A gelded orphan
CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Britain, 2006, 4)
What a disappointment.
There’s no doubt that this adaptation of P.D. James’ Christian dystopia is thrilling in pieces … particularly, the single-take escape as the camera goes into, out of, through and around a fleeing car. But by the time we got to the bravura closing scene (already dubbed “Fireman, Save My Child” by some wag), I was in such intellectual rebellion that I had long ago emotionally checked out of the film.
What caused this intellectual rebellion is that Cuaron made the material incoherent by completely secularizing P.D. James’s themes and characters, and decoupling them from what concerned her. He soft-pedals her judgment of the contemporary culture of death in order to make a politically-correct presentist smirkfest against Bush, Guantanamo, immigration, fascist jackboots, etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera. P.D. James as rewritten by LULAC.
Let me be explicit about one thing. It’s not that immigration might not be a valid topic for a movie, or even a liberal take on the subject.¹ But rather that it doesn’t belong in an adaptation of P.D. James’s CHILDREN OF MEN. In her plot (thanks, Matthew), immigration is actually encouraged (albeit on morally dubious terms) because of the labor shortage; there’s no widespread and deadly campaign against immigrants or the constant public exhortations against them that Cuaron imagines (and even if there were, **under these dystopic conditions,** why would they not be justified — lifeboat ethics and all).
Then there are all the ways Cuaron secularizes James’s text — Julian is no longer a Christian, nor are the Fishes identified as such, Julian no longer carries the miraculous baby, the baby isn’t baptized, a Wiccan midwife is added, there’s no reading of the title Psalm from the CofE Book of Common Prayer, and religion itself is shifted to a “Repent Now” cult glimpsed on the side, like in Stanley Kramer’s ON THE BEACH (which CHILDREN OF MEN resembles in some ways). And maybe worst of all, the wholesale killings of the elderly are re-presented as a voluntary suicide kit.
For James and many other Christians and conservatives, collapsing fertility rates in the West are the ultimate sign of hopelessness — a self-hating culture of death contracepting itself into oblivion (and the basic demographic data are pretty much beyond dispute, as is the response — to import more immigrants). Western Civilization (Europe especially), the argument goes, has put itself on the road to extinction through its embrace of radical selfdom, feminism and sexual hedonism (and the consequent rights to frustrate fertility and then murder babies). So the novel’s premise is simply a radicalization of what already is going on on these matters. It doesn’t make sense as anything else.
What trips Cuaron into thinking this is detachable from the “no child has been born for 20 years” premise is that he misunderstands the nature of hope, or at least the nature of Hope, the theological concept. He says:
What I was attracted to was the concept of infertility as a premise. I was not really interested in doing a science fiction film, so I had completely disregarded it. But the premise kept haunting me. It was not until I realized that the premise of the film could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, that it could be a point of departure for an exploration of the state of things that we’re living in now, the things that are shaping this very first part of the 21st century, that I wanted to do it.
He has it exactly backwards. Sure … obviously the material is about the Death of Hope, with infertility as a metaphor for that. But the Death of Hope isn’t neatly separable from infertility. To have a child is the ultimate irrational act of hope, both a vote of confidence in the future beyond one’s own life, and the participation in this future’s creation. To lack all hope is to sink into depressive who-gives-a-damn torpor. Indeed, there are scenes from ON THE BEACH that resonated much more with me than anything in CHILDREN OF MEN — the auto races.² This is why James’s dystopic England is so terribly tranquil with low crime, rather than Cuaron’s Hobbesian war. Indeed, in a perverse way (and obviously whatever else might be said of them), the guerrillas and terrorists and fascist jackboots that Cuaron peoples this film with don’t lack hope — indeed, they have little else.
In short, by short-shrifting James’s religiosity and taking infertility as merely a “point of departure” for matters of today, Cuaron makes the situation’s central premise completely incoherent. A non-signifier that drags the film down because it makes no sense, even as a mere Hitchcockian Macguffin. If you want to rant about U.S. treatment of immigrants or terrorists, you don’t need to set it in a world like James’s (nor is it very helpful to do so). I don’t know how any film of CHILDREN OF MEN could have adequately handled or made explicit James’s background concerns. But Cuaron just wasn’t interested, and as a result has made a sci-fi dystopia that doesn’t hold any water.
And it’s not as though the immigration material that Cuaron DOES add is even really handled all that well. Because it has nothing to do with infertility, it just feels clunked on top of what would otherwise be just an elaborate chase scene like THE NATIVITY STORY or APOCALYPTO. It’s just, as Cuaron almost says, a bid to provide a veneer of topicality. I once wrote a piece on LEGALLY BLONDE 2, where I compared that film’s liberalism to product placement. That’s exactly the level at which Cuaron deals with practically every topic in the film. We see out the side of our eyes some people in hoods, and the liberal viewers and reviewers solemnly cluck “Abu Ghraib” as if they’d just a sublymonal ad for Sprite. Those images have nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary immigration, much less the economic logic of a society short of youth and workers. But why let the facts interfere with a good inflammatory smear? The film has bumper stickers and badges and old newspaper headlines against the Iraq war on walls and desks and other places where such things show up. But if the world has gotten this screwed up in the 25 intervening years, shouldn’t there be fresher protest icons — maybe a “to hell with Hillary” over her nuking Pakistan, say? There are vague ones, sure, but nothing that anyone could derive anything from. But no … not when the real audience for these ads-from-the-future is contemporary liberals and their fantasies, wish-fulfillments and self-vindication.³
¹ Though I will admit a pretty thoroughgoing contempt for Mexicans who bitch about how mean and inhumane are US immigration policies and practices. They are a model of charity and humanity compared to Mexico’s policies and practices.
² I’m tempted to just come out and say ON THE BEACH is the better film. But then I remember Fred Astaire trying to act, Anthony Perkins trying to act, and Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck “spreading fertilizer” in the wheat fields. And I’m cured of that temptation.
³ Greatest irony: Behind all the “fuck Bush” product placement in the movie, you would never guess that apropos the film’s major concern, i.e., immigration, that Bush is one of the “good” guys — pushing for a major amnesty for (potentially) more than 10 million illegals and that he is widely distrusted among non K-Street/Wall-Street conservatives, i.e., we fascists, on precisely this score.
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