Today’s essay is a look at dystopian media and its biblical themes, focusing on the acclaimed 2006 film Children of Men. Our author is Edin Harvey. Here’s a bit about them.
My name is Edin Harvey and I lived in Gisborne until moving to Hawkes Bay for my high school years. I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, conjoint with a Bachelor of Global Studies, majoring in Global Environment & Sustainable Development and Māori. I would love to do postgraduate study once I have finished my Bachelors, and then one day work in an area where I can share interesting issues or ideas with the public, enabling them to be understood in a different light. I loved taking THEOREL 101 because I went in knowing nothing about the Bible, and came out with such an appreciation for it.
Let’s have a look at Edin’s piece.
Dystopian Filmmakers: Our Modern Day Prophets
Widely accessible and mass produced, popular culture is filled with explicit and implicit references to the Bible, modernising its themes, stories and messages. One of the most discreet yet impactful of these references is to the Bible’s apocalyptic literature, in which – before God brings salvation to humanity – common issues affecting the intended audience bring their world closer to its end. References to apocalyptic themes are scattered throughout popular culture and are particularly apparent in dystopian film. In reference to Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian Children of Men, this essay will argue that when modernised to suit the contemporary audience, these apocalyptic themes are used to a similar effect as in the bible. Acting as prophets, dystopian filmmakers address and warn viewers of contemporary problems. Combined with the use of Christian themes and symbols, dystopian films become a subject of both social and theological reflection.
Children of Men, released in 2006, is noted for its biblical symbolism, the most obvious being it’s reference to Psalm 90, which states that “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, return, ye children of men”, referencing God’s greatness and humanities frailty – working to subtly foreshadow the films underlying theme of destruction and salvation. Exploring the contemporary concerns of greed, pollution, and government control, the broadness of this film touches on the environmental, power, and biological genres of apocalypse. Because of its heavy allusions to the bible and its broad apocalyptic themes, this film is an embodiment of the dystopian genre and will therefore be referenced to throughout this argument.
When addressing the contemporary problems which we often disassociate from, dystopian film – in a similar effect to the Bible – uses “the end of the world” to rebuild an emotional connection to the gravity of the issues. In the 21st century, we are taking our environment for granted, transforming it into a conduit for our own self-destruction. Now prominent in our everyday lives, our society is still dissociating from the consequences of this reality. Because of this, environmental depletion has been a common theme throughout contemporary dystopias. By polluting the environment, we offset its balance – its ability to create and sustain life. Reinstating its purpose as a hub of life, the world in Children of Men has begun to rid itself of the cause of its deterioration.
Opening with crowded streets and tuk-tuks, Cuaron establishes us into a community suffering from overpopulation. After learning of their lost ability to conceive children, the human population slowly depleting, we realise that this community is being controlled by the environment they had been abusing. In Genesis’s Noah and The Great Flood, the author explains that the flood was created by God to “put an end to all people, for earth is filled with violence because of them” (Genesis 5:32-10:1 line 13). Similar to this story, capitalist greed and corruption appear to be destroying our environment millennia later. Cuaron alludes to this story throughout his film – with animals walking around in pairs and Theo, who safely delivers Kee to a boat, drawing strong similarities to Noah. Having an environment in which humanity can thrive is indisputably the most critical, undervalued requisite of life. However, even in an age of environmental catastrophe, we find ourselves in disaffiliation with the problem. This film places the deteriorating environment at the top of the hierarchy, proving its power over humanity. Much like biblical apocalyptic literature, dystopian film serves as a wake-up call to an audience, forcing them to connect their actions to their now obvious consequences.
Similar to the Bible, dystopian film utilises apocalyptic themes to establish connections between contemporary issues and their potential consequences, expanding consciousness within their intended audiences. As well as disassociating from the self-inflicted nature of our problems, we tend to put a wall between the actions and consequences of those in charge. A relevant issue of the 21st century is that of excessive government control. Contemporary dystopian films commonly address this issue, connecting it to apocalyptic themes and therefore the collapse of life as we know it. After 9/11, fears around terrorism skyrocketed, putting a lot of pressure on the US government to keep the public safe. Combined with the public’s vulnerability, this resulted in the adoption of bills that – if it were not for a crisis – would never have passed. For example, “uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism” was the US Patriot Act (Public Law 107-56).
By pitching the main protagonists against their government, Children of Men offers the American audience a different lens through which they could view the protective nature of this Act. Throughout this film, Janice is completely catatonic – alive but dead to her surroundings. The explanation of her state, although never outrightly communicated, is implied through a newspaper article entitled “MI6 Denies Involvement in Torture of Photojournalist”. Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, a euphemism for systematic torture, was a practice that emerged from the USA Patriot Act, including methods such as waterboarding or being bound in contorted stress positions. A consequence of this is psychological damage, as the body goes into spasm (BBC News par. 1). This film allows audiences to see the receiving end of this torture, criticising the actions of the film’s government and therefore criticising the actions of their own. By showing a foreign, apocalyptic setting, dystopian films help break down the wall which audiences use to block themselves from connecting their fears to the actions of someone they are supposed to trust. This, therefore, heightens their awareness of social problems much like in biblical apocalyptic literature.
