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The Fall of Man: On "Children of Men"

For Paul Drozdowski. Spoilers abound, be warned.

Our hero’s day job at the Energy Company proves far too nauseating for him, when he sees his fellow employees all at their workstations, each watching the exact same broadcast, and crying. There is nothing nauseating occurring in his mind when he’s bleeding to death at an old water station, helping a woman and her baby into a small rowboat, and he is surrounded by paintings similar to those of cave paintings, bright and unique and primitive.

And that’s really the question of “Children of Men,” and it is a question, not a theme. What aggravated me about the movie was that I was always on edge – there was no time to linger or think. The characters are rushing, the scenes are racing, our senses are provoked one way, then another. Get the symbols in: like how he drinks alcohol until the moment of delivery, or the times “Jesus Christ” is uttered by him and the man who kills him and his wife, and move on. Nothing to see here, there’s a story to complete, with a big fat boat saying “tomorrow” at the end, as if there’s hope.

I mean, please. It’s very clear the movie’s question is whether we are beyond hope, as Clive Owen says at the beginning of the movie in a moment of reflection with Michael Caine. All the heroic virtues, placed in our dysfunctional time, are made less than what they are, even as they shine brighter. Note how Owen and Julianne Moore, the terrorist ex-wife, fight. There is no way to reconcile these two, even as they are going to try to save humanity. In another movie, we’d say they’re symbolic of two things that are key to the human, but cannot be reconciled perfectly. But I looked at them and saw at least two relationships of mine up there, on screen: there was the point we just couldn’t talk to each other anymore. She’d start getting hysterical and wouldn’t listen, and I’d start getting frustrated and wouldn’t talk. (Note what happens to husband and ex-wife when ex-wife does start getting receptive to his advances, and how much pressure there had to be to give into the old feelings). And these two are the virtuous ones of the “future.”

That’s the real reason why there are no children in the “future” – “Children of Men” isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. Who has kids anymore? Those cages on the subway platforms, crowds shouting “Allah Akhbar” and firing guns into the air, police in full riot gear – are we separated from that by something in us that won’t give way, or by degree?

The movie seems to say it is a matter of degree. Our hero is one who is above love in any erotic sense, because he has to be. He’s put in that worst of all positions well before any greater responsibility, because of the need to survive himself. All his heroic actions, though, depend on Fortune. Someone has to be there to pick up the woman and her baby at the end. And yes, there is an element of Fortune, a trust in Nature, that is needed for us to be human, don’t get me wrong. And he is a genuine hero, a complete human being, because he does take chances for love.

But the Fortune involved here is that a miracle needs more miracles to be a miracle. It is not unbelievable: the movie is credible enough. It’s rather saying something about the movement of the movie. The death of an age may mean there is a new beginning, somewhere. But any life connected with the previous age isn’t part of that age. The old age can’t even see anymore. It just stands in awe or confusion, like the most simple things are beyond it.

We move from land and energy to water and fog. The life that is born isn’t a new hope for man. It’s a new hope for another age. This one is done, and the reduction to the primal is complete. In a sense, everyone is doomed, even those who might start the new age. For no one wants to be at the beginning of something which has so suspect a chance at being preserved.

9 Comments

  1. Dammit!! I wanted to see that! Oh well, I suppose in a few days I will forget the review, and its lesson. Then again, probably not.

    I keep thinking about virtue and virtues, and the distinction between the two words. More to the point I wonder if there exists today any thing like a set of virtues, or even one “uber Virtue” that covers it all, today. Are we in a society, a culture, that lacks any sense of ethic?

    I get the point about the vulnerability of the virtuous. I shouldn’t respond to comments when drinking wine. But I still feel that the vulnerability is what makes virtue virtuous. If we weren’t left vulnerable to evil and the unvirtuous is it really worth anything? I doubt it.

  2. The SJ Libertine

    February 8, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    One of the themes that seemed to constantly hound me in this movie is that obligation. Obligation to the state, to the next generation, where that obligation lies.

    The movie would say that an obligation to the state is not required but simply that the adherence to the state is the medium by which we further ourselves in the next generation. Without an upcoming generation the world, sans Britain (as Britain has always fancied herself an exception to the rule), descends into anarchy. I’m not sure if that is sufficient.

    Is the world simply held together because we have kids? Given the way that our society is going I’m quite surprised it wasn’t seen as a blessing in order to make the most of their lives without any sort of sacrifice.

