Dystopia is a mirage, hovering forever on the horizon, always just a bit further down the road, seemingly beyond our grasp. It sits both behind us, an interpretation of the horrors of the past, and in front of us, an imagined future where our worst actions bear terrible, unforeseen fruit. Our nightmares are the grist of every art form, from painting to music to literature to theater to film, and artists, often oracles with a profound cultural acuity, use the dystopian mirage as a mirror, reflecting the face of the present and showing us what we might become. Cinema, with its ability to utilize sound and the moving image, is most effective in conveying our fears about what was and what might be, but since the lessons of the past and the limits of the human imagination about what the future holds rarely transcend what we already know about ourselves, we rarely take their lessons seriously. Which is why, when films get it right by making the reflection in the mirage so sharp that we recognize our world in every frame, movies can shake us to our core.
I will admit, this doesn’t happen very often, at least not with the idea of our imagined future. In fact, once you begin to think of films that represent the future, science fiction immediately comes to mind; Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Solaris and A.I., with spacecraft, mysticism, and isolation taking human concern away from a recognizable planet earth and into the life and death stakes to be found adrift and alone in space. For me, most of these films get so lost in the game of predicting a futuristic but plausible technological world that often times, the image of the present is lost in the terrific web of a really good ghosts and gadgets story (and who doesn’t like that?) More interesting to me, however, are the films that show us the dystopian future as a simple reach from the world we already know, where the arc of technological progress feels as natural and evenly-paced as the inevitable decline in social relations. The film that leaps to mind is Michael Haneke’s Time of The Wolf, a future world gone mad with fear of an unnamed plague but where the petty intrigues of pride are as deadly as disease; As refugees gather in an anonymous train depot and await their salvation, the trivial distinctions of nationalism, prejudice and greed overwhelm the collective good. It all leads to a final image of pure ambiguity; We look out the door of a train, moving through the countryside, unsure if it has provided salvation or indifference or something far more sinister. Where are we headed?
The collective self-image found in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men cuts closer to the bone of present-day life than any film in recent memory. Set in 2027 London, the film tells the story of Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist turned drunk who walks away from the horror of a café bombing as if it were simply a not-unexpected inconvenience in his daily routine. After being recruited by his ex-wife, an active revolutionary named Julian (Julianne Moore), to help obtain transport papers for a young woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is looking to leave England, Theo is thrust into the role of savior when Kee reveals she is pregnant. Of course, this is a miracle; No woman has given birth in over eighteen years. As the world seemingly disintegrates outside her borders, England remains true to her nationalistic heart; Immigrants are herded into cages, their suffering literally untranslated, while a fascist military patrols the streets in numbers that seem to exceed the civilian population. As Theo and Kee make their way to the sea and the sanctuary of another revolutionary group called The Human Project, they traverse the scorched landscape (if ever a film deserved an Oscar for location scouting, this is it), meeting up with Theo's old friend Jasper (a terrific Michael Caine) before evading the clutches of both The Fishes (Julian’s revolutionary group) and the fascists who seek them out.
Just Another Day: Theo (Clive Owen) in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men
The film is remarkable for several reasons, but primarily for its fidelity to what feels like the real-life escalation of indifference to the suffering of others; Children of Men is a direct descendant of the Al-Qaeda beheading videos, the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the lingering specter of Abu Ghraib prison. By using long, fluid (and seemingly impossible) shots with a hand held camera, Cuarón infuses the film with the same realism that was popularized in Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, and in many ways, the films feel like rhyming bookends to modern British imperial history. Two sequences stand out as absolute stunners; The attack on the car carrying Theo, Kee and Julain by a group of “woodsmen”, where Cuarón and his incredible cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Terrence Malick’s stunner The New World) redefine the car chase for all time, and a ferocious battle sequence in the streets of an immigrant concentration camp where the idealistic Fishes seek to foment revolution at the potential expense of human existence. Here, as British forces trap the uprising in an old hospital full of immigrant families caught in the crossfire, the film’s nail-biting depiction of urban guerilla warfare recalls everything from Baghdad and Kabul to Newark and Detroit in 1967. Bullets fly, people (almost all of them people of color) are gunned down indiscriminately, and the end feels palpably nigh.
What is most impressive about Cuarón’s vision of the future is how it mixes an analogous vision of ‘homeland security’ and the treatment of immigrants with fictional technologies and landscapes that are not only plausible but represent human regression; The film flatly rejects the idea of human history as progress, showing a future dark age predicated solely on our present day failures. Amazingly, even the technology on display in the film, from flat panel computer monitors delivering televisions signals in the workplace to a three dimensional video game so simple yet engrossing that it renders its player a zombie, seems like it is a baby step from our current environment. In this sense, Children of Men’s greater leaps (universal infertility, an otherwise impossible private art collection) seem contextualized. The world has become impotent and infertile, and ideas whose memetic utility has expired (politics, nationalism) seem to grow in importance as their meanings dissolve and everything falls apart. Sound familiar?
It is impossible to articulate everything the film gets right, which includes its recognition of the hypocrisy of European immigration quotas in a post-colonial world to the absolute decline in empathetic response in the new human relations to its images of indiscriminate individual suffering that seem ripped directly from the 24 hour news channels. The cumulative effect of the film’s vision of ‘stay the course’ is to leave the viewer breathless and awestruck with the pain of self-recognition. Make no mistake; This mirage is a mirror.