The best science fiction is, of course, neither about science nor is it completely fictional. And though it is frequently set in the far future or the remote past, it is always about the present moment. Indeed, I think sci-fi really succeeds to the extent that it can project the present moment into the near future, and fails to the extent that it depends on special effects and scientific wizardry. Mere technology, as a succession of the “wow!” and the “gee whiz” is ultimately boring, unless we can connect it to the situation of man, both the temporal and eternal.
The is another kind of literature like this: it is the literature of the prophets. Prophecy is not so much a matter of foretelling the future as of foretelling the present. That is, the prophet grasps what is real in his society, and really defective, and shows what must be the results. Frequently, he shows these results as the judgment of God upon his society, and so it is. But it is also the judgment of men; if we persist in our ways, then we must go our way, wherever it leads, and it is pointless to blame the end on God. We may end up shouting (as we always do), “God, why did you let this happen?” when really the fault is in ourselves and not in God. We want to be free—even free from God—and we want God to prevent the consequences of our freedom. God does prevent these consequences, ultimately; he takes upon himself the fault that belongs to us. And in the end, as Julian of Norwich was told by the angel, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” But in this, the penultimate world, things will not always be well. And it is the job of the Prophet to tell us just how bad things can be. The Prophet is both timely and eternal. Isaiah was a court official and a practical reformer involved with the day-to-day affairs of the Northern Kingdom. And Jeremiah was speaking mainly about Judean foreign policy. But through the temporal, they grasped the eternal, and in examining the actions of the sons of men, they were able to see—albeit dimly—the coming of the Son of Man. But their prophecies were not confined to the distant future only; Jeremiah could see the destruction that was at hand, as well as the restoration that was to come.
In foretelling the present, the prophet does not “predict”; rather, he shows us the way we must go if we do not change our ways. He shows a present moment, only slightly exaggerated, projected to the near moment. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Dicken's A Christmas Carol, the future is not a given, but a thing in our control; to reform our present is to change our future. All of which brings me to the movie Children of Men, based on the novel by P. D. James.
James asks the question, “what would the world be like if we had no future?” And of course, having no future means having no children. This is the world in the “distant” future of 2027. There has not been a child born since 2009, and the last child born, “baby” Diego, has just been murdered by an autograph seeker. The scenario here is not so freakish as it might appear. In fact, birth rates are already well below replacement rates across must cultures and nations. So this is only a small exaggeration, a slight projection into the future (See The Birth Dearth). The major difference is that now we choose not to have children; in James's future, we cannot have children.
How does the world fare without a future? Not very well. Civilizations and nations have collapsed into chaos, and “Britain alone soldiers On,” as public service announcements constantly remind the British public. The problem is, England is “soldiering on” as a Fascistic “homeland security” state, with heavily armed policeman and soldiers on every corner. Still, there is terrorism in the streets. The chaos in the rest of the world has meant the mass movement of populations, to which England has responded by closing its borders and making immigration illegal.
The novel has been adapted to the screen by Alfonso Cuarón, who left the lucrative Harry Potter franchise (his last movie was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) to make this film. In this childless world, we first meet Theo Faron (Clive Owens), an erstwhile political activist, but now a cowering civil servant. He is kidnapped by his former girlfriend, Julian (Julianne Moore) who is now the leader of the “Fishes,” an underground and occasionally terrorist group working to protect immigrants. They have discovered a pregnant woman, the first in 18 years, named Kee (key?), an illegal immigrant from the Fiji Islands, played admirably by Clare-Hope Ashitey (isn't it ironic that the “key” is played by a woman named “Clear Hope”?) Julian is given the task of smuggling Kee out of England to a shadowy group called “The Human Project,” a group that may be located in the Azores but certainly operates by sea. This is a difficult enough task in a police state on the verge of collapse, but there are even more complications. Julian is murdered by one of her own lieutenants, who wants the baby as a “flag” to rally a rebellion. As a result, the people who are supposed to be helping Theo are now hunting him. Nor is his problem made any easier when he must become a midwife and deliver a baby in the midst of a “refugee camp” that is really an urban dystopia of filth and violence. Finally, he must guide Kee and the baby across an battlefield in the middle of an armed rebellion.
Cuarón shoots the film in long takes, with very few cuts, the camera following the action in a way that draws the audience into it. This is especially true in a long scene shot inside a car as it is being besieged by a mob of bandits, which gives a sense of claustrophobia and danger not seen since Das Boot. The battle scenes are as good as anything since Saving Private Ryan, and maybe better. But much of the real action takes place in the background, in Cuarón's depiction of the London of the near future. It is a gray and shabby place. After all, why repair the roads, or anything else, if you are the last generation? It is a world where Quietus, a suicide pill, is openly marketed with slick TV ads; Why not? If there is no tomorrow, why should there be a today?
We are not told the cause of the universal infertility, nor are we told the nature or the purpose of The Human Project; the viewer is free to speculate on these and to read into them what he will. But we are told of the connection between potency and civilization. And what we are told in the film contradicts everything we are told everywhere else. For in current ideology, a crash in population would be a boon to mankind and to the environment. And on this question, the film stands or falls. Are James and Cuarón engaging in prophecy or fantasy? Are they showing us where we are and where we're headed, or are the leading us astray? The viewer must decide, but history is on the side of James. Population declines are typically the prelude to chaos. When Rome stopped having any interest in children, her population slowly crashed and she could no longer defend her borders; she was given over to the barbarian hoards. Often, a rapid crash presents us with a choice of a slave society or a more egalitarian one. This is because the shortage of men causes the price of labor to skyrocket, and labor must either be suppressed or liberated. This was the choice after the Black Death in the 14th century. The rulers tried to suppress the serfs and the peasantry (e.g., The Statute of Laborers in 1348), but their rights were too well-established for this to work, and the final suppression of the workers would not take place for another two centuries.
First Things criticized the movie for being insufficiently Christian; as usual, it is First Things that misses both the point of the movie and the point of Christianity. The lack of physical potency leads to a lack of intellectual vigor, including the impotency of writing for First Things. For indeed, civilization is ordered around children; we give them order and so order our own lives; everything we give them, we receive from them. All of Christianity revolves around a single birth, and a child who must, as in the film, flee the oppressor for fear of his life. In the film, Britain places its hope in military order, while its opponents call for armed rebellion. But it is birth that is the real rebellion, the real hope for the future. And our future depends on a single birth—on every single birth—and the hope offered to every single child.