This Is the Way the World Endures

Children of Men (2006)

illustration by Tom Ralston

One moment in Children of Men shifts the world on its axis.

To convey the gravity of the situation first requires some context. Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, liberally adapted from P.D. James’s novel of the same name, depicts Earth in 2027. Much has gone wrong—Cuarón’s direction and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s bleak photography clearly intend to convey “post-apocalyptic”—and yet much was already wrong. Closed borders, war zones, anti-immigrant hatred, divisive politics, all just a little further entrenched than they are now. The crucial difference between our present and this future, the tipping point for a world already on the edge, becomes clear quickly, its cause never explained but its symptom ever present. A child has not been born for 18 years. Humanity is dying out.

Perhaps once desperate for a solution, most people have given up on escaping their collective fate: a slow, insignificant ceasing-to-be. A passive misery permeates the world of Children of Men. “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in,” one character remembers later in the film. “Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”

30-something minutes into Children of Men, a woman and a man stand in a barn. The man is Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned and despairing Brit. The woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), is a refugee barely older than a teenager. In the dim light of the barn, amid lowing cattle, Kee unbuttons her dress. Theo, stepping forward to keep her from doing something she’ll regret, stops in confusion and awe. Time slows. For several seconds, Cuarón keeps the camera on Theo, lingering in the liminal space between question and answer, despair and hope. Then, he turns his lens to Kee, her hands supporting her swelling stomach. And the world shifts.


On its surface, Children of Men appears to be about an evolutionary threat. But the film is not primarily concerned with the propagation of the human race in quite so literal a sense. By its end, physical survival seems somewhat beside the point. The specifics of the plot only matter for what they enable Children of Men to say on a broader scale about what it means to live—in a transcendent sense, not a purely biological one—in a world increasingly characterized by death.

A planet balancing on the brink of destruction, however imminent or distant, feels more familiar than it once might have—whether it be the slow extinction of humanity in Cuarón’s 2027 or the perpetual pandemic cycles and climate decay of our 2022. We’ve become accustomed to living as if we’re dying.

But to embrace cynicism (or, alternately, naive optimism) requires a certain willful myopia. We forget those things for which we have responsibility, and we too tightly grip those over which we have no control. In reality, our existence is more of a perpetual push and pull between joy and sorrow, creation and destruction, despair and hope.

Children of Men inherently understands this. Cuarón constructs a dystopia rife with evil (caged refugees, bleeding civilians, police brutality, rampant poverty) and yet somehow dappled, however infrequently, with good (gentle care for an ailing spouse, a bright peal of laughter, hands outstretched towards new life). The film recognizes that evil is often enormous, entrenched in systems of power, provoking wars and death. Good can seem small and insignificant by comparison. In a world like this, despair is an understandable and automatic response. Pursuing good anyway, however small, becomes a deliberate choice.

Children of Men is about hope lost. But it’s also about hope willfully recovered.


Cuarón and Timothy J. Sexton’s screenplay introduces Theo as “a veteran of hopelessness.” The war-torn world of Children of Men exists in the aftermath of many things—the final birth of a child, the collapse of nearly every civilization (“Only Britain soldiers on!” proclaims a television advertisement that plays on Theo’s bus route). But it’s the defeat of hope that’s perhaps its most palpable and recurring loss, a sequence that plays out again and again throughout: safety turning to danger, trust to betrayal, life to death.

Children of Men opens with a news report that Baby Diego, the world’s youngest person at 18 years old, has been murdered after refusing to sign an autograph. Stunned citizens gape up at a television through tears; Theo’s colleagues stop their work to sob into crumpled tissues. The faith they placed in Diego as a symbol, the one remaining link to a more hopeful past, has died with him. Grief stops them in their tracks. Theo seems to be the only person in Britain unaffected on such a morning. “He gave up before the world did,” the screenplay’s description tells us. He’s used to it all, we assume.

