I begin work on a paper when I want to explore the text of a film or story, to see what is contained in it and to then unpack that container: to see why someone has put these things into it. My initial interest in "Children of Men" was that it extrapolated some of our current social conditions, and attitudes, into the future. It was grim enough to spur my thoughts and seemed worthy of a detailed inquiry. All of these animals being superimposed into this story is the sort of textual detail that should be examined, not for answers, but for possibilities.
I started with the premise that the film is science fiction, though I found later that this was fatal premise. I began my research with the current issue of Science Fiction Studies. It explores animal studies in literary science fiction. I wanted to see if current SF literary themes were at all relevant to this film. But literary science fiction is often about contact between species - alien or extraterrestrial, but increasingly animals. As Sheryl Vint reviews, current literary interests are human-animal relations: communications, usage in our technological pursuits, including slaughter for use as food, land use and wild life issues, and the status of animals as feeling beings. The question persists of the status of animals in comparison to humans. Vint's summary is a thorough review of the issue's contents.
These ideas represented a wide-ranging discourse on the question of animals and their relation to the human animal. Science fiction is an arena that explores current practices with an eye as to how they may develop in the future. However, these topics fell flat for me when I looked at "Children of Men" through their lens. Other than three scenes that show burning or dead cattle, which could possibly be related to land use issues, none of these themes seemed comelling enough as an explanation for the use of animals in the film. Even the dead cattle scenes seem to be more about the aftermath of human war and medical condition of the land than about the actual animal shown.
The animals are all shown as pets, working in security or on farms - all directly in a relation with humans. Even a zebra and a camel are shown as pets being walked in a park. The only wild animal seen is a deer. It comes out of an abandoned school house. As one instance out of 97, it holds undertones of land use/habitat themes, but I didn't feel it could be used as the main argument. It was one scene only. Perhaps the reasoning for the widespread use of animals in the film is simply to show that wildlife is dependent on a balancing act against humans, a balancing act this film seems to say has tipped irrevocably toward the human side. Is that it?
I moved to sources on animal studies in film analysis. While literature on documentary and real-life nature film is readily available, the use of animals in narrative film is less well-represented. Jonathan Burt's Animals in Film from 2002 appears to be the seminal work. Burt points out that we have an emotional response to animals on film - is there something natural in our reaction to animals, or is the emotional response developed by film technique? Burt explains that the diversity and quantity of animal images in films, and elsewhere, makes it hard to pin down meanings for animal symbols.
He also points out that too often these days, our only knowledge of animals comes from film. There are few wild animals left for us to encounter in reality. Does film contribute to animal loss? Burt sums his book up somewhat by showing that "In film, the animal so often presides over disorder but also in some sense shapes it towards some form of reunion or resolution,..." (Burt, p. 78). In other words, animals are often used as the plot point the film revolves around.
But in "Children of Men", the film does not revolve around the animals shown. They are not focused on. They are marginal, seen quickly before the camera or edit moves us on. Are the animals being filmed to produce a response in us? Certainly the scene in which a kitten trys to climb the protagonist's leg and we get a high close up of it, seems to want to lead us to think the kitten is cute. But, is the importance that animals are dependent on humans? That pets are doing well, but not other animals? Or not us?
And I realized that what I was watching wasn't really science fiction at all. Yes, the social implications of our world in the future were extrapolated in interesting ways. However, the main plot of this film is that humans can no longer reproduce. There are baby kittens and animals shown in almost every scene that don't have the same problem. Possible? Yes. Probable? No. Animals are the first to go. Problems show up in them first. The canary in the coalmine test. So really we are watching a fantasy. As fantasy, it speaks more to what our world is like now than having an interest in the future. The trappings of SF are present, but the heart of the film is in the fantastic.
A big budget fantasy. In Wheeler Winston Dixon's Visions of the Apocalypse, he writes, “In contrast, the paint-by-numbers movies of the majors sell quickly and then burn out, becoming texts without a function. The more bloated the spectacle, the more divorced it is from the culture that created it and the less it has to offer us as scholars and historians.” (p. 117). And in this statement, in which he was suggesting that such films as the low-budget exploitation movies of Troma have more to tell us about our culture than almost any Hollywood product, I seemed to have found my answer. Many films are empty texts.
There is an overwhelming use of the animals, but seemingly no over-arching context for them. They have little function. The text of this film makes animals seem relevant because of the number of scenes they are used in, but in analysis seem devoid of a lot of meaning. If 97 instances of animals are there to tell us that pets and wildlife depend on us, it seems a bit of overkill.
In an essay about the use of the forest in the Fantastic and exactly how that is changing due to the loss of actual forested land, Ruth Padel asks, "So as the woods, fens, and heath which evolved the wildlife of our intense little island turn into fenced-off archipelagos between the suburb and the motorway, what's the state of play with native British wildlife in the new millenium?" She is writing about the British landscape of classic fantasy literature and how it can be seen today. "Children of Men" takes place in just that same landscape.
The deer in the abandoned school house is probably the scene that works the best for the animals in the film. It relates to the history of British fantasy in which wildlife was, as Padel points out, just outside your door. The scene achieves a sense of the fantastic, the one time this big-budget fantasy delivers any hesitation, any sense that what we are seeing is relevant to both us and the film.
We must truly examine what we are seeing. This film fooled me into thinking there was a puzzle at the heart of it, but when its text opened to me, I found a Hollywood fantasy, in which the action and explosions took on a greater meaning, but the issues I believed were there at first dissipated rapidly.
Note: Just as I finished my analysis and research, I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent inquiry into Carl Dreyer's "Day of Wrath". This 1943 film that is filled with text, subtext and possibility of relevant inquiry 65 years later. Check it out.BIBLIOGRAPHY
Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2002.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Visions of the Apocalypse. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.
Mitman, Gregg. Reel Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Padel, Ruth. Into the Woods: On British Forests, Myth and Now. 2000.
Science Fiction Studies March (2008) 35.
Vint, Sherryl. “‘The Animals in That Country’: Science Fiction and Animal Studies” Science Fiction Studies March (2008) 35.
Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2006)