- Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Future in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men
Ethics are the aesthetics of the future.—V. I. Lenin1
What is that sound high in the airMurmur of maternal lamentationWho are those hooded hordes swarmingOver endless plains, stumbling in cracked earthRinged by the flat horizon onlyWhat is the city over the mountainsCracks and reforms and bursts in the violet airFalling towersJerusalem Athens AlexandriaVienna London—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land2
The DVD release of Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006) may herald the first global blockbuster marketed as a teaching text. Both the director's statements in interviews for the popular press and the DVD's extra features offering commentary and analysis from Slavoj Žižek, Naomi Klein, Tzvetan Todorov, Fabrizio Eva, Saskia Sassen, John Gray, and James Lovelock suggest a film ready-made for cultural studies analysis. Moreover, the film, with its numerous allusions to contemporary geopolitics and dense network of [End Page 212] high-culture and popular cultural citations, offers a doubly coded model of this type of analysis, combining an ideological critique of post-9/11 global politics with a meditation on cinematic aesthetics and their interpretation. As this essay will elaborate, Cuarón's film organizes its generic take on the dystopian science fiction film—responding in particular to the strain that Fred Glass conceptualizes as the "New Bad Future Film"3—through a critical reading of the themes and referential aesthetics of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Expanding on the diverse interpenetrations of the film's ideological and aesthetic critiques, I argue that Cuarón's film provides a compelling response to the aphorism attributed to Lenin: that ethics are the aesthetics of the future.
"I will show you fear in a handful of dust":4 Visualizing the Dystopian Present
The movie is loosely adapted from P. D. James's novel Children of Men (1992), which, according to the author, sprang from the question "If there were no future, how would we behave?"5 The film, which links its vision of the future to contemporary political, economic, and environmental concerns that did not yet exist when James wrote her novel, intimates that we would behave very badly indeed; Cuarón portrays a dreary future after the nuclear and environmental destruction of the entire world outside of England. Public service announcements and news programs provide much of the expository information, so that the viewer's knowledge of the dystopian world of Children of Men is delineated by what appears via its omnipresent audiovisual media. As co-viewers (along with the film's characters) of the various audiovisual stimuli that saturate the film's mise-en-scène, we are drawn into the dystopian world envisioned, so that our own perspective on events resembles that of the characters. This self-reflexive emphasis on media and representation can be related to the director's overarching concern with the politics of the present and how they inform the way we imagine the future.
Children of Men opens with a black screen while a series of voices belonging to television announcers recite the day's lead stories: "The Homeland Security Bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue." Whereas most viewers will be prepared for a sci-fi film set in a future United Kingdom, the mention of the term "Homeland Security" in this opening sequence actually links the narrative on several levels to the sociopolitical reality of the [End Page 213] present-day United States. The establishing shot that emerges from the initial blackness is a coffee shop interior in which a transfixed public gazes at a television monitor off-screen; thus, as the film opens we view another audience who, at the same time, watches another screen. In this way, Cuarón establishes a formal parallel between the fictional world of the diegesis and the real world of the spectator while emphasizing the omnipresence of the media in the global age.
The film's opening introduces the central thematic and structural elements that form the entire...