Malaise amidst the thrum of modernity in Children of Men
Children of Men starts out with a BANG.
Down-in-the-dumps, deep-in-his-cups Theo, played by Clive Owen, ducks into a crowded coffee shop in a bustling section of London where it just so happens no one is drinking coffee.
All eyes are glued instead to the television, where a news bulletin reveals over a cacophony of gasps and sobs that the youngest man in the world has just died. Completely unmoved by this development, Theo wedges his way through the thrum, gets his drink, and heads back outside so he can pour some liquor into it.
Then, a bomb goes off.
But just before it does, we’re treated to the view, shown in the above photo, of one of the world’s great cities. Only, something seems off. This is 2027, right? Yet what is so unsettling about the street scene is that it didn’t look at all out of place in 2006, the year the film was released.
A double-decker bus, that bastion of British iconography, motors past. The ads on its sides are moving, which always puts me in mind of UEFA Champions League soccer games from just a decade or so ago. The ads on the billboards ringing the stadium grounds didn’t move then. They’ve since been digitized, of course, but the on-pitch product looks remarkably similar.
I remember watching some of the extra features on the Children of Men DVD I rushed out to purchase a month or so after seeing it in theaters, so forceful had my reaction to the film been, and listening intently to some of the observations of its on-the-cusp-of-apocalypse setting. So beaten down had humanity become by the fertility crisis—no babies for years—that they had lost the will to forge ahead.
We grow up on the notion that the true test of a man (or woman!) is what kind of world he (or she!) leaves for those who will come after him (or her!). But if there’s no guarantee of humanity’s survival, well, what’s the point? You can see where the malaise would start creeping in.
We live in an age of mass technology, which our descendants will look back and marvel upon, kind of like John Lithgow in Interstellar, regaling to Matthew McConaughey that when he was a boy, which must have been around the early 21st century, “It seemed like they invented something new every day.”
The never-ending pursuit of that perfect technological fix seems to grant meaning to the many techies out there, but the question remains, what does it do for us common folk? As continues to be seen in society, will there be a stark divide between the technology made available to those with means and the rest of us?
We are treated to endless showcases and expositions which tout the latest app to our coveted smartphones. We’re going to Mars, we’re revolutionizing the way you live, eat, think, dream, whatever. But whatever the great leaps forward that are being made—there’s an old wives’ tale that any “new” technology released to the public was actually developed a couple decades beforehand—what we seem to be saddled with most is increasingly invasive distraction. New new new. Sale. Sale. Sale. Always rhyming with Don’t. Miss. Out.
Most often this worms its way into our lives insidiously, through pings on those phones, or a box that can do everything for you, sounds which have trained us to drop everything we’re doing and scan the notification on our home screen. Attention spans be damned. Reflection? Pfft. If something happens, and you don’t tweet about it immediately, your reaction will get lost in the shuffle. I mean, there’s millions of other people out there clamoring for the same crumbs of simulated attention!
This has only increased this past year, when we’ve been told to sit inside our homes and wait until it’s safe to return to life outside—a life that, we are assured, will have become New Normalized. Speaking of insidious.
It’s hard to think we haven’t been building toward this point. Sometimes it seems as if technology has been turbo-charged in the past decade or so to take society to this very point. It wants people glued to screens, shirking off the noisome aspects of civic duty, blowing off friends and family, utterly convinced that an atomized individual can remain happy, and autonomous! by his (or her!) lonesome. There’s always that YouTube video to keep us company. Check Instagram for the latest batch of likes.
Meanwhile, fertility rates plummet, mental health problems skyrocket, largely due to this atomization stemming from the misguided belief that it is through our individual agency that we realize our truest selves. Naturally, this runs counter to every fiber of our evolutionary programming, which screams for us to be social.
If this is all that we have to be grateful for from technology—staving off misery—then was it really worth it?
This terrifying question is highlighted amidst the torpor and solipsistic bent that pervades Children of Men. What happens when a civilization, undone by fatigue in the present, begins to turn in on itself like a collapsing star? What happens when it forgets how to build, explore, create? And no, a new food delivery app doesn’t count.
It comes in line with something Marc Andreessen wrote within the first month of COVID craziness last year. Rather than wallow in fear and doubt, why not look to the future with hope? Is there anything more revolutionary than that?
And this means deviating from the carefully chosen scripts handed out by our rulers about what we are allowed to be excited about. What if we hearkened back to the tried and true? What if we made buildings so geometrically thrilling that, like Chartres Cathedral, they made the soul leap?
It is of a line with one of the most ancient preoccupations that has saddled humanity, probably since we developed consciousness. The Greeks certainly pored over it. What is the good life?
Is it becoming inundated by technology—which strangely seems to make us thinner, undone by what we see around us—to the point that we’re like Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Conformist, watching with horror as that epic swirl of dancers begins to coil around him like a snake’s death grip?
What if we struck out and started looking forward to what’s ahead. Untethered from whether it’s politically acceptable. Sure of what is most important—that it’s right.