Review of Children of Men
Dan Dinello. Children of Men. Constellations. Auteur, 2019. Paperback. 133 pg. $24.95. ISBN 9781999334024.
Constellations is a series of small volumes (in the vein of the long running BFI Film Classics series) published by Auteur that focuses on individual science-fiction films and television series. By mid-2021, there had already been sixteen volumes published in the series, with several more on the horizon. Dan Dinello surely had a tough task in writing the entry on Alfonso Cuarón’s apocalyptic/dystopian Children of Men (2006), lauded as one of most enduring science-fiction films of this century, a rich text worthy of intense scrutiny that has only become more timely since its release with its “salient critique of anti-immigrant xenophobia and ultranationalism” (12). The film is set in 2027 at a time when there has not been a new human birth in over eighteen years. Britain has “soldiered on” even though most of the rest of the nations of the world have crumbled under environmental, nuclear, viral, or another form of destruction. Just as we inch closer to the film’s temporal setting, Children of Men has renewed relevance in light of Brexit and Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the caging of immigrants—not to mention Covid-19.
Cuarón’s film is an adaptation of P. D. James’s acclaimed 1992 novel, and Dinello does devote a few pages to the differences between it and the film adaptation before rightly focusing on the film, not overly concerned with issues of fidelity. For instance, while the novel was more overtly Christian, the film still retains numerous parallels to the Gospels—from the obvious to the much less so—as Dinello scrutinizes in Chapter 6. However, the film focuses more on fascism, xenophobia, racism, and inequality—i.e. “tyrannical apartheid politics” (69)—that Cuarón enhanced for the film, inspired by his post-9/11 milieu. But as Dinello notes, the anti-immigration rhetoric promoted by the media in Children of Men seems less concerned with terrorism (as it would have been at the time of the film’s release), but more about “medical nativism” as immigrants are constantly shown in locked cages in several key moments of the film for fear of microbial invasions from the Other. Though his book was published in 2019, Dinello now seems quite prescient of the xenophobic rhetoric surrounding Covid-19 (e.g., Trump’s “Chinese Virus” moniker).
The author invokes Camus more than anyone else, fittingly due to Camus’s “conception of fascism as a contagious plague against we must happily and relentlessly rebel” (123). Dinello delineates frequent connections to Camus in the latter half of the volume, from characters who exhibit his existentialist philosophy to the main protagonist Theo (Clive Owen) as quite similar to Camus’s protagonist in The Stranger (1942). Throughout, Dinello writes in a clear style that is accessible even for those with little background in existential philosophy.
Yet there are numerous reasons why Children of Men has become so acclaimed; certainly some are grounded in Cuarón’s use of long takes, moving cameras, and a cinema-verité approach, atypical at the time for the science-fiction genre. Dinello does not ignore an aesthetic analysis, offering a concise summation of André Bazin’s theory of realism (for those less familiar with film theory), a formal style that fits the content. Dinello considers Children of Men the most realistic science-fiction film ever. Indeed, Dinello devotes an entire chapter to the film’s visual design and how it enhances the film’s key political concerns (e. g. via the backgrounds which offer an “ambient apocalyptic” look) (61).
One potential negative, at least for readers of SFRA Review, is the lack of contextualization within the genre. Those readers looking for comparisons of Children of Men to other SF film and literature (and there are certainly interesting parallels that could be made to other dystopian texts on British fascism such as V for Vendetta—graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1989; film adaptation directed by James McTeigue, 2005) will need to look elsewhere, as Dinello proves to be more deeply fascinated with philosophical and political connections.
Overall, this Constellations entry is highly recommended, illustrated with 42 black-and-white stills and enhanced by Dinello’s impeccably well-written prose that offers an intense textual analysis that never resorts to tedium. The brevity and affordable nature of books like those in the Constellations series make them excellent for the classroom setting and particularly recommended for a week-long focus on a film. Whether for classroom use or personal research, this volume is certainly endorsed as a study of a film worthy of further exploration (as those of us who have shown it recently in classes can attest). Despite the dystopian nature of Children of Men—and the depressing realization of its growing applicability—the film does end on a hopeful note, presenting the possibility of “an egalitarian, altruistic and non-authoritarian society that pursues the common good, accommodates plurality, and amplifies the sense of human and social possibility” (126).
Zachary Ingle is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film at Hollins University in Virginia. He received his Ph.D. in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas. Ingle has edited four volumes: Robert Rodriguez: Interviews; Gender and Genre in Sports Documentaries; Identity in Myth in Sports Documentaries; and Fan Phenomena: The Big Lebowski. His articles have appeared in Post Script, Literature/Film Quarterly, and Journal of Sport History.