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Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film ‘Children of Men’ is a text that explores the interplay of past, present and future on both personal and societal levels. Many characters in the film are obsessed with reiterating the past in an endless cycle of stagnation. In the case of Jasper’s character, this is limiting and pointless but can become dangerous and destructive, as in the case the British government who use nostalgia to maintain a level of control over a revolting populace and maintain the past at the expense of the future. In contrast, the fugitive characters who act in opposition to the government seem utterly destructive and disregard the ability of the past to inform and influence the future. They ultimately seem groundless and impotent rather than a genuine case of political activism. In the end, the film privileges the sacrificial characters who willingly choose to use their lives to further the cause of the human race as a whole, rather than maintain a comfortable status quo. The characters thus use their past to create a moment of presence wherein they are able to better mankind and enable the possibility of hope and future.
The film continually raises issues of nostalgia in the face of a future-less present. Many characters throughout the film insist on holding onto antiquated habits and traditions as a reaction to the traumatic violence of the film. Ultimately, their attempts to hold onto the past are represented as at best circular and pointless and at best, dangerous and oppressive. This is because the future-less world of the film offers no space for development and change; everything becomes stagnant. This is perhaps most apparent in the British government who consistently reinforce the importance of the past and attempt to create security through a sense of historical solidarity. Through the various newsreels and advertisements depicted in the film, the government repeatedly refers to England’s national pride and history in an attempt to justify their actions. At one point, Theo witness a horse-mounted guard in full uniform parading down the city streets, contrasting sharply with the images of chaos and violence in the subsequent scene at the ‘Fish’ headquarters. The aim of this nostalgia is ultimately to preserve the past and maintain it when it is under threat of decay. The character of Jasper provides and interesting counterpoint to the government’s nostalgia. Jasper’s character is an amalgamation of various ‘hippy’ character tropes: his costuming, musical taste, political attitudes and penchant for psychotropic drugs are little more than clichés. While both he and his wife were politically active in the past, at the time of film, Jasper seems to have little aim or motivation apart from caring for his catatonic wife and metaphorically for his nostalgic image. It is perhaps appropriate then, that most of the exhibition in the film is delivered through his character.
The most iconic emblem of the film’s nostalgia, however, is perhaps The Human Ark project, which aims to locate and preserve culturally significant human achievements for some unstated purpose. Like Jasper and the government, The Human Ark project seems to have little motivation beyond preservation of what exists. When asked for an explanation of this apparently pointless project, Theo’s brother says, “I just don’t think about it.” In the end, these three entities all rely on this weak logic. Divested of their ability to change and develop, they revert to maintenance and preservation, usually to their detriment.
In contrast, those entities which do seem to seek positive change are represented as being dangerous and violent. Activism is a recurring motif in the film. This aspect of the film is primarily explored through the Fishes, who advocate for the better treatment of fugitive immigrants (fugees), in Britain. In contrast to the nostalgia-envoking campaigns of the national government, the fugitives represent a homogenous instability. The group is ethnically diverse, containing members of various national and racial backgrounds and is initially controlled by a woman. While the government represents an adherence to the past in minute detail, the fugitives are primarily pastless subjects, without much exhibition given about the background or character of any Fish character. As a result, they seem devoid of a clear motivation both in terms of their political objectives and their handling of Kee’s pregnancy. That is, they are directed towards the future without consideration for a consolidating past. The actions of the Fishes serve as a counterpoint to Theo’s apathetic disaffection. Theo’s past serves the opposite function of the aforementioned nostalgia. Julian claims that he carried the memory of his deceased son Dylan “like a ball and chain” and that he considers himself to have “a monopoly on suffering”. His past paralyses him from developing any kind of future.
This reflects more generally on the idea of conceiving a child in the setting of film. The cause of the infertility crisis is never directly explained. Theo is of the opinion that infertility crisis was and remains incidental to the state of the world. The film opens with a series of voice-overs by a newsreader:
“Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle.
The Muslim community demands an end to the Army’s occupation of mosques.
The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning. Our lead story.