Our first glimpse of Theo comes as he pushes his way through the dumbstruck crowd of shoppers-turned-mourners, more interested in procuring a coffee than in grieving the death of the youngest person in the world. On the surface, his hopelessness reads as apathy. From his tangled hair and five o’clock shadow to the slump of his shoulders under a soot-gray coat, Theo’s practiced indifference hangs on him like the smell of cigarette smoke. It proves to be an act of self-preservation. On a literal level, it means that he doesn’t linger to watch the news as it breaks, inadvertently finding his way out of the coffee shop mere moments before a terrorist’s bomb detonates inside. On a more figurative level, it allows him to keep at bay certain crushing emotions he’s buried for the better part of two decades.

Just before the explosion, Theo stands on the sidewalk and pours alcohol into the morning coffee he’s just bought. It’s the first indication that his apathy may be a more manufactured numbness. This hopelessness is not innate, but rather the pendulum swing of someone who’s embraced the opposite and come to regret it. Theo has learned that grief is more painful than despair.


The world in 2027 requires context to understand its politics, its social structures, and its scientific crisis. In an interview after the film’s release, Cuarón asserted, “There’s a kind of cinema I detest…a cinema that is about exposition and explanations…a medium for lazy readers.” Thus, the world-building of Children of Men takes place just as much in the background as in the foreground, more subtle than blatant. Cuarón doesn’t manage to avoid clunkier exposition entirely; in one instance, as their car passes a bus full of prisoners, Theo’s hippie friend Jasper (Michael Caine) describes the “Fugees,” illegal immigrants whom the government ‘hunts down like cockroaches’ and puts in camps. It’s one part of Children of Men’s setting that should require less description, if only because of how familiar it already is.

But mostly, Cuarón creates his world in gradations of exposition, through background detail and snippets of dialogue. Automated announcements on public transport and scrolling messages on video billboards declare: “Avoiding fertility tests is a crime.” A television ad with the tagline “You Decide When” promotes Quietus, an assisted suicide drug that’s less a solution to mass depression and more a way to control the end of a life, since the decision to begin one no longer exists.

Details of Theo’s life come in similar fragments. A photo in Jasper’s home of Theo with a woman and child suggests he wasn’t always this alone. When he’s briefly kidnapped by that same woman (Julianne Moore), we learn that her name is Julian, that she leads an undercover pro-immigrant group known as the Fishes, and that she’s Theo’s ex-wife. She needs his help to provide secret transport to the coast for a Fugee—Kee. There, a group called the Human Project will take Kee to safety aboard a boat named the Tomorrow. Julian and Theo argue obliquely (“I never understood how you got over it so quickly,” he says; “You don’t have a monopoly on suffering!” she lobs back), and yet she knows that Theo will agree to the mission, which he does. (“Why me?” “I trust you.”)

These vague bits of conversation only hint at Theo’s past. It isn’t until later that the complete picture forms. Julian and Theo embark on their journey with Kee, accompanied by her midwife, Miriam (Pam Ferris), and one of the Fishes, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They’ve barely begun when a gang ambushes their car, shooting and killing Julian in the process. It’s one more instance of a motif that will follow Theo throughout the film: once he begins to rely on someone else, he loses them. Death is relentless in this dystopian world, and yet it eventually causes Theo to grow as he learns to live alongside it. Over time, it forces him to recover some sense of trust in himself, and to discover some purpose beyond himself. Theo has been struggling to find something worth living for; Julian, and later Jasper, then Miriam, have found something worth dying for.

After escaping the gang’s attack, the remaining group makes it to the Fishes’ hideout. There, Theo learns two things: first, that Kee is pregnant, and second, that the Fishes planned Julian’s death. They have no intention of bringing Kee to the Human Project; instead, they hope to use her baby for their own political advantage. In the middle of the night, Theo makes the decision to take Kee the rest of the way to the coast himself. They escape with Miriam to Jasper’s home.

