Ah, England, grey England, with your grey skies, your grey shingle beaches, your damp grey streets. What better place to make a film about the extinction of the human race? At least — apologies to readers in fair Albion — that is the impression given by Alfonso Cuarón in his new film Children of Men. This opened recently in the UK and Australia, but will premiere in the US around Christmas time.
Why Christmas is puzzling, as it’s not exactly Yuletide fare. It depicts an ageing England in the year 2027, 18 years after the last child on the planet was born. The whole world has been afflicted by a mysterious and insoluble epidemic of infertility. There are no children. None at all. Nowhere. In about 50 years’ time everyone knows that men will have vanished from the earth. It’s a fascinating premise drawn from a 1992 novel by the British mystery writer P.D. James, now Baroness (Phyllis Dorothy) James of Holland Park. Global sterility is science fiction, of course, but it is a projection of current trends towards lower and lower birth rates throughout the world. In 20 years’ time in many countries in Europe and Asia, the largest age group will be the over-65s, with the average age approaching 50 — the age of the hero of Children of Men.
Some countries are actually depopulating. Japan’s population began to fall this year. Russia’s population is shrinking, due not only to a birth rate of about 1.3 per woman, but also to shockingly poor health, especially amongst men. Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy and Greece have about the same birth rate, although their populations are healthier. No European Union country produces enough children even to maintain its current population level without immigration. Gloomy officials are talking about “turning the lights out”.
As in the film, no one knows how to boost the birth rate. Demographers used to think that after birth rates fell below replacement level, they might continue to drop but would eventually rebound. They haven’t. Instead, they continue to slide down to levels never seen in history before. As a consequence, there are suburbs in every developed country where the mysterious sterility of the Children of Men seems almost believable.
But even in a Florida retirement community, there are grandchildren back in Milwaukee to ring. What if there were none? What the film and novel show is how much we all need children, not just to create future workers, but to maintain optimism and joy. Without children hope vanishes. In fact, I felt that England without children was far more disturbing than the zombies and madmen of a Stephen King novel. Those terrors give a delicious frisson of fear — universal childlessness chills the heart to the core.
Cuarón is a talented Mexican who directed Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His adaptation of the novel shares only the initial premise and a few characters. It opens with Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, buying a coffee. All the customers are riveted by the news that the youngest person on earth, has just been killed in a brawl in Buenos Aires. As Theo pauses on the footpath, a bomb explodes behind him. Nothing out of the ordinary, though. It’s just another terror attack in the grimy, garbage-filled London of 2027.
Besides the fertility implosion, nuclear war and other mysterious catastrophes have broken out elsewhere. England has survived relatively unscathed, but law and order are threatened by vast numbers of illegal immigrants seeking refuge from chaos elsewhere. Middle-aged soldiers are everywhere, armed to the teeth against a shadowy terrorist group fighting for ‘fugee rights.
Where does this bleak scenario take us? Into withering political satire on neo-con politics. Cuarón, obviously a reader of the Guardian, hasn’t been consulting Mark Steyn’s doom-laden columns in the London Telegraph about effete Europeans who have forgotten that demography is destiny. Childlessness is clearly too trivial a theme to serve as anything more than an pretext for nail-biting action and brilliant cinematography. The film’s real topic is the Iraq War, the Palestinian conflict and European attitudes towards refugees.
Cuarón is a visual, not a cerebral, director. Even Mark Steyn will appreciate his images of a senescent Europe. Nearly everyone looks over 35. Children are just gut-wrenching memories. In one of many painful moments in the film, Theo saunters through a public library where middle-aged women are sobbing over computer screens with blurry images of smiling youngsters.
Inevitably, a single pregnant woman — a ‘fugee — is discovered by the terrorists, who try to smuggle her out of the country to scientists who will use her to break the curse. In a classic Hollywood plot, Theo becomes a reluctant knight errant escorting a young Nigerian woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) with a nearly unintelligible accent to the seacoast, pursued by both vicious terrorists and the brutal police.
They end up in Bexhill-on-Sea, a sort of Gaza Strip run by the Ministry of Homeland Security. Thousands upon thousands of refugees from every nation on earth are packed into decaying apartment blocks in streets strewn with rubble, rubbish and corpses. Just so that we don’t forget the real message of the film, Theo stumbles into a Muslim burial parade, complete with scarved militants firing Kalashnikovs into the air to the chant of Allah akhbar!
Thankfully, even though the film is essentially about sex, or rather the failure of sex, Cuarón resists the temptation to sensationalise, although there is one moment where the young woman disrobes before Theo to show off her miraculous pregnancy.
The novel is quite different. P.D. James does believe that childlessness is a substantial topic. There is a deep moral seriousness about her novel, which is imbued with a pessimistic, but convinced, Christianity. She certainly has a deeper sense of what life is about. For instance, Theo points out to the mother — in this case, an English dissident — that the government is at least “ensuring that the race dies with some dignity”. She responds, “Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”
Unfortunately, the novel falters in its downhill run, lapsing into a humdrum cross-country car chase, as the Warden of England, a sort of 21st Century Oliver Cromwell, pursues Theo and the world’s last pregnant woman to cement his grip on power. As in the film, the ending is unsatisfactory and implausible: how can the birth of a single child possibly save humanity from extinction? It’s more likely that she will spend 50 years of her life in Robinson Crusoe solitude, hoping for an interstellar Friday to keep her company.
Cuarón’s future is grim and violent, but James’s is almost unbearably sad as she imagines how we would get on with life. The swings are removed and the playgrounds paved over. Barges filled with senile elderly are sunk offshore to the strains of “Somewhere over the rainbow”. Crazed women wheel prams down the street, all clucky over their china dolls. Anglican clergymen baptise kittens for their parishioners.
She has obviously pondered the meaning of sexuality for the contraceptive mindset. “Even those men and women who would normally have no wish to breed apparently need the assurance that they could have a child if they wished,” Theo observes in his diary. “Sex totally divorced from procreation has become almost meaninglessly acrobatic.”
Cuarón is preoccupied with political oppression in a childless future, but James is shrewder. When there are no children, no one is going to give a damn about democracy. What point is there in justice if there is no future? All people want is “freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom” — no one cares what happens to criminals, refugees and the demented elderly. As Theo is told by one of the Warden’s council:
Whatever man has done for good or ill has been done in the knowledge that he has been formed by history, that his lifespan is brief, uncertain, insubstantial, but that there will be a future, for the nation, for the race, for the tribe. That hope has finally gone except in the minds of fools and fanatics. Man is diminished if he lives without knowledge of his past; without hope of a future he becomes a beast.
In other words, demography is destiny. The human race is in no danger of extinction, thank God, but these sobering words ought to be sent to politicians everywhere.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.