The final disease: infertility in ‘Children of Men’

In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) the ailment that has struck humanity is infertility. For eighteen years, no babies have been born on the planet, which has led to the breakdown of societies across the world. Britain has reverted back to using World War 2-style propaganda to stress its superior ability to deal with the crisis over the rest of the world. But it deals with it by interning all immigrants in camps and by offering legal suicide pills to the elderly. In the midst of this journalist Theo is approached by his ex-partner Jules, now leader of the rebellious ‘Fishes’, and asked to smuggle something very valuable to the coast: the girl Kee, who is pregnant.
The dystopian background is established in the opening scenes of the film. Theo enters a London coffee shop to get a take-away coffee. On the TV in the shop the news announces that the youngest person on the planet, 18-year-old ‘Baby’ Diego, has been killed. The crowd in the shop are crying. Theo walks out and puts his coffee on a nearby electricity box to stir in his sugar. Then the coffee shop he has just exited explodes. Although this explosion is referenced later in the film (it was orchestrated by the Fishes), it is not treated as the extraordinary event that it would be in the ‘normal’ world. (Re-watching Children of Men in 2016, after recent terrorist attacks, makes it resonate in new and different ways.) When Theo asks his boss for permission to work from home later that day, he uses Baby Diego’s death as a pretext, and not his near-death experience. Equally, later on in the film Theo gets kidnapped off a London street by the Fishes, and later dropped back again. Neither instance appears to even raise an eyebrow of passers-by.

CoM_cafe explosionFig. 1: A café which Theo has just exited blows up

CoM_Jasper's houseFig 2: Jasper’s house in the woods

In this sense, Children of Men follows a well-established dystopian trope of equating the city with degeneration. This cliché is in the first instance strengthened when Theo visits his friend Jasper, an old political activist and hippy who lives out in the woods in a ramshackle building where he grows his own weed. Jasper’s house is a sanctuary where Theo can speak freely. The countryside appears relatively untouched by the ravages that have hit the city, and Theo’s cynicism is juxtaposed with Jasper’s optimism. But this division gets blurred as the film progresses, when Theo’s attempts to save Kee lead the Fishes (who turn out to be ‘baddies’ after all) to Jasper’s house, where they execute the old activist.

CoM_Jasper's executionFig 3: The Fishes kill Jasper

And of course the infertility exists in the countryside as much as it does in the city. Choosing infertility as the ‘disease’ inflicted on mankind, rather than a bacteria or viruses, allows the characters and audiences to speculate what humans have done to bring this upon themselves. The disease is a ceasing of bodily functions, not an external invasion that humankind has to fight. Although it is not revealed what the cause of the infertility is, characters drop some clues throughout the film that allow for a reconstruction of events. The film is set in 2027. Baby Diego dies at 18 years old, so the last babies were born in 2009. Miriam, Kee’s midwife, tells Theo that the infertility started by pregnant women having miscarriages, which occurred earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, until it became apparent that no new pregnancies were registered. Theo and Jules haven’t seen each other for twenty years. Jasper reveals that the couple had a baby, Dylan, who died in the 2007 flu pandemic. From these facts we can gather that the infertility was preceded by at least one pandemic of a viral disease, and that when the infertility set in it was a gradual process. It was not a divine judgement meted out to the masses (although there are plenty of religious groups in the periphery that take the infertility to be God’s punishment), but rather a halting development that took time to really take hold.

CoM_TomorrowFig 4: The ‘Tomorrow’ arrives to bring Kee and her baby to safety

But what caused it? And why is Kee able to get pregnant? The story wisely does not answer these questions. It is self-aware in its positioning of Kee, who jokes about being the virgin immaculate. In fact, she slept around and does not know who the father is. This leaves open the possibility that the issue is with the male half of the population, echoing noughties fears about mobile phones in tight trouser pockets. The end of the film cannot help but echo religious sentiments, with the baby being hailed as a source of purity and goodness, and with the saving ship ‘Tomorrow’ advancing through the fog. But is Kee’s baby the Salvation of humankind and the start of a new generation, or is it just a one-off medical incident?

Dirt and Humanity in Elysium

In the 2013 science-fiction film Elysium (Neill Blomkamp), which is set in the year 2154, the action takes place in two distinctly different built environments, one on Earth and one in space. On Earth, we are in Los Angeles, which has turned into a vast, poverty-stricken city, with a Spanish-English bilingual population which is kept in order by a robot police force. Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have moved to space, to a space station called Elysium, where life is idyllic and immortality is an option. The main plot of the film hinges around a body-scanner capable of curing all injuries and diseases, and thus extending human life. These are only available in Elysium, and the main plot of the film concerns Max, a LA inhabitant who receives a fatal dose of radiation, after which he attempts to reach Elysium to be cured.
Rather than exploring the overtly political message of the film, I would like to turn my attention to a representational aspect of the urban environment that is perhaps less obvious to the viewer: the depiction of dirt throughout the film.

Elysium1

Nineteenth-century literary representations of modern cities had a tendency to use the underground world as a metaphor for poverty, dirt and the lowlife. [1] In Elysium, the underground/overground juxtaposition has been replaced with Earth/space. At no point in the film does the action take place underground; instead, the planet’s surface has become the space equated with the lowest life-forms. It is no coincidence that this future Los Angeles is also littered with dirt. Every street-shot shows plastic bags, empty bottles and other debris on the ground. Elysium, by contrast, is spotlessly clean. In our Western culture, what we perceive as dirt has long been seen as something that should be avoided.