Finally, in this temporary refuge, we learn the root cause of Theo’s hopelessness. When Theo leaves the room for a moment, Jasper tells the story to Kee and Miriam. “Everything is a mythical, cosmic battle between faith and chance,” he begins. “Julian and Theo met among a million protestors in a rally by chance…They wanted to change the world, and their faith kept them together. But by chance, Dylan was born…their faith put in praxis.” From the kitchen, Theo overhears as Jasper goes on to describe Dylan’s death during a flu pandemic. In the 19 years since, Theo’s heartbreak over the loss of his son has withered into passivity and despair.

When Theo agrees to bring Kee to the Tomorrow himself, he presumably does so for multiple reasons. Knowing what he knows, he can’t possibly go back to the monotony of his life. He must go into hiding; the Fishes want him dead with or without Kee. And he understands that if Kee and her baby fall into the wrong hands, they’ll be fought over as a means to power, leading only to further conflict and destruction.

But Theo decides to make Kee’s journey his own for reasons far more personal. The event that acts as a catalyst for Theo’s hopelessness is not dissimilar to the ongoing catastrophe causing that same despair in the surrounding world. The loss of a child that was. The loss of children that never were. Theo’s grief runs parallel to the world’s. It only makes sense that his eventual attempt to heal the latter—by safeguarding Kee and her baby—could perhaps mend the former as well.


Dystopian cinema as a genre lends itself to creative latitude. A filmmaker can create a world that retains the markers of our own while operating as an almost entirely different setting. The phosphorescent oranges, blues, and purples of Blade Runner 2049; the burnt, sweeping desert of Mad Max: Fury Road; the eerie green cyberspace of The Matrix—in a way, these reimaginings of Earth are effective because of their open-endedness, a million possible futures for our planet. But they also create a comfortable distance from the perilous future, one that Children of Men does not afford us.

Instead, Cuarón doubles down on realism. Lubezki’s cinematography paints most often in the grainy gray-ish blue of a perpetually foggy London day, lit with the occasional sickly greenish-yellow. There’s no neon glow from ubiquitous screens; Earth in 2027 is markedly low-tech. The blame for this dystopia rests squarely on human shoulders. Cuarón’s emphasis on realism influences the way his camera moves: he adopts a cinéma vérité style, reliant on handheld cameras and long takes, forgoing stylized violence for more naturalistic depictions of human suffering.

Yet amid the gritty realism, there exists a pervasive sense of something quietly transcendent, painted in light but ever-present brushstrokes. An ordinary holiness permeates Children of Men. The film is rife with Biblical allusions and imagery. In one poignant instance, a screaming woman cradling the body of her dead son by the side of the road becomes a secular Pietà, the grief of this unnamed woman dignified and made holy by such a comparison.

The most obvious spiritual metaphor of the film revolves around Kee and her child. Children of Men as a whole can be interpreted as a modern Nativity story. Kee reveals her pregnancy to Theo in a barn, and later, when he asks who the father is, she jokes that she’s a virgin. (The actual answer: “Fuck knows!”) When Kee gives birth in a refugee camp, the only source of light is a lantern placed by her stomach, bathing her newborn daughter in a makeshift halo. Holiness inhabits these images in Children of Men because of, and not in spite of, their utter humanity. Each death becomes worthy of grief, and each life worthy of saving.

For the most part, such moments go unnoticed or unremarked upon by those within the film, with one vital exception. As Theo and Kee attempt to escape a decaying apartment building on the edge of the refugee camp, the baby’s cries alert those nearby to her existence. Crowds of people line the hallways, extending their hands in awe, hoping to touch even something as small as the child’s foot. Outside, the sounds of explosions become muffled. Soldiers entering the building yell for gunfire to stop. Several of them cross themselves and kneel. For several hallowed minutes, a transcendent peace permeates this war-torn world.

