Alfonso Cuarón Wanted To Avoid High-Tech, Futuristic Production Design For Children Of Men

We are now only four years out from 2027, the year when Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian action thriller "Children of Men" is set. While there's no sign of endemic infertility (knock on wood), our own present is, unfortunately, not far off from the future the film presented.

In "Children of Men," world governments have started to break down as panic in the last generation takes hold — a shot showing flames and a marching mob in the streets of Washington D.C. is uncomfortably prescient. Only the United Kingdom "soldiers on," but it has become an authoritarian, nationalist state.

The streets are filled with trash and lined with cages housing refugees. The scariest part is how this world doesn't look like a distant future, but merely a worse version of the present. When our reluctant hero Theo Faron (Clive Owen) rides a commuting train, it resembles one you could take in England today. Aside from the barred windows to guard against invaders.

While "Children of Men" is classified as science fiction — it's one of the best efforts in that genre — you can walk away without thinking so since it looks down to Earth. The production design is far more naturalistic than say, "Blade Runner" or "Mad Max." That's because Cuarón knew the film would hit harder if its world looked familiar.

Reference, not imagination

"Children of Men" is adapted from a 1992 novel by P.D. James; Alfonso Cuarón's movie was released 14 years later in 2006. In the book, the setting is 2021, 29 years into the future from the time of its release. In the movie, the dystopian future is only 21 years out from the release date.

Speaking to ComingSoon shortly before the film's wide U.S. release in late 2006, Cuarón was asked if the timeline was adjusted to avoid the film looking like "Minority Report," with "supersonic cars, special effects, and crazy architecture." Cuarón confirmed that wasn't the type of movie he wanted to make, to his art department's chagrin. He added:

"They undusted all the old rejections from science fiction movies they had done, they were so excited to do this movie that took place in the future. They started showing me all these amazing things. Supersonic cars, buildings, gadgets and stuff and I was like, 'You guys this is brilliant, but this is not the movie we're doing. The movie we are doing is this,' and I brought in my files. It was about Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Chernobyl and I said this is the movie we are doing. The rule I set is this movie is not about imagination, it is about reference."

Aesthetic informs theme

When discussing his aesthetic influences, Alfonso Cuarón brings up Iraq first. "Children of Men" was produced and released in the early years of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. His choice to make his film resemble the war-torn parts of our world reflects on the movie's message and the journey of Theo's character.

At the beginning of the film, Theo is complacent. Now, he doesn't exactly have much to lose, with no family or beliefs sustaining him. He's a British citizen and holds a job in the state's bureaucracy, making him one of the most comfortable people on Earth by default. In the aforementioned scene where he's riding a train, he pointedly keeps his head down as refugees throw bottles at the train window.

Theo's arc is about breaking out of his complacency, to stop ignoring the world's descent into hell. He begins to wake up once he discovers that the refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is pregnant and may be able to save humanity from extinction. By helping shepherd Kee to safety, Theo finally starts to act in something besides self-interest.

When you live in a position of privilege, it's easy to become apathetic. Cuarón shakes his audience out of that by placing them in Theo's shoes and bringing them into a world that's unrecognizable yet still clearly ours.