I do not want to live in the London of 2027. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which came out in the waning months of 2006, the city is presented as a drab, wire-meshed, half-empty capital that would look dour even in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe – though it might do as a modernized version of the gray brutalist London of Michael Radford’s 1984. Of course, London has a long history as the ugly backdrop to works of art; in The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad described it as looking like “a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off”. Cuarón’s London seems partly descended from Conrad’s, not least insofar as both versions of the city serve as backdrops to stories about terrorism and state repression, and both are only slight exaggerations of the real world of their times.
The premise of Children of Men, that an unknown disease has rendered all women infertile – thus condemning the human race to gradual but inevitable extinction – is the only deus ex machina to be found. Every other aspect of the film is a direct outgrowth of our own world. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and placed into camps; open-air cages filled with desperate “fugees” awaiting shipment are found at every train station. Heavily-armed soldiers and police guard public buildings and transit points. Coffee shops are blown up without warning, whether by terrorists or by the security services is difficult to tell. MI5 tortures dissident photojournalists. Meanwhile, the UK’s political system remains democratic, the press carries on broadcasting (mostly maudlin human interest stories), and the trains continue to run.
The political subtext of this movie is so much in the foreground that “subtext” seems a misnomer. The armoured police vans are labelled “Homeland Security”, and the holding cages look like they’ve been shipped over from Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray. An uprising in the refugee camp that the town of Bexhill has been turned into provokes a destructive incursion by the regular army, followed-up by air force bombardment – a scenario playing out all too frequently in today’s Gaza Strip. What Cuarón shows us, in fact, is what a Western country would look like if the awful conditions we’re used to seeing in the rest of the world, and that we’ve played our part in creating, were to find a home here. The United Kingdom of 2027 is in the throes of becoming Gaza, Mogadishu, Grozny, Baghdad. It is the savage exposure of the lie we tell ourselves, that such things can’t happen here, that we’re different and better.
In a December interview with Cinematical, Cuarón explained his purpose:
It’s not about imagining and being creative, it is about referencing reality. So — the cinematographer, he said that not a single frame of this film can go by making a comment about the state of things. So everything became about reference — and not reference about what is around, like, oh, I’m walking around, and this is what I saw on the street, but about how this has relevance in the context of the state of things, of the reality that we are living today.
The most interesting aspect of Cuarón’s vision is his insistence on portraying the British state as a democratic one, and thus its heavy-handed security regime as one chosen and legitimized by the will of the people. As he points out, in such an environment the old 20th century template of bad dictator/innocent citizens no longer applies; this new template is one in which citizens bear their own share of the guilt for the policies put in place.
I think it is something that is so important, to be very aware of the direction in which the 21st century is going with all this blind faith in democracy. And by the way, I am not against democracy — I am against the blind faith that is being put in democracy. And any tyranny now can have the makeup of a democracy, and then in a way, you can start to justify all the elements of a tyranny. And suddenly a democracy starts to lose its meaning. Democracy used to be a point of departure – to challenge these things! To challenge tyranny!
This descent into illiberal or authoritarian democracy is the great risk we all face today. Democracy was meant as a necessary method to ensure our freedom, but one which required modifications and constraints to ensure its respect for humanity and liberty. But our indefinite War on Terror takes democracy and makes it, as Cuarón says, a sufficient end in itself – while the state frees itself from all constraints (all but the democratic right of the vote) and thus turns freedom, the original goal, into little more than an expendable luxury.