And then, after Theo, Kee, and her baby have barely passed by, fighting resumes as quickly as it ceased. Cuarón offers no easy answers, no quick solutions. We’d be naive to think that a world like ours can be saved in one fell swoop. Children of Men rests in the liminal space of the not yet.


While researching Children of Men for this essay, a detail I’d never noticed on any previous viewing caught my eye. Although I believed that I’d seen the film in its entirety, I’d never watched through to the very end of the credits, and so had missed entirely the last visual Cuarón leaves with his audience. After every credit has been listed, after the myriad logos of producers and distributors, the final five seconds of Children of Men are devoted to a simple prayer fonted onscreen: “Shantih Shantih Shantih.”

It’s a phrase spoken by characters several times throughout the film—by Jasper as he proclaims that Kee’s unborn child is a miracle (a birth, a beginning), and by Miriam as with blood-soaked hands she lays a cloth over Julian’s lifeless body (a death, an end). Religiously, “Shantih” or “Shanti” are Hindu prayers spoken at the beginning or end of an Upanishad; literarily, Cuarón’s usage references the closing lines of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 modernist poem “The Waste Land.” In both cases, the words request, invoke, bless, implore, speak into being “peace…peace…peace.”

In her book T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief, scholar Cleo McNelly Kearns asserts that, whether comprising the last lines of an Upanishad or Eliot’s work, “as a closing prayer, shantih makes of what comes before it a communal as well as a private utterance.” There are moments when the intertwining of what’s private and what’s shared seems like the only way forward—individuals coming together for a common cause, to whisper a common prayer, to soothe different wounds that have caused the same kind of pain. Only by embracing a purpose larger than himself does Theo begin to be lifted out of his own hopelessness. The birth of Kee’s daughter will never fully restore the life of his son. But it’s the beginning of recovery, of healing, and of hope.

As they get closer to the coast and the waiting ship of the Human Project, Theo’s complacency, hesitancy, and fear wick away. He exudes calm stability when helping to deliver Kee’s baby. He shields her and her child with his body during bombings. In one of the film’s most notable long takes, a six-minute continuous shot through a war zone, Theo dodges explosions and sprays of bullets to find Kee after they become separated. Each step becomes a refusal to turn back to despair.

As Theo and Kee sit in a rowboat awaiting the arrival of the Tomorrow, the promised ship that will take them to safety, her child begins to cry. Theo shows her how to lift the baby to her shoulder and tap it on the back ever so gently, advice that he himself put into practice 20 years ago. They sit facing each other, Kee’s arms wrapped around the bundle swaddled next to her heart, Theo’s arms making the same shape around the empty space next to his. Here, Cuarón makes the implicit explicit. “Dylan,” Kee says. “I’ll call my baby Dylan. It’s a girl’s name, too.”

As Theo finally succumbs to wounds sustained during their journey, the Tomorrow appears out of the fog on the horizon. Waiting in the rowboat, Kee begins to sing the first lullaby the world has heard in 18 years.


In her analysis of the last lines of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Kearns continues: “[The Shantih ending] revises the whole poem from a statement of modern malaise into a sacred and prophetic discourse.” By choosing to conclude his film in the same way, Cuarón sanctifies the story that he’s told. Children of Men becomes a prophesy. Like other post-apocalyptic films, it predicts a dystopia of our own making, one marred by death and decay, xenophobia and hatred, selfishness and distrust. But it does not leave us there. Although it does not and cannot completely repair those wrongs within its narrative, Children of Men instead prophesies renewal. It envisions a future world, one that may not ever be completely healed but one where recovery (both personal and communal) and life (both individual and collective) are possible, often through the most unlikely of means. With its closing “Shantih,” the entirety of Children of Men becomes a prayer of sorts—that life may grow from nothingness, that peace may emerge from the ruins of conflict, and that hope as fragile as a baby’s cry may endure just a little while longer.

“All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.”

—T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets