“What happens to the world without the sound of children’s voices?”
So asks one character, a former midwife, now living in a sterile world where women are unable to bear children, in this, Alfonso Cuarón’s superb imagining of P.D. James’ novel. The film takes this central premise of the book and runs with it, in doing so asking many questions about the nature of existence: what happens if man is denied a future? Are religions, political ideologies and dogmas strengthened or weakened by this? And if there is hope, how do we react to its possibility?
The film posits this premise from shot one: our protagonist Theo walks into a cafe and is surrounded by people transfixed by a television news report, which is stating that the ‘youngest human’, the last to be born before the entire world went infertile some eighteen years ago, has died. This device neatly presents us with a wealth of information about the dystopia we are entering. Similarly, the London street that Theo walks onto afterwards informs us about this future world, one not too dissimilar to the present. The year is 2027, and while technology has advanced somewhat, this is closer to the present than the likes of Blade Runner.
Ridley Scott’s future noir is an interesting reference point, as there are echoes of the jaded, washed-up blade-runner Deckard in Clive Owen’s Theo; he seems to a large extent to have given up on life and happiness, and is now just a rather aimless alcoholic, overly cynical and sarcastic. A politically active past is alluded to, in particular when he goes to visit his friend Jasper, an ageing pot-smoking hippy now retired in the countryside, but he now seems to have abandoned that for a boring pen-pushing desk job. Even nearly being caught up in a terrorist bomb blast seems not to traumatise him overly. Has this childless world brought this nihilistic state of being upon him?
Although the source P.D. James novel was written in the early 1990s, this is very clearly a post-9/11, post-Iraq film in much the same way as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later was; after a mass influx of refugees, Britain has now become a police state, with the powers-that-be now systematically rounding-up and deporting all immigrants. Bexhill, in reality a quaint seaside resort on the south coast, has now been tranformed into a nightmarish refugee camp, quarantined off from the rest of the country. Echoes of the Holocaust and Guantanemo Bay are all pervasive, and there is one haunting shot which is a clear visual reference to the US Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
The bomb blast which Theo narrowly avoids is officially attributed to a terrorist group named ‘the Fishes’, which is opposed to this policy of explusion. Theo is soon contacted by this group, who it turns out are led by his estranged wife Julian, who want him to use his position to procure a travel permit for a young refugee. It soon transpires why this refugee is so important: she is pregnant, and the group want to transport her to ‘the Human Project’, an anonymous offshore group of scientists who are apparently working on curing the infertility problem. The film then essentially becomes a road movie cum chase movie, with Theo quickly realising that no-one else can be trusted with this precious cargo, and must attempt to safely escort the refugee Kee to their mysterious destination.
Director Cuarón has frequently stated that he considers this a sister piece to his earlier breakthough hit Y tu mamá también (2001). On a superficial level, this almost seems absurd: what can a low-key road movie about two young friends travelling across Mexico and discovering their sexuality possibly have in common with this futuristic dystopian fantasy? But look beyond the genre stereotypes, and the commonality is surprising. Both films show intially jaded protagonists embark on journeys of self-discovery, against backdrops of social upheaval, ultimately ending in a combination of tragedy and hope, however small. The journeys themselves are what is important, not the rather open-ended denouements.
While the London of 2027 is perhaps not much of a fully-realised world as compared with other celluloid imaginings of the future, this is utimately because it doesn’t need to be; there is none of the hollow flashiness of the likes of A.I. or I, Robot because the focus of the film is the human drama at its centre, not necessarily the context, giving the film more of a feel of universality. Where context is more obvious, it is when its post-9/11 commentary is more explicitly being made, and here the viewer will decide either to go with its politics or be alienated from it. Personally, I was happy with the anti-anti-immigration message, but it will be troublesome for some.
Three of the central characters, Julian, Theo and Jasper, appear to be three variants of the same personality. The former husband-and-wife pairing Julian and Theo share a common past, and at one stage shared political ideals – Jasper explains they met at a demonstration – but their lives at one unnamed point diverged, Julian’s to underground activism, Theo’s to resigned acquiescence and passivity. Jasper too was politically aware, a product of the heady revolutionary days of 1968; but just as that near-revolution was defeated and eventually fizzled out, deprived of hope, so too was the revolutionary instinct in Theo. The students of ’68 wanted to change the world, but that impulse is ultimately dependent on there being a future, creating a better world for a following generation. Remove this hope, and what is the point of political idealism?
If politics is rendered neutered, then so too is history, if history is the prism through which looking at the past allows us to envision and, to an extent, shape our future. One scene in particular neatly expresses this idea. When Theo attempts to procure transit papers for Kee, he goes to visit his cousin Nigel, in his ivory tower at Battersea power station. There we see he has procured some of mankinds greatest artworks: Michelangelo’s David adorns the entrance, while on one huge wall of the dining room hangs Picasso’s Guernica. But deprived of a context, and denied a future, these great works are rendered meaningless – one, a marvel at human beauty, and the other a howl against human brutality, will be nothing without anyone to observe them.
There are many, many possible readings of this film; i have not even mentioned the possible religious interpretations and symbols. But ultimately one takes from the film what one brings to it, and whether one sees it as a pessimistic view of the natural decline of human values when faced with utter despair, or as showing the triumph of hope in the face of almost inevitable doom, will depend on ones own personal outlook on life. But what a remarkable piece of mainstream filmmaking, how rare that a piece of cinema this bold, intelligent and rich can come successfully to fruition.