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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hollywood fantasy or dark future reality? The movie Children of Men reviewed

I recently saw the movie Children of Men, based on a novel by P.D. James, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. For those interested in seeing the movie, you may want to avoid this review until you've seen Children of Men; I've tried to avoid spoiling surprise where I can.

The futuristic world is England in the year 2027. The future James paints is one of totalitarian-type governments. According to the plotline within the story, the world endures a series of cataclysmic events beginning with a flu pandemic in 2008.

War on terror themes run throughout in the sets. One banner reads: "Alone, Britain soldiers on."

Immigrants have lost their rights in the movie and are herded into refugee camps, one a converted coastal city reserved for immigrants. We do not know the extent to which citizens and non-citizens are treated once they've entered the system; we get the feeling the people simply disappear, regardless of nationality.

In the tradition of apocryphal works, Children of Men depicts a world that has given upon hope because it's lost its children.Children of Men is cast in a time when women can no longer have children.

The movie begins with media coverage of the death of the world's youngest man, "...Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet, the youngest person on earth was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old" represented the world's most recently born person, grown to adulthood.

The world's next youngest person--a woman--then assumes the title of world's youngest person and receives the accompanying celebrity.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) tries to complete his mission--one not of his choosing but rather one assigned him by his former beau, played by Julianne Moore.

Retired (and well cast) Michael Caine, who plays a retired political writer Jasper Palmer, who's friends with Faron. There, in an isolated homestead which offers the solace of solitude, Caine grows pot while tending his catatonic wife.

A quick scan of Palmer's desk reveals a posted newspaper clipping of a 2008 Award as best political writer, and shows an article with a picture of a traumatized woman, accompanied by the headline "Woman Claims Torture." From the blank stare and silence of Palmer's wheelchair-bound wife throughout the movie, we are left wondering as to the cause of her condition.

Some past dark secret in their lives speaks of their lives spent in decline and isolation, yet they have each other. Dark skies brood over the English moors that surround the country cottage, evil encroaching from a society gone mad.

Children of Men is about a world that devalues human dignity, degrades the value of human life, and even supplies them with free Suicide Kits, advertised under the Quietus brand (a concoction of rat poison which is perfectly legal, according to Caine's character Palmer, although pot remains illegal).

What began as a national effort to expel immigrants ends up affecting all, citizen and non-citizen alike, who must contend with the savagery of the anti-government forces. In other words, no one is safe.

A movie like Children of Men succeeds by casting a compelling picture of a future of a dire and dying world.

The saddening picture probably won't brighten any viewer's day, but some among us do have a curiousity concerning end-of-times events and sequences and are drawn to these kinds of stories. Somewhat pathetically, we enjoy contemplating the possibilites that would have to concur in order to bring that world into being.

We skeptics tend to guard our disbelief, and view realism as a vital plot ingredient.

My Inner Omega Man

Cataclysmic compositions have long been a fascination of mine, and I feel drawn to the bittersweet isolation of one man or a few in a world of chaos, anarchy, or zombiefication. One of the first and best of these movies is Charleton Heston's The Omega Man; the Planet of the Apes series also helped plant the apocalyptic theme in me.

I'm not much into Costner's Waterworld and Postman or Romero's zombie movies, but I do respond to some of more plausible future scenarios like those painted in Children of Men, although a world like that depicted in the movie may be equally illusory when its main premises are considered. The fewer the number of implausible events in the futuristic society, the easier it is for me to enter into the escapism that I seek out of these kinds of films.

I don't want to dwell too long on the macabre elements in the movie, because many of these movies are sensationalized, in typical Hollywood style.

Hollywood is often tempted to take shortcuts and other deus ex machina plot devices which can stretch whatever realism might be there into the realm of fantasy. Unlike novelists, movie-makers do have the heavy burden of creating a visual pantheon in order to sustain the alternate world created out what were formerly just words.

I also just saw The Last King of Scotland, where a young Scottish doctor Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy, becomes Idi Amin's personal physician and adviser. No such doctor existed; still, the creation of the mythical doctor offers a bridge into Amin's personal life--a character with whom the audience can identify and sympathize not only with the doctor, but Amin as well.

To be credible as a form of entertainment for the skeptics among us, the movie's environment can be theoretical yet must also be plausible. Historical precedent might not matter to all or even most of the viewers, but plausibility is central to believability for fans of apocalyptic works like me.

