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A Future's History:  'Children of Men' + other sci-fi narratives

CHILDREN OF MEN- tomorrow.jpg

“…The great discovery of the modern historical sensibility [is] that the past, the various pasts, are culturally original, and radically distinct from our own experience of the object world of the present, […a] bourgeois cultural revolution.”[1]

Alleged pictures of a “real” future, Science Fictions are in fact the contrary: inspired constructs of a future world’s own distant past, cloaking a present moment’s private and public fantasies with a blanket of collective memory.  And so, it is not a projection of an imagined future reality, but, rather, a coalesced vision of a future’s history that is informed by the current social and political relations of society. It is a vision contingent to our own understanding of present, and is therefore only possible as an appendage to this contemporary moment— a moment that is ever changing. Hence, in this impotency to truly forecast our future, these representations of it are really an embodiment of our desires, and in turn, our incapacity to do so; they are vacuous predictions that, by their psychic insolvency, “become unexpectedly transformed into a contemplation of our own absolute limits.”[2]

In essence, these representations are crystallizations of the illusive present, a time difficult to apprehend by its very proximity and immense dynamism. And so, exploring the genre’s manifestations of that reality is an endeavor offering a unique study of our own social, ideological, and personal containment: a coded state of being working in reciprocity to those other entities (other individuals, groups, objects, systems, etc).  The environment of the Science Fiction narrative is, thus, a valuable venue in which these relations can be distilled. For they permit a contemplation of that which eludes us, “a paradox call[ed] anamorphisis. If [one] look[s] at the thing too directly, the oppressive, social dimension, you don’t see it. You see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background.” [3]

The film, Children of Men, is an example of such a case. While the surface offers a tale of a reluctant anti-hero-figure turned hero who becomes involved in a story of drama and action, the background is the true focus of the film; the core of the film is about the current moment. While projecting a future society, 20 years from the present, the film’s environment is really a reflection of today: a society in the grips of late-capitalism, whose hungry drive works to manipulate various relations in order to maintain consumption, and more, to maintain control. So one does not find super-technical examples of spaceships and other glossy markers of material progress, but rather a world much like our own. Only this world is a super reality of our own reality that highlights its absurdity. The choice of this method of representation is highly intentional. Alfonso Cuarón, the film’s director, says on this point, “I don’t want imagination, I want references and [to know] why that reference [reflects] today’s human perception of reality. So I [tried] to actually absorb iconography that has been engraved in human consciousness, and that iconography comes from newsreels and media and to create that sense of recognition.”[4] Hence, Cuarón hopes to avoid distraction by an exotic future, an act of transportation from the hard-present, so that the viewer is not alienated from a perception of today.

As mentioned above, that today is a society immersed in the desperate ideology of late-capitalism— a society without history. Capitalism demands a new sense of temporality, it “demands a memory of qualitative social change, a concrete vision of the past which we may expect to find completed by that far more abstract and empty conception of some future terminus which we sometimes call ‘progress’.”[5] This ideology, in other words, forces a radical divorce from a meaningful past in order to sell the line of progress, a line mandating exponential consumption of the “new”— a “new” that is ever illusive and distant so that we are always looking forward, left unfulfilled, yet wanting more. In essence, it is a loss of historical dimension, a loss of substance. The film negotiates a locus about this despair, a despair formed by the lack of a meaningful historical experience.

And so, the solution of this fable is more than a boat of salvation. The Tomorrow, the ship giving vehicle to the dream offered by the Human Project, does signify hope, it does give that glimpse of a positive possibility.  And yet, its metaphor offers much more.  For as Slavoj Zizek remarks, the boat has not roots, it freely floats upon the sea; the solution of the boat is that “the condition of the renewal means you cut your roots.”[6] In other words, to free oneself from the empty decadence and blind progress of late-capitalism, we must reconsider that history, a history informed by a fugacious sensibility that escapes any formation or substance of meaning. That is the site of infertility, and that is what must be severed.

The boat then, is a metaphor that can transcend this particular narration. For as science fiction negotiates the parameters of what is distilled from the contemporary moment, the boat suggests a freedom from that limitation. It is a reality undefined, yet is a marker of that impetus to escape a determination offered by late-capitalism. In George Pal’s The Time Machine, for example, George Wells’ sled-like vehicle enables him to travel through time, into the future, so that he may escape the violence and wars of his time. But what is significant, is that it is the very state and ideology of capitalism that commands these wars to continue. Wells’ ship, then, is like the rootless boat which offers a disengagement from that predicated reality.

In George Lucas’s THX 1138, it is the evacuation, the outside, which matches the boat as allegory. For, in order to abscond the robotic chains of that dystopic underground, (an environment of conformity, of constant surveillance, of demanding production that is the idyllic substrate for a proliferation of Industry— capitalism’s assiduous sister), THX 1138 must scale the dark tunnels to find the free world outside. Like Children of Men, the ending is left open, and yet, the solution of renewal is a detachment from one’s “roots;” a rupture from that, literal, subterranean dimension.

To continue, this theme is echoed in Michael Anderson’s 1976 film, Logan’s Run. The solution is a severance from that false utopia: a domed society where social organization is framed by restriction, offering only a life of containment, where both dissent and, indeed, acquiescence, are faced with a fate of annihilation. Ironically, the renewal is a refusal of the fallacious “Renewal” offered by the Carousel, and through Logan and Jessica’s attempt to reach “Sanctuary” (a term so reminiscent to the hope offered by the Tomorrow and the Human Project) they are able to discover that the supposed unsafe, unfiltered, uninhabitable “outside” is actually the site of humanity. Nullified by false commandments and narcotic pleasures, their society prevented a life of true meaning and substance from being actualized; like the Tomorrow, they find renewal in a divorcement from that history.

More and more analogies can be made to the similar solutions posed in Science Fiction narratives. For, like in Children of Men, the realism, the representationality of Science Fiction is to restructure our relationship to the present. These films, using strategies of distraction and displacement, let us “break through our monadic insulation and [so] to ‘experience,’ for the first and real time, [the] present:”[7]a contemporary condition of “psychic dissociation” created by the capitalistic ideology. Each film is enveloped by this condition and is colored by their respective “present.” In so doing, the themes are quite congruous. And so, the desperate posture of Children of Men, a situation inflicted with infertility, is more than just a dystopic projection. It is a diagnosis that is recurrent. The true infertility is that very lack of meaningful historical experience, a humanity deprived.  Immersed in daily pleasures, passive reception and active consumption, we are in a state of numbness, empty of true affect and connection to the world and to the subjects within it.

This is the future’s past from which we all seek refuge on Tomorrow.



[1] Fredric Jameson, “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and other Science Fictions” (Verso, 2005): 284.

[2] Ibid: 289.

[3] An interview with Slavoj Zizek in the bonus features of the Children of Men DVD : “Children of Men: Comments by Slavoj Zizek” dir. Alfonso Cuarón, perf. Clive Owen, Julian Moore, and Michael Caine, DVD, Universal, 2007.

[4] Jason Guerrasio,  “A New Humanity,” Filmmaker Magazine, 22 Dec. 2006, 1 Nov. 2008 <>

[5] Fredrik Jameson: 284.

[6] Interview with Slavoj Zizek as cited above (see footnote 3)

[7] Fredrik Jameson: 287.