Children of Men Might Be the Most Relevant Film of 2016
On Christmas day, 2006, a curious twist on the Nativity debuted in a handful of movie theaters. Directed and co-written by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men told the story of (decade-old spoiler alert) a near-future dystopia in which women are inexplicably unable to have babies — a state of affairs upended by the advent of a miraculous pregnancy. The film is set in the deteriorating cities and countryside of southeastern England — vividly rendered with alarming realism and minimal use of sci-fi futurism — amid geopolitical chaos that has led to a massive refugee crisis, which has in turn led an immigrant-fearing and authoritarian U.K. to close its borders to outsiders who seek its shores. Terrorist attacks in European capitals are just routine items in the news crawl. The world stands on the brink, and no one has any clear idea of what can be done. The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.
In 2006, however, the film was a commercial flop. It grossed less than $70 million, a huge loss for a film that cost $76 million to make. At Oscar time, it was largely overlooked, earning three nominations but none for acting, directing, or for Best Picture. Its studio, Universal, never quite figured out how to sell it — an astoundingly bleak sci-fi picture devoid of fun gadgets or futuristic set design, in which Julianne Moore, the most marketable star, gets shot dead 28 minutes in. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2006, and received a standing ovation, but by the time it had its U.S. release on Christmas Day, the studio had opted to focus its late-season marketing resources on obvious Oscar bait like United 93. For his part, Cuarón, frustrated with the whole experience, retreated from public life and endured what he calls “the five most intense and difficult years of my life.” He would eventually return to write and direct 2013’s massively successful Gravity, but for a while, it seemed like Children of Men might have turned out to be the last Alfonso Cuarón feature film.
Now, in 2016, Children of Men is having a remarkable resurgence — not just because of its tenth anniversary but because of its unsettling relevance at the conclusion of this annus horribilis. There have been glowing reappraisals on grounds both sociopolitical (Children of Men is “obviously something that should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in September) and artistic (“Children of Men, like no other film this century, and perhaps no other movie ever, solves the meaning of life,” wrote Vanity Fair columnist Richard Lawson in August). It’s getting the kind of online attention it sorely lacked ten years ago, generating recent headlines like “The Syrian Refugee Crisis Is Our Children of Men Moment” and “Are We Living in the Dawning of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men?” As critic David Ehrlich put it in November, “Children of Men may be set in 2027,” but in 2016, “it suddenly became clear that its time had come.”