The future is sci-fi: Children of Men's depiction of marginalised refugees is cautionary tale for our times

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 01, 2020 09:12:16 IST

As we embark on a new decade, how do visions of the 2020s — imagined in books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, films like Soylent Green, or even manga like Ghost in the Shell —match up against our reality? In this series, we look at seven pop culture artefacts from the past that foretold the future, providing a prophetic glimpse of the decade we’re now entering.

Words by Prahlad Srihari | Art by Trisha Bose and Sharath Ravishankar | Concept by Rohini Nair and Harsh Pareek


Borders will remain closed.

The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue.

Police put mosques under surveillance.

Gatherings are forbidden.

These headlines have been picked out from the newspapers and broadcasts of 2027 London in Children of Men, but they very well could have been picked out from today's newspapers and broadcasts in countries around the world. Rooted in contemporary political and social horrors, Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 adaptation of the PD James novel has thus proved to be frighteningly prescient.

Cuaron's dystopian London is a city that has become a boiling pot of tension, pollution and oppression. Xenophobic rhetoric has become common, sowing fear and distrust of migrants. Refugees escaping civil war, violence and hunger are hunted down and caged like animals in internment camps. Subjected to mass surveillance, people protest through graffiti and guerrilla warfare. To make matters worse, we've also become a childless civilisation, making society turn on itself and leaving humanity hovering on the brink of extinction. It is hard to imagine a world without the laughter and joy of children, a world where children may never carry our hopes for a brighter tomorrow and our dreams of a better future.

After 18 years of worldwide infertility, a young refugee named Kee (Clara Hope-Ashitay) becomes miraculously pregnant, carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire civilisation. Theo (Clive Owen), an activist-turned-alcoholic bureaucrat, is entrusted to smuggle her out of the country in a race against time to rendezvous with a secretive fertility research collective called The Human Project. Cuaron plunges you right into this dystopia plagued by disease, insurgency and anti-immigrant violence with the documentary realism of war reporting. Using uninterrupted long takes, he allows the tension to simmer, turning the audience into not just observers but active participants in the film’s stunningly choreographed action sequences.

 The future is sci-fi: Children of Mens depiction of marginalised refugees is cautionary tale for our times

Children of Men makes for an especially vital cautionary lesson in these times. Illustration by Sharath Ravishankar/Firstpost

Of course, overpopulation is a bigger concern than global infertility in most countries. But it's the film's message about the marginalisation of minorities (ethnic, racial or religious) and migrants that rings the loudest. Consider the humanitarian crisis in Syria as waves of refugees make the most perilous journeys to find salvation in Europe. Consider the indoctrination of Uighur Muslims in China's Xinjiang or the US detention of undocumented immigrants in Ursula. All these migrants seek is a better life for their families, but even the so-called democracies which promise freedom and equality, treat them like scum, similar to the fate of the refugees in Children of Men. As Michael Caine's hippie baba in the film notes, "Poor 'fugees. After escaping the worst atrocities, and making it all the way to England, our government hunts them down like cockroaches.”

Brexit was fuelled by the same anti-immigration sentiment as conservative politicians turned immigrants into convenient scapegoats to blame all of Britain's economic troubles. The rhetoric is almost the same everywhere, even if it's never true: "Migrants accept jobs for lower wages and increase unemployment among existing citizens." "Migrants exploit social welfare programmes to which they will never contribute." "Migrants bring rape, pillage and violence to peaceful, charitable Christian countries." "Migrants import and impose their culture and religion to an extent where countries lose their identity."

Children of Men also makes for an especially vital cautionary lesson at a time when nationalist parties have capitalised on the fear, resentment and even insidious racism against the minorities. If the detention camps evoke images of history's darkest moments from Auschwitz to Guantanamo Bay, Theo's initial indifference towards the atrocities being committed in his own city, offer a lesson on how we got there. The opening scenes give us news reports of an endless siege and a society descended into violence and chaos. We also see a crowd of customers in a coffee shop glued to the TV as they watch a news broadcast about the death of Baby Diego, the youngest person on the planet. Some hide their tears, some grieve openly but they're all heartbroken, except Theo. He pushes past the crowd, grabs his coffee and makes his way out, unaffected by the news and seemingly unconcerned about the world around him. It is only when his own life is at stake as he escorts Kee through the dangers of war-torn England, he begins to empathise with the situation of those marginalised.

It was this political indifference of military men, civil servants, and even the public (ignorant or well-informed), which allowed the escalating anti-Jewish measures of Nazi Germany to culminate in genocide. There are no innocent bystanders in state-sponsored mass murder. When the government is implementing anti-minority measures as part of an intensifying campaign against them, there is no time for political apathy. There is no room for neutrality in Trump’s Muslim registry or Modi's NRC. Even if you're part of the privileged class, it is essential to participate in the democratic process because you're part of the system that elected them in the first place. So, don't be a bystander to marginalisation. Children of Men has already become a reality in many countries — it should not be allowed to become a global phenomenon.

Also read — The transhumanism of Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

Read our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2020 01:03:23 IST