It's hard for viewers like me to imagine the future world if lacks realism. In explanation of early effort to create a matrix from the second movie in that series, designers of the first matrix had lost entire "crops" because the world they'd created had been too full of love and happiness, and thus too unrealistic for those whose brains were wired into the Matrix.

The world of Children of Men is frighteningly plausible in all regards except perhaps the loss of children from our planet--a point made clear when main character Theo Faron (Owen) wanders through a rotting, vine-infested school barely recognizable save for long-idled student desks.

Plausibility of the Scenario

Premise #1 for the movie is deportation and sequestration of non-British nationals.

Raids are now taking place in the US by Immigration Customs Enforcement, which cast detainees in prisons awaiting deportation, separating them from loved ones over sometimes vast distances. In an article originally posted in American Prospect, David Beacon's "The Story of the Smithfield Raid" follows the enforcement crackdown.

One such workplace raid occured in the Smithfield meat processing plant in North Carolina. Beacon explains:

That day, the migra (agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department) picked up 21 people while trying not to alert the rest of the plant's laborers. One by one, supervisors went to Mexicans on the line. You're needed in the front office, they'd say. The workers would put down their knives, take off their gloves and walk through the cavernous building to the human resources department. There, ICE agents took them into custody, put them in handcuffs and locked them up in a temporary detention area. Later, they were taken out in vans and sent to immigration jails as far away as Georgia.

Bacon goes on to talk about the possible motivations for the raid, which could well have been to bust up unionization efforts. He explains:

...organizing efforts, and not the 21 detained workers, were the real target of the raid. Mark Lauritsen, packinghouse director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, says the Department of Homeland Security and the company "were worried about people organizing a union, and the government said, 'Here are the tools to take care of them.'"

In the Smithfield case, union activity and efforts to raise awareness concerning worker rights and safety conflict with a corporate agenda.

Anti-immigration sentiments run strong in much of the far Right-wing. However, Republicans have been reluctant to heartily combat the flow of illegal immigrants.

Democrats are broadly thought to be more sympathetic to the plight of illegals; it's no coincidence that Hispanic voters are predomimantly Democratic voters: converting illegals into voters would likely create more Democrats, unless of course Republicans can outshine the potential new voters by offering amnesty or better terms, perhaps like a antiwar Republican might pander to the Democratic base.

Hispanic political influence dominates both parties. Xenophobic tendencies could be exacerbated in a time of economic chaos or catastrophe; whether a more radical approach might be the possible under Republican or Democratic leadership remains unclear.

Select immigration raids could well evolve into broader sweeps. Such a radical approach would reduce illegal immigration, but many corporations believe in the benefits to their bottom line of hiring illegals, saving on labor costs, and dodging pesky unionization.

It remains to be seen whether the corporate interests exploiting cheaper labor will continue to shape our immigration policy.

Often, corporate interests trump worker concerns; the two groups are on opposite ends of the burgeoning political divide in this country. Our government's willingness to let corporations dictate and influence policy also plays contrary to the interest of its citizens.

A big part of the corporate influence in American politics today is about protecting the financial interests of--as Marx would put it--"owners of the means of production."

Many corporations want the floodgates of America opened to cheaper labor, illegal or not. Many technology companies easily fill H1-NB Visa quotas and demand more, so they support immigration. Employers on the higher-end of the wage scale (at least for immigrant labor) are more legally bound to legitimatize the employee credentials through the organized worker importation program.

Lower skilled illegal immigrants go most likely to jobs where they can be paid in cash and made part of the invisible economy. The complexities of registering all US employees, as ICE intend to do under a new system, faces mammoth logistical issues in addition to privacy concerns, legal issues, and political obfuscation.

The Power of Race

Minorities disenfranchisement is nothing new, interesting in Bacon's article is the level of solidarity between blacks and Latinos, so the conjoined political influence of those groups cannot be underestimated by either party. Both have fought racism; the inherently anti-Mexican dictate of ICE actions makes the two groups natural allies, who between them would have a combined and rising 70 million people or so.

Terrorism could trigger round-ups, but the Mexicans aren't likely to commit such acts, nor would Mexicans be associated with terrorism. Far more likely is some economic chaos, which would exacerbate racial tensions. Even then, huge contingents of politically connected African Americans and Latinos would make politicians pay a huge price at the polls.

Economic issues could provide a pretext for deportation. In The Last King of Scotland, Amin expels all "Asians"--predominantly long-term residents from the Indian subcontinent, many of whom had been born in Uguanda.

