in order to criticise and, in that sense, Children of Men lacks the heavy-handedness of counterparts like Orwell’s 1984, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. As the late writer Mark Fisher observed in Capitalist Realism, the story of Children of Men is “specific to late capitalism”. It describes people who are simply existing through the slow-burn of societal collapse, suffering not due to a great force of evil, but because they all failed to imagine that anything else was possible.
As in the film, the UK today seems to already be “soldiering on” – rather than encouraging or even tolerating new lines of thinking.
Instead of investing in itself and building a country prepared for a century of ecological and social crisis, it is beginning to fall apart. The short-termist austerity regime of the past decade-and-a-half has blocked Britain from long-term problem-solving and completely debilitated the public sector. As a result, our schools and other public buildings are quite literally falling apart, our rivers and seas are brimming with sewage, and the social contract between state and citizen has broken under the weight of extreme inequality.
The echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s famous decree are still ringing in the ears of politicians and experts across the UK’s political spectrum: “There is no alternative.”
Global late-stage capitalism – in which oil companies generate billions of dollars a day, pandemics merely present profit opportunities for the world’s wealthiest, and carbon emissions continue to grow at an accelerating rate – is largely seen as the only option on the table in Britain.
Our political system’s complete failure to tackle the very real problems of our time – from poverty to the climate crisis – leaves people more hopeless than ever. It might also help to partially explain anti-establishment populism and weaponised xenophobia as easy answers that conveniently don’t hold those who benefit from the status quo to account.
Don’t miss a story
The unfortunate reality is that the political and economic order in Britain today no longer functions. In both government and opposition, emphatic yet vague calls for economic growth and technological innovation offer nothing in the way of a true vision for the future.
In lieu of such a vision, we get half-formed promises of competency, efficiency, and fiscal responsibility. Instead of a battleground over tangible ideas for the future, politics today is mostly about mud-slinging, scapegoating society’s most vulnerable (especially migrants), and the airing of cultural grievances. This country largely seems to have forgotten how to believe in anything positive.
Facing existential crisis, a lot of us – especially the youngest generations – are left feeling like we have few ways out. The news is a constant cycle of doom and gloom, brewing existential dread, and encouraging us to simply check-out. Those of us who are somewhat checked-in find ourselves doom-scrolling, absorbing stories about collapsing infrastructure and rising temperatures, yet feeling powerless to change any of it.
This invisible barrier to new kinds of thought and action leaves young people left to imagine only extinction.
All of this, taken together, goes a long way towards explaining why more than 70% of young people now feel hopeless about the climate crisis, and more than half believe that humanity is doomed. It shines a light on why 75% polled said the UK is heading in the wrong direction earlier this year, and why trust in politicians is reaching the lowest levels on record.
The inescapable parallel between our timeline and that of Children of Men is the notion that no resistance is possible when defeat has already been conceded.
As the film progresses, we watch the character of Theo evolve from a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, nihilist into a bleeding heart radical. Children of Men’s resolution centres on the protagonist’s restored faith in humanity, in his ability to envision a world he may actually want to live in. Unlike the militant resistance group members that break down into infighting and seek to use Kee’s pregnancy for their own egotistical purposes, Theo puts everything on the line for the greater good. A pathway away from dystopia was revealed – one he never could have imagined at the beginning of the story – and it rested upon Theo tossing away cynicism in favour of hope.
Cuarón implores us to relinquish our deep-seated fear of the unknown, to be as bold as the historical figures we venerate for enacting positive change. As he himself puts it, “I used to think that any solution would come from the paradigms that I know. Now I think that the only thing is to think of the unimaginable. For the new generation, the unimaginable is not as unimaginable”.
As David Graeber and David Wengrow showed in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, human history is teeming with examples of wilful and deliberative systemic change. Humans have a surprisingly long history of ditching systems and ideas that aren’t working. First, they just have to be able to conceive of new ones.
Two simple – yet monumentally difficult – objectives might help us begin to shake our stagnation and build a hopeful outlook for 21st Century Britain.
To take Cuarón up on his offer, we could start by simply doing more to create and build alternative worlds in our minds – whether the medium be music, film, novels, poetry, essays, journalism, or campaigning. Secondly, and more crucially, we can collaboratively fight for a more democratic and fair political and social sphere, where new ideas are encouraged and true democratic deliberation once again takes centre stage.
There is real power in creating culturally resonant stories about alternative worlds. Thomas More published Utopia in 1516, describing a monasterial world without private property which triggered centuries of academic debate. Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, including The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1985) portrayed real alternative political and economic systems completely outside of our own.
More recently, a Chobani yoghurt advertisement from 2021 (oddly) offered a compelling vision of a technologically advanced yet communitarian society where humanity and nature coexist in harmony, emphasising that “how we eat today feeds tomorrow”. An important element of defeating cynicism is simply to begin building the alternatives in the popular imagination, and we could certainly use more of that today.
Britain must also awaken politically. Beyond the much-needed reforms to our first-past-the-post electoral system, the House of Lords, and the procedures holding ministers accountable, leaders and the public alike need to re-imagine what democracy truly means in the 21st Century.
We must create safeguards to prevent ‘strongmen’ from taking advantage of outdated systems. We can fight for an honest, open, and deliberative politics devoid of lies, name-calling, and meaningless ‘culture wars’. In a forum like that, we could begin the serious work of deciding what Britain’s future is going to be.
And the future need not be a thing of the past. Ursula K. Le Guin once argued that, while the power of today’s late capitalism may seem inescapable, so too did the power of the divine right of kings. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
As Cuarón himself has said: “I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present… but I’m very optimistic about the future.”