Alfonso Cuarón is the kind of auteur who is incredibly selective about projects he associates with. After the unexpected mainstream success of "Y tu mamá también," Cuarón was inundated with Hollywood screenplays, but the director was extremely wary of being sucked into the soulless aspects of the industry machine. So, when Cuarón received a screenplay for P.D. James' sci-fi dystopian novel "The Children of Men," he instantly recognized the merits of translating such a hard-hitting story into film, but was not completely sold on the appeal of its bleak, apocalyptic premise. After working on other projects, Cuarón and screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton circled back to the novel's screenplay, as they were finally ready to commit to bringing its realistic dystopia to life. The result was the brilliantly crafted "Children of Men," which serves as a timeless cautionary tale about the disintegration of human civilization.
Although critically lauded, "Children of Men" was a commercial failure, as it grossed a mere $70 million against a budget of $76 million. This is pretty baffling, considering how the film fared well in award circles, as it was nominated for three Academy Awards and three BAFTAs, and even ended up winning Best Science Fiction Film at the Saturn Awards. The reasons behind the film's commercial flop status are unfortunate — apart from suffering from a limited theatrical release, "Children of Men" was never marketed the way it should have been. Universal, unsure about the demographic that would be interested in a bleak sci-fi without futuristic gadgets or worldbuilding, fumbled the film's marketing completely.
What the studio had failed to grasp is that "Children of Men" is primarily about human resilience, and that its bleaker aspects only serve to intensify the thread of hope that runs through Cuarón's profound human drama.
"Children of Men" has an unconventional hero. The film's central figure, the ultra-cynical ex-activist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is not the kind of person one would expect to root for when society is on the brink of collapse. Leaving his past as a fiery activist behind, Theo shambles through 2027 with livid resignation while humanity is plunged into global depression to the point of extinction. The film's most marketable star, Julianne Moore, who plays Theo's estranged wife Julian, is (spoilers ahead!) killed off 30 minutes into the drama, and it is Owen who carries the weight of anchoring the stakes that unfold. And he does, imbuing the dense socio-political premise with raw gusto and heartbreaking pathos.
Universal's failure in highlighting the multipronged strengths of "Children of Men" during its marketing phase limited the film's ability to impress audiences upon its release. Per Cinephilia & Beyond, the gravity of this misstep was heightened by the fact that Cuarón's penchant for perfectionism resulted in a long and arduous production process for everyone involved. Things were further complicated by the numerous single-shot sequences that depicted the intense action in the film, which, apart from being time-consuming, were challenging to set up and execute. One such standout one-shot sequence is the one in which Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) gives birth — apart from the clearly uncomfortable context of painful childbirth, the scene solidifies the miraculous nature of the birth in a world plagued with total human infertility. The one-shot nature of the scene only serves to underline the realistic throughline of the dystopian drama, offering a real sliver of hope amid the darkness.
Given the amount of wearisome complications during the production process, it is only fair that Cuarón' expected "Children of Men" to garner more recognition than it did back then.
Children Of Men Remains Frighteningly Relevant
After the film failed to make a splash among mainstream audiences, Cuarón felt disheartened enough to retreat from the public eye for several years. The director's silent frustration is understandable, as he passionately viewed the film's subject matter as timeless and relevant, and he is right in doing so. Apart from tackling the idea of future generations being the embodiment of much-needed change and hope, "Children of Men" expertly delves into the displacement of people and the treatment of refugees by the system. These are not figments of the imagination but real problems that grip our world, fueled by corrupt superstructures and desensitized complacency. Although Cuarón made a comeback with "Gravity" in 2013, he still seemed irritated with the idea of "Children of Men" being interpreted as a "prophetic piece." The director clarified what the film was really about:
"'Children of Men' […] was an essay, a diagnosis of the state of things at the time. The thematic element is it has to do with humanity's drive to move forward.[…] Except with humans, there's this specific particularity that is consciousness. That consciousness turns into ideology."
Through Kee's journey, and the significance of her miraculous condition, "Children of Men" presents a manifesto on the human persistence to seek a meaningful existence. Even in the heart of chaos, humans hold the ability to assign meaning to things, which grounds us enough to survive the worst of odds. There are bleak aspects too, where we often have to choose between two kinds of evil or resign to cynicism when things seem beyond salvation. "Children of Men" reminds us that new paths —whether miraculous or not — will forever present themselves to us. It is up to us whether we choose to pursue it or not.
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