Amin feared the political influence posed by the dominance of so-called "Asians" in the Uguandan economy. As a wealthier and better educated segment of society, Amin labelled exploitation of Africans by so-called Asians as the source of Uguanda's economic problems.

In effect, Western societies are made up by ethnic groups; destroying the immigrant communities would mean destroying members of similiar ethnicity. This isn't to say immigrants have been fully assimilated; it's simply hard to believe that legal immigrants would stand idly around as their illegal brethren are deported and/or hauled off to camps.

Even now Hispanic influence certainly impacts immigration policy. Under a new bill, citizenship has been offered as part of an amnesty would make illegal Latinos a potentially dangerous political enemy in the many regions of our nation with a large Hispanic presence.

Polls suggest anti-immigrant opinion lies in a good chunk of the population, but a majority appears to favor immigration reform that would allow citizenship and tolerate amnesty. Could the majority voice be quashed in favor of a broad immigration crackdown? Perhaps not, with the political influence Hispanics wield and would presumably exert on behalf of their illegal brethren.

Wholesale deportation would be difficult if not impossible as a result of logistical and moral challenges. Hispanics in the military would undoubtedly have problems following orders like the soldiers in Children of Men. Still the world has seen plenty of examples of inner-racial violence.

Large-scale deportation would have to be militarized, as Katrina has shown us that no one else in the Federal government is capable of managing a refugee crisis, much less engineering a "solution". Still, the prominence of minorities in our military limits the upper capabilities of effectiveness of any enforcement.

Artificially created disasters might be alllowed to purge one area of its inhabitants--like a neutron bomb, without the radioactivity. The wake of Katrina has seen a large increase in the numbers of Hispanics in New Orleans. African-Americans may make up less of the city's population, although it's not clear if the black economy is threatened by illegal immigrantion, or how many will return. We also don't know how thoroughly the city will be rebuilt, most notably how much the government appears willing to do to help predominantly African-American portions of the city which still lie devastated.

Hypothetically, inhabitants deemed more friendly to the regime (or more necessary to its recovery) could then be introduced while its former inhabitants languish in refugee camps, or are geographically dispersed. Numbers reduced, they lose political influence in the affected region or control over the land they formally inhabited: we say they've been ethnically cleansed.

Premise #2: Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

Director/screenwriter Cuaron offers an ultra-realistic combat scene in the end, with an extraordinary munitions display. The superior camerawork envelops the viewer in the intense action sequences which are quite horrifying in their realism. Adjusting to the jiggling, hand-held camera was hard at first, until later action scenes where it immerses you into the intense violence.

This week has shown us violence coming from one such refugee camp in Lebanon, which are as I understand it, horrific and violent places not far removed from concentration camps of the Nazi era: except perhaps that the detained have guns. While there may be no genocide by the governments running the camps, the systematic rape of human dignity is a common element.

The treatment of Arabs stands out in Children of Men. We do see a "Allah Akbur" procession of angry Islamists in the movie, who actually carry a French flag in what must be some symbol of cross-channel significance.

The government's treatment of non-British nationals subsists on the premise that one group should be identified and cast out of British society. Muslims are in this respect the Jews of Nazi Europe, as they are easily stereotyped, already disenfranchised and seen as outside the mainstream cultural values of "citizens".

These examples are most troubling when viewed in their historical context: It's the progression that's frightening; what begins as a limited ethnic cleansing devolves into broader killing. "First, they came for the Jews," Pastor Niemoller's saying goes.

Jews were purged at first, with more mainstream sources of resistance targetted for elimination later, after the regime had begun its genocide. Next were the trade unionists, homosexuals, priests, gypsies, mentally ill, not in any particular order, though that too may have been carefully orchestrated in order to reduce discalm that would certainly accompany any ethnic cleansing as the number of persecuted groups expanded to reflect whatever the twisted objective sought through the genocide.

In The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin is driven ever deeper into genocide, thrust onward by his paranoia, which builds during the course of the movie. Towards the climax, Amin is killing entire villages of rival tribes, women and childen too.

There's no denying governments can go to extremes, so the historical precedent is there. Yet it's virtually impossible for a government to kill off vast numbers of people, with a few exceptions, notable in Rwanda and Cambodia--both more primitive societies than ours or England's.

The Nazis rose to power in a German democracy, so the ascent of genocidal regimes is possible in the secular West. But if the Nazis are taken as an example of ruthless efficiency in their genocidal campaign, even they failed to rid themselves of all Jews and they had years to do it. We don't know how long the deportations have been going on in Children of Men.

