Whether I’m writing about movies or talking about them, I readily admit that I tend to state things that most other people find blindingly obvious. Nonetheless, I enjoy dwelling on these points, even if other people have already grasped them and have moved on long ago, because I think that messages in movies have the potential to change the way we think about life.
Tonight, I turn my attention, briefly, to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Children of Men imagines a future where every single woman on the planet has lost her fertility, and mankind’s last generation is on the verge of snuffing itself out. The film masterfully depicts a chaotic, anarchic, post-apocalyptic world where the British government has virtually reverted to fascism, and the general populace has been imbued with some combination of mass hysteria and suicidal depression.
The film doesn’t do any hand-holding. There’s no extensive chronologically-appropriate newsreel footage to guide you through the events of the previous decade (see Surrogates). As the viewer, you’re dropped into the situation with a bang (literally) and the pacing never really lets up. The film offers brief, tantalizing glimpses of the future that you’ve never known, and you’re forced to put all the pieces together. All of this is to the film’s credit.
In fact, it took me awhile to actually grasp precisely what exactly it is about infertility that would lead to a global apocalypse. My simplistic mind thought at the time, “I know plenty of people/couples who aren’t having kids, and they’re not bombing coffee shops or leading rebellions against the government.” But recently, due to events in my life, it’s become ever more clear to me what visceral emotions are at work in the picture of humanity that we see in the film.
When you take away the idea that man will continue to exist, you remove the ever-fleeting idea that his actions have consequence. You remove the hope that he will leave something that will outlast him. You destroy his desire to achieve, his need to create, and ultimately, his will to live. I recently had the opportunity to re-read this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
A world without a future humanity is a world in which these measures of success aren’t even possible. When a person realizes that their future is gone, they become like a captured animal, flailing about in some kind of primal rage, full of the horrible understanding that the end is near and simultaneously desperately seeking escape.
In other words, hope is what we need to keep going and get through the day. And when you take that away from someone, that person will cling to anything, and do whatever they have to in order to survive. Alternatively, they just might accept the peaceful surrender of death rather than continue a version of existence that can only be described as barely living.