Monday, April 16, 2007

on Children of Men

Watched it on DVD this weekend. Miraculously, there were no scratches, dings, or crud on the disc requiring me to clean it, so we were able to watch the whole thing without interruption.

That fact was probably the highlight of the viewing experience. What a slow, sorry and depressing dirge that was! I'm mystified by the critical acclaim it received.

I enjoyed the performances of Clive Owens and Michael Caine, who did what they could with what they were given. Julianne Moore's character, obviously American, inexplicably leading a group of British terrorist activists, was impenetrable and barely present. Her role was little more than a cameo, and gave me nothing to believe in, which made Kee's faith in her -- and her subsequent faith in Owens' character -- very difficult to accept. Why would Kee believe these people? Indeed, it was demonstrated fairly early on that Kee's faith in the Fish was entirely misplaced when they murdered Moore's character and tried to steal her baby.

So. A lot of the praise I've read for Children of Men talks about the atmosphere and how richly detailed it is, and how believable. The world has gone to hell in a handbasket, daily acts of terrorism are not only expected but tolerated, and Great Britain has set up refugee cities to control its illegal immigrant populations. I suppose it could happen that way, but I'm not buying it.

Here's why: the story posits a world in which no one has been born for 18 years. No one -- not one single child. (One of the more affecting scenes takes place in a gutted school building: who needs schools when there are no children to educate?) Presumably, the birth rate had been dropping precipitously for several years before that 18 year mark, so the youngest generation -- people 18-25 years old, say, would be very small indeed. What would that mean for society?

Well, for one thing, that would mean that the labor supply would necessarily over time become scarcer and scarcer. Any country that wished to sustain its economy would actively seek out immigrants, to keep the economy going. If new people aren't being created to sustain the workforce, eventually the economy will falter (see: Europe, circa now.) But the entire plot of Children of Men hinges on this deathly distinction between natives and immigrants ("fugees").

In a country with no children to educate but millions of refugees, education resources could be retooled to accommodate the assimilation and training of all those refugees. The manpower they'd provide would be vital to sustain the economy. Someone has to do the work, after all. If there aren't any native snotty teens and twenty-somethings to work the barista jobs or any other entry-level drudgery, those jobs will go to the immigrants. Everyone's happy because you're still able to buy your coffee and the immigrants have jobs. Yay!

But there's another aspect of the Children of Men scenario which just doesn't play, either: there's way too much killing. Terrorism is a young man's (nearly exclusively) game. You don't see too many -- any, in fact -- middle-aged suicide bombers. By the time they've reached middle age, their fanaticism has been worn smooth at the edges, usually enough that while they may able to plan vicious attacks on innocent civilians, they're not as likely to carry them out themselves. So what happens when there are no young people to recruit? Over time, the members of the terrorist organizations get blown up or arrested, and attrition does them in. Eventually, they will run out of both steam and people.

It makes no sense to assume that these groups could continue to muster up enthusiasm for their cause among the aging and war-weary population. Over time, people become inured to violence, and violent acts are less and less likely to be viewed as any kind of a solution, especially if the birth rate is zero. If there are no new people, would everyone really be that cavalier about killing off the ones that we've got?

I'll grant that Cuaron is a wonderful director, and certain images will remain with me forever. But human nature, common sense, and economics all weigh against the dystopia this film presents. A few fine performances don't outweigh all the rest of the nonsense that's up on the screen, now matter how darkly, richly envisioned it is.

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