The movie begins with a scene of the main character, Theo, standing on a crowded street in London. As he stops to fix his coffee there is suddenly an explosion a few buildings down, blowing out the wall and sending smoke billowing into the street. People are injured and screaming. The movie title, “Children of Men,” flashes across a black screen.
Cut to Theo passing through a checkpoint to enter his office building in the Ministry of Energy, where everyone is solemn, crying about something that has happened. We learn that Diego Ricardo, the youngest person alive, has just died; he was eighteen years old, and was the last child born before the infertility pandemic that struck humanity. Theo goes to his boss, Mr. Griffiths, and tells him that he has been severely affected by the death of “Baby Diego” and would prefer to finish his day’s work at home.
The scene changes to a television screen on a train showing the destruction and chaos ensuing in different cities around the world, ranging from Washington to Tokyo, Berlin to Kuala Lumpur. The video says “The World Has Collapsed” and “Only Britain Soldiers On.” Theo sits on the train, distractedly leaning against the window, when all of a sudden people outside begin throwing rocks at the train. When Theo gets off the train, he passes a group of these people confined behind a fence with an armed guard. A woman speaks desperately in a different language as he passes.
His friend and drug dealer Jasper, an old man, meets him at the train station and they drive to his house. They muse over who was responsible for the bombing earlier that day. Theo proposes terrorists, but Jasper believes it was the government. As they are driving, a bus full of the people from the train station passes—Jasper announces that they are illegal immigrants, termed “fugees,” being taken to a camp at Bexhill.
As they reach Jasper’s house, which is hidden in the woods, Jasper asks Theo if he has been seeing any girls. Theo says no, not since the last girl he dated, who ended up “renouncing," which means she flagellated herself for the forgiveness of humanity. They reach Jasper’s house, and the first shot of the interior is of a wall full of photos, including an award he received for Political Cartoonist of the Year in 2010 and some news articles about the fertility crisis nearly two decades ago as it had begun to happen and the refugee crisis that has happened since. The last picture is of Janice, Jasper’s wife, who was tortured for her work as a photojournalist. She is still alive, but catatonic. The next scene begins with Theo and Jasper carefully draping Janice’s coat on her shoulders as she stares straight ahead.
Jasper and Theo sit in Jasper’s living room talking about Jasper’s weed dealing. He says most of it goes to Bexhill now. Jasper tells a joke about the Human Project, an alleged organization attempting to find the cure for infertility. Theo says it does not matter, since the world is already ruined anyway.
Theo awakens back in London and walks to work, with a scene of police officers and detained fugees around him as chaos ensues. Shrines have been erected in mourning for Baby Diego. As he is walking, apparent criminals jump him and drag him to a van. They bring him to the headquarters of the “Fishes,” an anti-governmental organization fighting for the proper treatment of refugees. The walls are covered with newspaper clippings describing the terrible things happening in the world. It is revealed that the leader of the Fishes is Julian, Theo’s ex-wife. He is astounded to see her. She says the staged kidnapping was the only way to get to him. She explains that the Fishes are beginning to rally people to their cause. The Fishes need Theo because they need false transit papers for a refugee girl in order to get her to the coast. She tells him to ask his cousin, who has access to these kinds of papers. Theo says it is too dangerous, and she offers him 5,000 pounds, knowing he needs the money. He still refuses, and they blindfold him and take him away so he does not know the location of their hideout. Luke, an important member of the Fishes, gives Theo contact information in case he changes his mind and decides to help them.
Children of Men falls into the dystopian genre, existing in a post-apocalyptic world where some disaster has struck humanity and a new regime has emerged in its wake. A dystopian movie or novel requires two key components. First, a disaster. Second, a new form of governance—typically oppressive—that restricts the main character’s life in some way. In this case, the disaster was the infertility crisis, and the government is a totalitarian parliament that rules by fear and severely restricts the rights of immigrants coming into Britain to escape hardship in a post-apocalyptic world.
Like any movie, the beginning scenes serve to set up the world the audience is immersed in and establish the stakes at hand. One of the primary ways that director Cuarón chooses to do this is through photographs, television segments, and newspaper articles on display throughout many of the first scenes. Newspaper clippings in Jasper’s house explain the infertility crisis, as well as clue us in to the backgrounds of Jasper and Janice. Television segments make it clear that the rest of the world is in chaos. Although Britain is meant to be the last safe place, Cuarón paints London as a frightening, dark city, an eerie convolution of the London that many viewers are familiar with in the present-day. Much of this film's world echoes the world established in arguably the most famous dystopian novel of all time—George Orwell's 1984, which is also set in totalitarian Great Britain.
The choice of disaster is important. Worldwide infertility means that the future of humanity has disappeared. A world without children is automatically dark and uncertain, as the earth lacks the innocence and malleability of childhood that has been responsible for much of human progress. This kind of crisis makes people value youth much more, as evidenced by the public reaction to the death of “Baby Diego,” the eighteen-year-old who was the youngest living person in the world. Aging becomes a frightening thing when no new babies can be born.
This movie makes an intense political statement regarding the global treatment of refugees. In this dystopian universe, Britain badly mistreats its refugees out of fear that they will prove to be terrorists, or else leech off of the nation’s precious resources. Despite the terrible conditions around the world, they make no attempt to humanely accommodate these immigrants, and this is something that the Fishes group pushes against. It parallels the current fear of refugees in the wake of the numerous wars and human rights abuses in the modern-day Middle East, and challenges audiences to think more critically about the way refugees are received around the world.
While there are many intense geopolitical conflicts going on in this movie, at the core of any dystopian story are the characters themselves. Theo is a former activist who has become jaded by the state of his world, simply trying to get through life day by day without pushing against the establishment. His ex-wife Julian, on the other hand, has clearly been busy in the twenty years since their separation, continuing her fight for equal treatment of the fugees. This conflict of lifestyles comes into play at the end of these beginning scenes, when their paths finally cross again and she challenges Theo to help her.