Expanding on this connection between audience consciousness and the more concealed issues in our society, dystopian films take advantage of the foreign setting to explore apocalyptic themes and subsequently convey ideas to an open mind. In post 9/11 US society, fears around security heightened – and although this was stimulated by terror, the backlash from their government gave the public reason to subsequently elevate these concerns. This fear was translated in Children of Men through the alienation of refugees trying to enter London. Refugees were often seen locked up in cages, treated as the scum of society. This was highlighted through the unethical treatment of Theo, an native English male, when he was mistaken for an immigrant and yelled at by a prison guard; “you fucking people [refugees], you disgust me”. As Jasper explains, the refugees “escaped the worst atrocities and on making it to England, our government hunts them down like cockroaches”.
After 9/11, the US government took advantage of their public vulnerability, pitching all immigrants to be the enemy and removing 10.3 million people from the US between 2001 and 2008, which heavily influenced the the view of immigrant in their vulnerable minds. These fears led to another act being uncharacteristically passed, with Homeland Security Bill, allowing “interoperable communications across divisions”. The general public, still vulnerable after the horrors of 9/11, had faith that the government were doing the right thing, however lost an element of their freedom in the process. With their undying trust in their own government, it was difficult for the US public to see that this trust may be detrimental to the very thing they are trusting their government to give them. By criticizing the government in a foreign setting, Alfonso Cuaron was able to show that the public’s undying trust in the government is, ironically, enabling the exploitation of the public’s freedom. Throughout dystopian film, foreign environment are used to translate issues to an open-minded audience, therefore breaking down their barriers and – much like biblical apocalyptic literature – making them more conscious of the issues threatening their humanity.
Drawing further similarities to the Bible, dystopian filmmakers fulfil a prophetic role in society by joining their protagonists to deliver awareness, hope, and solutions to contemporary issues. The exploration of apocalyptic themes expresses the importance of father and hope in maintaining social structure during a crisis. An essential aspect of apocalyptic literature is the idea that, although the world near its end, that faith and hope will conquer, bringing our world back to a position of prosperity. When translated into the contemporary world, the dystopian film can show audiences the importance of this faith and the consequences of lacking in it. Introducing the audience into a world of despair, this film opens with a black screen and news headlines audio, including statements such as “Day 1000 on the Siege of Seattle”. Following this with Theo’s indifferent reaction to a street bombing, we develop the understanding that violence is commonplace in this society. In Children of Men, the public finds it hard to grieve for their dying environment because they are a part of its death, and this inability to mourn has increased violence noticeably. To contrast this hopelessness, Cuaron introduces the pregnant Kee – a symbol of hope. Our introduction to Kee has strong parallels to Mary, mother of Jesus. When he first sees Kee standing, pregnant, in the barn, Theo exclaims ‘Jesus Christ,’ before we hear Kee jokingly suggest that she is still a virgin (Luke 1).
Theo then proceeds to get Kee medical care despite everyone else wanting to hide her. In dystopian films, the main protagonist, whose goal is to bring salvation back to the world, acts as a prophet – teaching the audiences to hold onto their faith and hope. Theo, despite knowing the evil his current government is capable of, has hope for Kee and the future of the world. The dystopian filmmaker, therefore, becomes a prophetic figure in themselves – spreading messages of awareness, action, and faith to the audience through prophetic characters and their corresponding dystopia.
Ultimately, apocalyptic themes are an effective way of addressing issues relevant to the intended audience. When used throughout the Bible, readers are not only made more aware of these issues, but are taught to have faith in God to bring salvation back to earth. Although the concerns addressed throughout the Bible no longer resonate as powerfully with the modern reader, these apocalyptic themes and the lessons they teach are still prevalent in popular culture, particularly the dystopian genre. By addressing these themes in a contemporary way, Dystopian filmmakers can act as a prophetic figure in our community. By drawing on apocalyptic themes, filmmakers show the audience a battle of hope and hopelessness – therefore exploring concerns, heightening consciousness and association, and offering solutions, and therefore acting as a prophetic figure in our community.
All references to the Biblical text are from the King James Version.
BBC Author. “CIA Tactics: What Is Enhanced Interrogation?” BBC News, 10 Dec 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-11723189
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. HarperCollins, 2001. EBSCOhost,
Montevecchio, Caesar A. “Framing Salvation: Biblical Apocalyptic, Cinematic Dystopia, and Contextualizing the Narrative of Salvation.” Journal of Religion & Film, vol. 16, no. 2, 2012, Article 7. University of Nebraska Omaha, https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol16/iss2/7/
The USA Patriot Act: Preserving Life and Liberty: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2001. Internet resource.