For the US or Britain to root out their illegals would be a multi-year task, and certainly lack the efficiency of the Nazi death machines. As resistance to the deportation and confinement of immigrants rose, a larger body of persons classified as undesirables or enemies of the state would grow and compound the logistical problems involved in finding and transporting victims, even if ovens were waiting for them.

The instant emptying of Phnom Phen by the Khmer Rouge upon their seizure of that city in 1975 provides an extreme example of instanteous genocide, herding the people out of the city, giving them an hour, as I heard said while I was there. Starvation over the long-term contributed to a large proportion of the fatalities--the re-education camps were mismanaged collectives first and killing fields second; in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, starvation saved a bullet.

Governments are open to extreme measures in an attempt to identify potential counter-revolutionaries. Extremists on the fringe left like Maoists may possess an even more paranoid vision of a new order. As Nicholas Cage says in Merchant of Death, the worst groups were those with the name "Liberation" in their title; these guerillas take their violent solutions with them into government.

Few regimes could commit genocide on a scale of the Khmer Rouge; still the callous objectivity and flippant decision by which boy soldiers determined who of the newly conquered lived and died reminds us of Holocaust movies. In Schindler's List, the Nazi death camp officer played by Ralph Fiennes executes camp prisoners from afar with a sniper rifle--an arbitrary act of execution meant on establishing the alternate reality that all in the camp laboring below must be constantly working, and not idle, which could be result in execution; a twisted code but a code based on logic nonetheless, perverse as it might be.

History has seen constant purges, and we see this behavior worldwide. Western governments have a tradition of leniency on immigration, so the capacity for ethnic cleansing appears quite low.

Premise #3: Government Abuse of Authority

In Children of Men, what begins as a national effort to expel immigrants ends up affecting all, citizen and non-citizen alike, who must contend with the savagery of both pro- and anti-government forces. In other words, no one is safe.

It's not what may happen in the future that makes us fear Children of Men's world, but rather the plausibility of what we already know our governments to be doing.

A Children of Men world is indeed possible, and the War on Terror provides us a present-day bridge into an Orwellian future.

Opposition to torture and the mistreatment of minorities and immigrants stands out in the movie. The abuse of authority has becomes a rationale for violence against government, which perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Early in the movie, we can only guess how badly the State mistreats its citizens. Later, as the plot unfolds we get a fuller picture of an Orwellian state ethnically cleansing its population; we come to doubt that the purge is limited to immigrants.

I suppose this slow parting of the curtains of secrecy is a dramatic device meant to gradually expose the deep and dark functionings of government, only after government extremism is put in context of revoultionary actions taken by anti-government partisans, whose bombings and violence demonstrate inhumanity to their fellow man on a standard of morality no better than the soldiers and police.

Resistance to mistreatment and disenfranchisement is a popular theme for anti-establishment movies, which Children of Men must be considered. It's against the totality of the state's power and the subjugation of the individual to it that the movie viewer must revolt.

State power makes an old familiar target, and anarchist and revolutionary types will certainly revel in the resistance to the imposition of State power upon the individual as it is depicted in the Children of Men. Yet by going into the hearts of partisans, we see no virtue--the self-defined revolutionaries are shown to be power-hungry and vicious, as cold and calculating as the organ of any government body could ever hope to be.

The Terror War has increased the probability of a Children of Men world. Civil liberties have been restricted, wiretapping arbitraily conducted. Perhaps the frightening part isn't necessarily how far our State has become in the measures of totalitarianism, but instead the direction which the war on terror and attack on individual rights are taking us, towards a society ruled by racism, fear, and paranoia.

England has wired its cities with integrated Closed Circuit cameras which undoubtedly fuel fear of a police state. In the US, distinctions between citizens and non-citizen are increasingly ignored in the surveillance society of today. 9/11 became both motive and opportunity to impose restrictions on Constitutional liberties in the name of fighting terror.

Here or in Britain, both nations are headed in a direction where minorities and terrorism suspect have lost legal rights which be a first timid step towards the wholesale dismantling of our legal system.

Bush's use of signing statements, the politicization of the Iraq War, and the continuing illegal eavesdropping have sent obvious signals that the Executive seeks to assert its supremacy. Congress would be turned into a debating society. Our laws have become subject to limitations, exceptions, and circumventions at the whim of the Executive solely responsible for enforcing the law.