Elysium2

At the same time, it is an inevitable by-product of human life. Elysium’s clinical cleanliness feels cold. The environment is reflected in the characters of the humans that live there: they, too, are cold and impersonal. When some of Earth’s ill and injured inhabitants attempt to reach Elysium in a guerrilla ship, Secretary Delacourt kills them all, seemingly without any emotion or moral qualms. By contrast, human relationships in Los Angeles are shown to be more meaningful: Max’s neighbour and friend Julio helps him after he has become ill, and there is the possibility of romance with Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey.

Elysium3

Elysium shows a dystopian future: one where technological advancement has taken a bad turn, but where there is still hope for humanity to triumph. Thomas Moylen explains that a ‘typical dystopian conflict’ is ‘between the established order and the potential dissident.’[2] In the case of Elysium, the conflict is also between cleanliness and dirt. When Max and the other ‘Earthlings’ reach Elysium, they bring their dirt with them. When a group of ill and injured people try to land in Elysium in a guerrilla spaceship, shots inside the spaceship show rubbish floating around in the zero-gravity environment. When one of the guerrilla spaceships crashes on Elysium, it creates rubble and disorder. Yet this dirt is necessary for humanity to outstrip the cold order of Elysium. Although dirt is never explicitly referred to in Elysium, it’s representation at the edges of the frame subtly reinforces the ideology of the film.

[1] Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen, 1986, as quoted in Campkin, Ben and Rosie Cox, Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, p. 64.
[2] Moylen, Thomas, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Oxford: Westview Press, 2000, p. 112. 

Shackleton in the City: Exploring Disused Urban Space

Last month saw the release of Mad Max: Fury Road – a remake of the cult seventies blockbuster [1] featuring a post-apocalyptic, dystopian desert landscape. Cinema has always had a love affair with the end times, with cities turned into dust. And in this particular incarnation, dystopian imaginings meet the classic Hollywood road movie. In a sense, such films invite us to explore the ruins of our contemporary culture, sandblasted by time (and the set designers). They invite us to explore our fallen cities.
Myths of lost cities are certainly nothing new; the story of Atlantis is curiously perennial and has captured the imagination of explorers, filmmakers, and students of literature alike. The tree of life is deciduous – and we seem to enjoy revelling in the ephemeral nature of our urban structures, the transience of life in the spaces of the city. Perhaps there is something forbidden about watching the end. Do we relish imagining the passing of social structures and spaces that constrain us? The myriad reasons for this ultimately morbid fascination are beyond the scope of this piece. What is interesting to observe, however, is one particular recent expression of this obsession with fallen cities: Urban Exploration (rather wonderfully termed ‘Reality Hacking’ by one website[2]), the practice of visiting, and documenting on social media and online forums, the skeletal remains of urban structures, fallen into disrepair not in bygone millennia, but in more recent years and in some cases months; a kind of archaeology of the now. One such forum is called (demonstrating the link between fallen cities and cinema) 28 Days Later – Urban Exploration. The website can be found here: http://www.28dayslater.co.uk.  The site’s subpages collect thousands of images, videos, and other ephemera, all documenting (sometimes mapping) abandoned buildings in cities around the UK. The most striking categories include ‘Cinemas and Theatres’, ‘Asylums’, and a page named, rather tantalisingly, ‘Underground’.
The site self-effacingly informs visitors that it is ‘a meeting-place for like-minded people’ [3] keen to share their experiences of urban space. Yet, what is really being created here is an exhaustive atlas of the re-appropriation of disused city space – usually where the state or industry has pulled out, and people have been drawn in, like animals returning to a once polluted area. The website is careful not to condone illegal or dangerous behaviour. And rightly so. However, while the practice of exploring structures that have been abandoned (usually with good reason) is undoubtedly risky, these urban explorers are taking part in the philosophically commendable exercise of urban renewal – in its most literal sense. By exploring disused city spaces, they are making the city anew. Historically, explorers, usually in the pay of the sovereign or head of state, have visited uncharted territories and produced maps, making the unknown familiar. The urban explorer has a related but inverted role: she submits the familiar forms of the city to an anthropological, documenting gaze that renders them alien and unknown.
Like nature photographers, these new explorers keep records of buildings, focusing on those on the brink of extinction. Such online visual documents of endangered architectural species are a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps one day, society will thank these Shackletons of the city for their annotated digital notebooks on our ephemeral urban ecosystem.

[1] There were three Mad Max films made between 1979 and 1985. The first film was released in 1979.
[2] http://www.forbidden-places.net/, accessed 01/06/15
[3] http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/, accessed 01/06/15

The Science Fiction of Researching the City

Once a day in Dark City, the location of the eponymous science-fiction film (2008), aliens reorganise by force of their minds the physical reality of the urban space. Equally arbitrarily, they rearrange the urbanites’ memories. The cityscape functions, as one character terms it, as an “experiment” to study the essence of being human. The aliens’ method of “research” contrasts with how urban history scholars approach the city. Researchers do not arbitrarily change space but search in the space they find for influences and effects of urban conditions. The built environment and the recurring flows passing through it matter the way they have taken shape in time, representation, experience, and memory. Haphazard reconfigurations of that environment would deny researchers the opportunity to identify coherent meaning in the spaces we live in. Nevertheless, the aliens-cum-researchers’ mental freedom to create alternative urban scenarios is thought-provoking. When exploring city structures, a little bit of alternative thinking might enrich our reflection on our scientific research of the facts. What if a specific urban structure was different? What if this structure did not exist? The probing “if” might broaden our ideas of what difference the existing structures might make, enticing us to search the archives for causes, consequences, and correlations out of the box of what we have hitherto found. We cannot study that which is not, but a small mind game might inspire us to research unconsidered facets of that which is.