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It’s time to revisit Children of Men, whose near-future British dystopia feels achingly close

One of the best of its genre, the movie has lessons for us in tumultuous times.

Clive Owen in Children of Men
Clive Owen in Children of Men
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for June 24 to 30 is Children of Men (2006), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Health care legislation dominated the news in the US this week, but another country’s struggles kept surfacing as well: those of Great Britain, which has weathered several terrorist attacks and a startling election with big implications in the past month. The latest terror attack happened just after midnight on Monday in North London’s Finsbury Park, when a man drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians leaving a mosque.

Amid an overall atmosphere of uncertainty, Queen Elizabeth delivered the speech that customarily opens the parliamentary year, outlining the laws that the government hopes to have approved by Parliament during its upcoming session — especially important after an election.

This year, the Queen’s Speech was held on June 21 under the shadow of Britain’s upcoming Brexit negotiations, which seems fitting: It took place two days before the one-year anniversary of the June 23, 2016, Brexit vote, and two days after Brexit negotiations — which will have a huge effect on the country as well as the European and world economies — actually began on June 19. And in a not unheard-of but still unusual move, the Queen’s Speech in 2018 has already been canceled to allow members of Parliament more time to deal with Brexit laws.

It’s a bit hard to believe that the Brexit vote was only a year ago, given how much seems to have changed in the world since then. Things are not nearly as bad as they could be, of course, and the British in particular are known for their plucky ability to “keep calm and carry on.”

The world of Children of Men
The world of Children of Men.

Yet there’s probably a reason so many of the world’s great dystopian novels come from British writers: Brave New World, Memoirs of a Survivor, High-Rise, That Hideous Strength, A Clockwork Orange, Love Among the Ruins, 1984. Something deep in the collective and composed British psyche seems capable of dreaming up unending variations on the end of the world as we know it — usually with strong class-based overtones.

One of the finest examples of this “skill” is the 2006 film Children of Men, which passed its 10-year anniversary last year. Based on P.D. James’s 1992 novel (though arguably an improvement on it), the movie is set in 2027, 18 years after the world’s last child was born. Clive Owen plays a man who finds himself at the center of a risky and dangerous plan to save a child who could in turn save the world.

Reviewing the film after its release, Roger Ebert marveled at its believable vision of a bleak future in which terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and wars have left Britain as one of the only semi-habitable places on Earth, held together by a police state; immigrants are flooding into the country, which is overstuffed already.

“Are we living in the last good times?” Ebert wondered.

And his answer holds an important lesson for us all: that how we act today has everything to do with whether there are still good times ahead. “Here is certainly a world ending not with a bang but a whimper, and the film serves as a cautionary warning,” Ebert concluded. “The only thing we will have to fear in the future, we learn, is the past itself. Our past. Ourselves.”

The London in Children of Men is still in the future, but the film forecasts that future for just 10 years from now, 2027. And though we’ve escaped some of its nightmare — children are still being born, thankfully — many of its other elements feel chillingly real, not just in England but in many other countries.

Dystopian films are never really about the future, though: They’re always about the world today. Children of Men places its jaded protagonist in a situation that seems hopeless and challenges him to develop compassion and courage nonetheless. That’s a story and an exhortation as old as time itself. Now seems like a great time revisit it.

Watch the trailer for Children of Men:

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