    The one issue you didn’t touch upon was Clive Owen’s cousin and his temple of arts and civilization. I would love some feedback on that

  3. I was just talking to my coworkers about this movie today! It was a short story, right?

    Haven’t seen it myself, but they tell me it’s somewhat of an “artsy fartsy” movie with no real point. I guess you got more out of the movie. =)

  4. The SJ Libertine

    February 9, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    I wouldn’t call it an “artsy fartsy” movie at all. If anything it is more a dystopian adventure-drama. I mean its far closer to blade runner than to garden state (which I completely loathe for the blatant “artsy fartsy”ness). It’s a movie that creates a lot of questions and not that many answers.

  5. I can see where you’re coming from. *nodding head* I think the pacing was perfect. How often do we reflect while experiencing changes? It boils down to the instinct to survive; one does what is necessary to move forward. Reflection comes later.

  6. [Ashok, this comment is a kind of deferred gratification, by which I mean, I’m writing it because I’m currently repressing my desire to say something about “Watchmen” (which I’ve just seen), and about your recent review (which I read immediately after having returned from the film) but I’m still turning both of these over in my mind. So, for the moment, this:

    I think that one of the most important (and least mentioned) things about “Children of Men”, is that its status as a dystopian vision of the future that ends with a maudlin — not to mention passing vision of hope (in the form of the “Human Project” boat marked Tomorrow”) is — to my mind — comprehensivley undercut WITHIN THE FILM, by what I think is its central (and very open) allegory.

    I’ve heard many people react to the film in a way that I think completely misses the point, namely by saying: my what a TERRIBLY plausible and sobering vision our none-too-distant future: all those barb- wire fences, and rioters, the slum dwellers and the dogs barking, immigration control, Islamic fundamentalism amongst the dispossesed and the mechanical, empty feeling to the lives of even the most privileged: how realistic is all of this — how close to home…

    BUT, while all of these things are certainly portrayed in the film, I think that it is also hammered home that the film’s premise (as to a future marked by human barrenness)
    is an ALLEGORY for humanity not being able to imagine the future. And to be able to see the future only in dystopian terms, is precisely to lose the ability to imagine the future.

    It makes me think of Arendt whose favourite line from St. Augustine was something she translated as: “man exists so that a beginning should be possible”, and who also thought that a central fact of the human condition was not mortality, but natality — the ability for us to give birth — literally or figuratively — for us to make new beginnings, even beyond the terms of our own lives.

    With this in mind, I think the film runs two contradictory things together in an extremely interesting way. So, on the one hand we have all of those evocative and actively dystopian visions of the future.

    As the reaction of the average audience tends to show — these reactions are drawn from the dystopian imagination of the present — hence the refugee detention centres and so on, the suggestion ofdespair and anomie amongst the “haves”, desperation and violence amongst the “have nots”.

    But at the same time, I think that the film,stages a criticism of the viewer’s all too-easy beleif that these dystopian images do constitute a plausible vision of our THE FUTURE.

    It thus undercuts its own tendency to say: “See! This is what’s coming isn’t it?”

    But is this tendency to think of the future in dystopian terms not precisely the ‘sterility/barrenness': that ABOVE ALL other things makes for the fictional world’s dystopian character?

    Is it not the case that a humanity UNABLE to imagine a future for ourselves except through images of simultaenously imminent/immanent apocalypse) IS a humanity unable to give birth — barren and sterile and divorced from the natality that is the marker of our condition?

    -Mal

  7. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie, but my husband watched it for the first time fairly recently. (He then wanted to talk about it and I did a lot of nodding and mmhmming because I couldn’t quite remember a lot of events) one thing he remarked on, which Missy mentioned, and I think Maladjusted is hinting at people commenting on– the movie feels real. Not so much in the oh, this is totally gonna happen sense, but something in the pacing and the cinematography. There is, as Ashok mentioned, a “move from land and energy to water and fog” and it’s all vivid and grungy at the same time and the fast pace that pulls you through so many incidences that probably have meaning, as Missy said, that’s kind of life, you don’t realize you’re in the middle of some life altering situation or learning some important lesson until well after the fact- until you’ve been able to stop going and reflect.

    I do remember, if nothing else, this being the feel I got from the movie, too. Additionally this guy who is so imperfect and so randomly thrown into this crazy, traumatic… thing and winds up sacrificing everything, almost accidentally- I’ll agree it has to be for love- of strangers… of everyone?

    I don’t know, maybe I’ll watch it tonight, there probably is a lot more there.

  8. Incidences- I don’t think that’s the word I wanted. In fact, it’s sounding like a made up word right now.

  9. Children of Men has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few weeks waiting to be read. I’ll have to watch the movie after just to see how they compare.

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