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'Children of Men' at 15: How the sci-fi thriller foresaw a dark future

Alfonso Cuarón imagined a future devastated by terrorism, xenophobia and a mysterious public health crisis. "It's timeless, unfortunately," one screenwriter said.
Image: 'Children of Men' at 15
Adrian Lam / NBC News

When the dystopian drama "Children of Men" hit theaters 15 years ago, screenwriter David Arata saw the movie as a warning about the future. The film, released five years after 9/11, imagined a crumbling society shocked by terrorism, ravaged by war, gripped by xenophobia and stained by human rights abuses.

But audiences at the time largely stayed away. The movie was a box-office flop when it arrived in American multiplexes on Christmas Day.

Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men" nonetheless amassed a cult following of admirers who consider it one of the most eerily prescient sci-fi films of the last quarter-century, forecasting some of the cultural anxieties that defined the Obama era, the Trump presidency and now the coronavirus pandemic.

Arata and other key collaborators who spoke to NBC News said they never expected that their grim and despairing movie would feel just as powerful — and maybe even more resonant — in the Covid-weary summer of 2021.

"We thought it was a cautionary tale," said Arata, one of five credited screenwriters who contributed to the script. "But now, I would think the [contemporary] audience is going, 'It's not a cautionary tale. It's happening in the U.S.'"

"Children of Men" is set in London in 2027, after nearly two decades of geopolitical chaos, economic depression, rising inequality, anti-immigrant hysteria and ecological decay. The United Kingdom is a decrepit police state: the government hunts down refugees, imprisons migrants in cages, seals off borders.

The most urgent crisis, however, happens to be an inexplicable, no-end-in-sight public health calamity: mass infertility. The human race is on the brink of extinction.

Clive Owen stars as Theo, a jaded civil servant and former progressive activist who lost his son to a 2008 flu pandemic and then separated from his wife (Julianne Moore). But he is thrust into the role of reluctant protagonist when he meets a Black asylum-seeker named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who has somehow become pregnant.

The way "Children of Men" reflects reality has evolved and expanded every few years, shape-shifting to match the moment. But on each leg in its trip through the zeitgeist, it has mirrored the world with "brutal clarity," said Mark Fergus, who co-wrote early drafts of the script with his creative partner Hawk Ostby.

In the era of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, Cuarón's vision of an England shattered by terrorism felt close to home. The film opens with a ghastly bombing at a London café. The scenes inside detention centers resemble images from Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Arata said the war on terror was on his mind as he made his contributions to the script. But he felt the critique of the political status quo could not afford to be too on the nose.

"You want to bury the politics so you're not preaching to the converted," Arata said.

In the final years of Barack Obama's and David Cameron's tenures, "Children of Men" seemed especially prophetic. The humanitarian disaster of the European migrant crisis created a political domino effect as anti-immigrant fervor partly led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

In the wake of Trump's election, it was briefly fashionable for left-leaning dissenters to liken the rise of a reality TV president to Mike Judge's raunchy satire "Idiocracy," another DVD-powered cult picture released just a few months before Cuarón's.

However, "Children of Men," with its look at how us-versus-them tribalism can sour souls, might have more accurately suited the national mood as the former president waged what progressives saw as an assault on immigrants.

The movie took on even greater resonance first when Covid-19 spread across the globe and most recently when headlines about declining birth rates made the rounds, intensifying uncertainty about human destiny. Theo, facing a world brought to its knees by a mysterious pandemic, finds it difficult to picture the future — and maybe you do, too.

Fergus reflected on questions that were on his mind when he co-wrote the script and that linger even today as the world tries to recover from the devastation of Covid-19: "What happens to the human soul when hope is removed and the possibility of the future of a species is taken away? Can we live with dignity knowing that hope is gone?"

'Singular vision'

Marc Abraham does not consider himself a "giant sci-fi guy." He remembers being entranced by Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," yet as a film producer in the early 2000s, he was mostly drawn to other genres.

