Reel Science: Children of Men

The science behind an Oscar-nominated film.

Children of Men, starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore (above), depicts a bleak future where women stop having babies.
By | Posted February 21, 2007
Posted in: Physical Science Blog
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Reel Science: Children of Men

The end of the world has never looked as disturbingly familiar as in Children of Men, a dark science fiction film that tells us more about the present than the future. All that we know – both onscreen and off – is that women all across the world suddenly and mysteriously stopped having babies.

That Al Gore film may have pegged a more realistic threat to the future of humanity, but Children of Men isn’t really concerned about how infertility will end the collective human race. Instead, the film focuses on the reaction of individuals and societies to the unexpected reproductive crisis. Can humanity rise to the challenge, just as we may be called to rise to the challenge of climate change facing us today?

Not really, as it turns out in this case. Countries have been nuked, governments have collapsed, and societies have descended into chaos. Only Great Britain remains as a functioning but authoritarian society that must deal with waves of desperate refugees from the rest of the world. The unhappy result, as it unfolds in Alfonso Cuaron’s grimy but arresting vision, is people treating other people badly with depressing familiarity.

You could spend time imagining how such a catastrophe came about in the first place – perhaps a silent pandemic resulting from a new natural strain of some virus, or a manmade event – without improving your understanding or appreciation of the film. But given the premise that infertility has stricken the world, the film is chillingly plausible in showing how events would unfold.

It’s possible to piece together the back story from hints in the film. Hospitals started noticing more and more pregnant women having miscarriages. Around that point, women simply stopped becoming pregnant. No doubt couples continued to lavish money on fertility treatments – desperate to share in that most basic experience of creating a child – as they do today in supporting a $3 billion fertility industry. Eventually they would have realized that nothing was working.

Infertility has a wide variety of causes, and in 10% of cases there is no known cause. Scientists would have scrambled for answers and solutions, but without success. There would be no test tube babies or reproductive cloning (assuming scientists were able to manage that) if women were unable to carry babies to term. Assuming there wasn’t something wrong with the original act of conception, only artificial wombs might have offered some hope, if they existed by then.

So there were no more babies being born, and humankind was eventually headed for extinction. Some viewers may still scoff at the world’s slide into chaos. After all, there are many people, single or childless, who currently live happy and productive lives without children.

But consider this. The idea of having and caring for children is a fundamental aspect of practically every human culture. Many people still see children as an essential part of marriage and family. Even people without children enjoy their company. The inability to have children, not to mention the knowledge that the biological clock on humankind was ticking, would be devastating for many people.

On a more practical note, the economic and societal impact of having no children would be even more powerful. The fertility industry would collapse, although some on the fringe might continue to peddle “miracle” treatments. Birth control products would become a sad joke. The countless baby products, ranging from booties to strollers, would gather dust.

There is a reason that raising children is expensive – both parents and their growing children are high-spending consumers. With no new babies being born, pediatricians, child psychologists and a host of other healthcare workers would eventually find themselves out of work. As the existing children aged, daycares, kindergartens and grade schools would close. Everyone in the entertainment industry, whether toy manufacturers, booksellers, videogame makers, music labels, or television and Hollywood producers, would watch their best customers vanish. Consumption of everything from cars to electronics would drop.

And that’s just in industrialized countries. The impact would be worse in developing countries where children are often a critical source of help to the family at relatively early ages. For many working parents, having children is their only hope of raising their living standards, and is a source of insurance that they will be taken care of in their old age. The economic impact would be coupled with a rising wave of anger, grief, and despair.

By the time Children of Men begins, the youngest person alive on Earth is already eighteen years old. Eventually the world would inevitably be facing an aging workforce crisis that would make the social security problem look miniscule.

But the economic and social instability has already taken its toll in the film, lending to political strife both within and among countries that would have contributed to the collapse of order. Previously existing international problems and disagreements would have been magnified. The infertility crisis itself could have been a spark leading to conspiracy theories and conflict. But let’s face it, many countries wouldn’t need the excuse.

This is all just the background for the main events in Children of Men, yet the general plausibility may serve to remind us that we are only one major crisis away from a bleak future indeed. Ultimately, the film showcases both the best and worst of humanity coming out in the twilight years. We as viewers can only hope to prevent such a scenario in the first place.

Children of Men is nominated for three Oscars.

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