After having watched children of men at 16, i cried in my room for three days. While not exactly your typical rave review, the 2006 dystopian thriller both deeply touched and unnerved me.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s cinematography is breathtaking and heartbreaking as he depicts society struggling with its survival – and its humanity.
Children of the dystopian world of men are too close to be comfortable
Based on the 1992 novel by PD James, children of men is fixed in a very near future (2027!), when mankind became infertile. The film opens with the protagonist, former activist Theo Faron (Clive Owen), in a crowded cafe. TV announces on TV that the world’s youngest person – its beacon of hope – has died aged 18.
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Set in a crumbling United Kingdom, children of men tackles social and political themes that were already in the headlines. The film amplifies their relevance by projecting them into an imaginary future, where they can play out to logical extremes.
With threats of environmental degradation, fossil fuel wars, terrorism, and animosity toward immigrants and minorities, the film felt anything but fiction.
It was like seeing the future. As a thoughtful and sensitive teenager, I had so little hope in the world I inherited. And even …
Children of Men illustrates another definition of hope
In his book, Hope in the dark, Rebecca Solnit characterizes hope as “giving oneself to the future, thus making the present livable”. As part of a movie like children of men, this definition becomes more than an aphorism. It’s a survival strategy.
The film’s imagined future is nearly uninhabitable, as there is a suicide drug called Quietus.
For many – both in the fictional world of Cuarón and in the real world – despair is easier to sink into. Even Owen’s protagonist, Theo, gave up activism after his son’s death, opting instead for a new “realism” involving a resigned acceptance of the situation.
Theo, however, is betrayed by his incessant smoking and the shots of whiskey he discreetly pours into his coffee. Even if he can rationalize his outlook, he is clearly affected.
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Solnit writes that hope is “a darkness as much from the womb as from the grave”. Hope is a balancing act between symbolic birth and death, the perfect metaphor for a film about a world where birth has become virtually impossible.
The link between hope and nihilism
But after Theo is kidnapped by his former lover, he is tasked with obtaining transit papers for a young refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who is revealed to be pregnant with the first baby conceived in 18 years.
Theo and his young charge are, quite literally, poised between birth and death, as the gift of life also makes Kee a prime target for those who might want to use the baby for their own purposes. Death and birth turn out to be closely linked, perhaps even indistinguishable.
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Solnit’s description of the dual nature of hope bears a strong resemblance to Nietzschean nihilism, a response to the inevitable contradiction of what the German philosopher called the “Christian-moral” worldview of his time.
This worldview involved the belief that each person is a member of God’s flock and that God is the divine shepherd. This perspective has created an order to existence, giving humanity a role, a place and a protector. It also brought comfort, through “God’s plan,” whenever inexplicable or unjust events occurred.
However, for Nietzsche it was a cosmic fantasy at best, as the prevailing rationalism and scientific spirit at the time made it impossible to sustain.
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“This antagonism,” wrote Nietzsche in his 1901 manuscript The will to power“not estimate what we know, and not be authorized no longer estimating the lies we would like to tell ourselves — results in a process of dissolution.
This dissolution is what we see happening full force in children of men. Society is dissolving, with no hope to cling to – especially now that the youngest person on Earth has died. There is no one to guide the flock lost in the midst of the chaos, until Theo himself unwittingly becomes the shepherd.
Children of Men’s Hero finds a new purpose
That Theo has given up on his activism, his sense of purpose — even, perhaps, his dignity — actually makes him perfect for the role. He no longer has his own agenda. Thus, he can act without blurring the mission with his own whims, values or objectives.
For Nietzsche, Theo’s former lack of purpose is an existential paralysis, a period of mourning for what once was – his son, his beliefs, and hope for a better world. If he hadn’t met Kee, Theo might have stayed that way forever. And yet, if he hadn’t been like this, he wouldn’t have been the ideal candidate to bring Kee to safety.
Having emptied himself of all hope, Theo is ready to be filled with something else. He can devote himself entirely to a new purpose when it is imposed on him, for nothing else opposes it. This new purpose completely transcends ego: Theo becomes an agent for something bigger than himself.
Lose hope and find freedom
While Theo’s mission is, quite literally, to save humanity from extinction, it represents a deeper existential transformation.
Anyone who had to let go of their old way of seeing, believing and being can probably relate to Theo’s initial nihilism. If everything you once believed in or cared about is no longer true, how can you find purpose in anything?
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This stage of the existential grieving process can be a path to despair and paralysis (the grave), or it can be the birthplace of a new, more expansive purpose (the womb). It’s the precipice between despair and resignation, and between true agency and freedom. When there’s nothing left to lose, there’s nothing holding you back. It is existential freedom.
Nihilism offers a paradox in that it presents an invitation to go beyond it. It provides fertile ground for new possibilities. By completely giving up hope and freely falling into nihilism, the attachment to a single outcome is broken. So everything is possible.
The lesson of the children of men
This perspective on hope and nihilism ultimately illustrates that hope can only get us so far. Certainly, it can help us through difficult times, but only by allowing us to get out of them. This dissociation is the opposite of freedom. It’s an existential trap that constantly makes us wish we were somewhere else.
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The doorway from hope to nihilism eventually leads to complete acceptance of what is, without the need to push it away or cling to it. This acceptance is the true meaning of presence: The abandonment of any agenda to face each moment, head on, without wanting to escape, alter or manipulate life as it unfolds before us.
This is the existential freedom Theo experiences when he becomes Kee’s liberator. He responds to what is needed, without thinking of his own desires.
Theo surrenders so completely that he ends up giving his life for his mission. He reveals his mortal wound to Kee in the rowboat they share moments before she is rescued in the final scene.
The true meaning of existential freedom is freedom from the agenda of the little self. It engenders a complete surrender to the present moment that requires no heroic mission to save humanity.
Instead, it is available to all of us when we give ourselves fully to the present moment, whatever that may be.