Coupled with acts of terrorism, there is a potential for declaration of martial law. Post-Katrina, we've seen a federalization of our states' National Guards and the passage of the Military Commissions Act, which basically codifies the President's right to control any military element in any way he sees fit.

A change in the form of government and complete breakdown in the rule of law has not come. We simply aren't there yet, and the advance of time cannot bring a Children of Men world to us, at least not without more undermining of our legal codes.

Premise #4 - Breakdown in Order; Abuses of Human Dignity

Economic collapse and anarchy are rather ordinary expectations in cataclysmic literature. Advancing to a post-apocalyptic scenario requires breakdowns in law and society, or a precipitating event like terrorism or the ever popular experiment-gone-wrong.

Starting a string of unfortunate events in Children of Men was a global flu pandemic in 2008, an event certainly within the realm of possibility.

Economic woes provide a necessary context for the anarchy that ensues to make the threat credible. To be specific, the threat must be real in the present, and foreseeable in the not too distant future.

Mel Gibson's Mad Max is a good example of a downward spiral from the first movie's simply ineffectual Halls of Justice, introducing the need for vigilanteism, followed by groups fighting over resources for their survival in the second movie. The third, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome issues in an alternate society with rules forged by the brutality of survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

Children of Men lets us imagine the events that led to the genesis of its world, flashes of horrific visions of violence and destruction. Children of Men leaves most of the breakdowns in society to the imagination of the viewer.

I thought back to the "experimental aversion therapy" (imdb.com review) dispensed upon Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell) in Clockwork Orange, whose eyelids are forced apart as he's forced to view for hours on end in a twisted effort to purge young Alex of his inner evil.

Children of Men speaks for the frailty of human dignity. Viewers might be enraged by the treatment of detainees in the movie, which parallels the prisoner abuse at the hands of our government in the War on Terror.

In one scene of overpowering force, a devoutly Christian woman, Miriam, is confronted, then "detained" as their bus passes through security into a refugee camp. The bus stop is a surrealist, Auschwitz-type environment. The scene ends with the bus pulling out as a black sack is cast around Miriam's head.

The cruelty Miriam faces forces reexamination of viewer reactions to the treatment of enemy combatants in Guanatamo and Abu Ghraib.

The movie advocates sympathy for the problem of prisoner abuse here and now, in places like Guantanamo, and with the treatment of terrorism suspects like Jose Padilla.

By thrusting the viewer in a future world of hopelessness, or chaos, and evil, we can better recognize the slippery path which we've taken. Anticipate the evils we could face in the future, encourages actions here and now, and leaves us less inclined to remain detached from our all-too-possible fate.

I would say the movie's purpose is not to show the world as it might be, but rather to warn us what it could become, and show that love for one another can eclipse even the darkest hate that life might bring us.

By showing the depths to which society can depreciate, we feel compelled to take action now, to confront the threat of dehumanizing each other with racism, which is the dark root of ethnic cleansing, a systematic process of depopulating a region based on its ethnic makeup.

Dismantling the Children of Men world before it comes becomes an moral imperative. If we tolerate the rise of an oppressive government, we're collectively guilty--ultimately we will all pay consequences.

In the end, the movie sends morally uplifting messaging in its embrace of hope for the human race, representing the return of child-birth and -rearing to the world. There is hope, even in the depravity of the future world created in Children of Men.

One of my initial reactions to Children of Men was that I should prepare for the worst case scenario laid out in the movie--a sort of reaction similar to that motivating builders of bomb shelters. Yet before too long I realized I couldn't hide from such a world, were it to come true. Who can remain preserved indefinitely in a cocoon of safety when a civilization starts to unravel? No one is safe, not even the Omega Man. We all get bitten.

At a certain point, it matters little to ordinary citizens whether by society had broken down through neglect, Nazi-like totalitarianism or simply fanaticism like that of the Khmer Rouge. Eventually all the citizenry suffers regardless of their status within the State.

The more I thought about the plausibility of massive deportations, the less plausible I imagined the Children of Men to be in the United States, which removed some of the movie's plausibility and thus it's impact. Still, who's to say what's possible, considering the current trend towards government abuse of authority, extralegality, and militarism, which coupled with some economic catastrophe, pandemic, and/or acts of terror could bring such a world much closer.

Other Sources

A 2007 documentary titled "Children of Men; Visions of the Future" is available; I plan to see it as well.


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