But when Abraham read P.D. James' novel "The Children of Men" in the late 1990s, he saw the potential for a bold production. The book was dense, Abraham recalled in an interview, but with the right script, it could be turned into accessible entertainment. He just needed a director with a "singular vision."

In the summer of 2001, Abraham saw the steamy road drama "Y tu mamá también" at an art-house theater in Los Angeles. Abraham and two of his fellow producers, Eric Newman and Hilary Shor, later came to believe the film's director was just the person to adapt James' novel.

But first, Alfonso Cuarón needed to go off and oversee a massive blockbuster, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," released in 2004. Abraham felt certain they had lost Cuarón, who they assumed would be enticed to direct other high-profile projects.

"But sure enough," Abraham recalled, "Alfonso came back after he did this huge movie and said, 'I want to do 'Children of Men' as my next project.'" (Cuarón was not available for an interview with NBC News.)

Image:  Director Alfonso Cuaron, Clive Owen, Julianne Moore on set
Alfonso Cuarón, Clive Owen and Julianne Moore on the set.Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

Fergus and Ostby, in their early drafts, were initially vexed by the question of how to turn James' novel, first published in 1992, into a kinetic narrative. The novel was a Christian fable about faith and loss, and it lacked some of the fast-moving plot mechanics of a Hollywood spectacle.

They eventually hit on the "spine" of the script, imagining the storyline as a dystopian spin on the "Casablanca" formula: "We realized it's about a scarred hero who used to be a revolutionary and then lost so much that he's become walking scar tissue," Fergus said.

"That's how we pitched it to executives, and all of a sudden they could imagine it as a movie. It wasn't some arid, chilly, British exploration of abstract philosophy," Fergus said. "It was 'Casablanca' — emotional and thrilling."

Cuarón, in his own work on the script with Timothy J. Sexton, reshaped the narrative and significantly ramped up the focus on fearful immigrants, war-torn refugees ("fugees," in the movie's parlance) and other casualties of his dystopian England's nativism, according to Abraham.

"The social and political issues became more powerful under Alfonso's guidance," Abraham said, adding that the director was especially inspired by the Italian Algerian neo-realism landmark "The Battle of Algiers."

The film's virtuosic visual style is as much a part of its legacy as its themes.

Cuarón and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki crafted bravura sequences: a single-take bloody ambush inside a moving car, a seamlessly edited eight-minute gun battle in a war zone. The movie is laced with visual allusions to literature and music, from the poetry of T.S. Eliot to Pink Floyd's "Pigs."

More than fifteen years after the production, Abraham still marvels at "the visceral quality of the filmmaking, the documentary feel, the way you're thrown into it." He remains just as impressed by the depiction of a future that avoided sci-fi gimmicks (flying cars!) and stayed earthbound.

"The future looks like our reality, just more decayed," Abraham said.

When the film arrived in select U.S. theaters on Dec. 25, 2006, audiences did not turn out en masse.

"The studio didn't know what to do with it, but I don't blame them," Abraham said. "It's a very unconventional film." (The movie was distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of NBC News' parent company, NBCUniversal.)

"Children of Men" was praised by critics but grossed around $70 million worldwide — not enough to break even on its $76 million budget. It earned three Academy Awards nominations — for adapted screenplay, cinematography and editing — but walked away empty-handed.

Cuarón, for his part, took a hiatus from directing feature films before returning to multiplexes with the space spectacle "Gravity" (2013), followed another several years later by "Roma" (2018), a black-and-white love letter to Mexico City distributed by Netflix.

But like many science-fiction classics of the past, "Children of Men" has enjoyed a healthy afterlife among audiences and cultural critics — first on DVD, then on Blu-ray and most recently on streaming services, consistently ranking among the most popular titles of the 2000s on the social network Letterboxd.

"The movie's following, like 'Blade Runner,' has only gotten stronger," Fergus said. "It's timeless, unfortunately."