Here, the film explicitly connections the action of the film to contemporary political issues: Islamic culture’s interaction with the West, questions of national security and personal liberty, fugitive immigrants. At one point a radio announcer introduces a ‘classic’ song from 2004, “a time when people refused to accept that the future was just around the corner”. The film deliberately indexes the trauma of the film’s present with the actions of the film’s past; that is, contemporary politics. If we as the audience are to accept Theo’s suggest that the infertility crisis was not the cause of global decline, it is perhaps inferred that the causal relationship can be reversed. That is, it is possible that the infertility crisis in a cause of global decline. In a literal sense, it is speculated that the crisis has come about due to some human failing: genetic manipulation gone awry, a world-wide contagion or something similar. Metaphorically, if the children of the world represent a hope for the future, than it seems appropriate that a world with a questionable future such as that presented in the film should be divested of its symbol. In other words, the film might be implicitly positing that the childbirth in the world of the film as it is would be a pointless exercise, since human civilization is collapsing upon itself anyway.
The film also seems to depict a fascination with the cultural significance of death, with many characters dying or philosophizing about death over the course of the film. Heidegger suggests that human life is given meaning as a consequence of mortality – the very finity of life grants dignity to what would otherwise be a trivial and existential life.# The philosophy of the film seems to be offering a re-reading of Heidegger. While human death can bestow dignity and imbue the human existence with a meaning it would not otherwise possess, this can only be true in the case of a death that progresses the present towards a future. The character of Jasper, for example while generally caught up in regressive nostalgia is able to work towards the future through his death. When he realizes that Kee’s child is “the miracle the world has been waiting for”, he willing sacrifices himself to allow her the chance to escape. His euthanisation of his catatonic wife becomes a symbolic gesture of his willingness to forsake the past. Similarly, Julian’s activism becomes vindicated by her willingness to sacrifice herself for the future of humanity. When she is shot, she is not concerned with her own safety but is instead looking backwards towards Kee and placing the child’s safety above her own. It is perhaps appropriate therefore that her makeshift funeral is accompanied by the chanting of “shanti, shanti, shanti” – meaning, ‘hope’. Of course, the overarching narrative thrust of the film progresses towards Theo’s sacrifice on the behalf of Kee and her child. In the end, he is able to overcome his apathy and sacrifice himself for the good of humanity as a whole.
The infant then, acts both literally as a source of hope for humanity as well as a metaphor for the idea of hope. This is reinforced by the film’s use of religious symbolism with reference to Kee and her child. When asked about the father of her child, Kee jokingly compares herself to the Madonna – “I’m a virgin!”. Moreover, when confronted with Kee’s unexpected pregnancy, characters in the film almost always react by exclaiming, “Jesus Christ” or by making the sign of the cross. In fact, the narrative of the film acts as a parallel to the biblical story of Mary and Joseph and their journey to Bethlehem – all the more appropriate considering the film’s release date in the US falling on December 25th. In spite of the rather heavy-handed use of religious metaphor, the film’s use of these symbols is ultimately ironic and playful rather than dogmatic. Kee’s comparison to the Virgin is immediately followed by exclamations of her sexual promiscuity, fear of venereal disease and consideration of abortion – ideas that seem completely incongruous with a traditional understanding of the Christian faith.
However, like the Kee’s child, for the greater part of the film, hope remains nascent. It is always the potential for hope rather than unequivocal redemption. There are many possibilities considered for the child. As previously mentioned, Kee considered aborting the child – an attempt to preserve the present and deny the possibility for an alternative future. Moreover, the child is also grants political power to any party that controls her. The Fishes want to use the child as an emblem of the ‘fugee’ cause and to unify the disparate subversive movements in England. It is also suggested that the government would abduct the child and claim she was the child of English citizens, presumably in order to reinforce English superiority over the fugitive groups. At the end of the film, the child progresses towards tomorrow. In a literal sense, she boards the boat, “Tomorrow” in order to escape to the Human Project and metaphorically, the safety of the child acts as a promise of hope to restore the human race. The child is not only born but removed from the violence and political strife of England. Moreover, Kee’s choice to name the child Dylan grants the child a connection with the past that both embraces what has come before and refigures it into a new and promising future.
In summation, the film ‘Children of Men’ is one concerned with the use of the present as an intersection of past and future. The film destabilises the distinction between the two and denies agencies to those characters that privilege one over the other. Those characters that cling to the past are shown to be ineffectual and stagnant at best while the most extreme manifestation of this attitude in the British government is oppressive and violent. Similarly, those characters who think only about the future are ultimately unable to affect change because of their groundless philosophical starting point. Ultimately, it is those characters like Theo and Julian who are able to use their past as a sacrifice to benefit the human races as a whole that are vindicated as the past becomes refigured in the present to meet the demands of the future.
Cuarón, A. (2006). Children of Men. UK, Strike Entertainment.
Dreyfus, H. and H. Hall, Eds. (1992). Heidegger: a critical reader. Oxford, B. Blackwell.
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