How is the Message of “Children of Men” Conveyed Through the Film’s Religious Subtext?

The Bible contains countless stories about people needing salvation—Noah and the Flood, Moses freeing the Jews, Jesus unburdening humanity of its sins. In Children of Men (2006), directed by Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaròn (Gravity), the world requires redemption yet again, as women have become infertile and society is run by a dour end-of-days totalitarian regime. Adapted from the P.D. James novel, Children of Men uses religious references to emphasize the near-divine effort needed to save earth’s population from extinction.

In several translations of Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books in the Old Testament featuring a tone of daunting skepticism, humanity is referred to as “sons of men.” With its title, Children of Men alludes to both that tone of futility (Ecclesiastes repeats the famous statement that “all is vanity”) and the relationship of men to their humanity and future generations, hinting that men and their policies are to blame for the barren wasteland that is Earth 2027. As Ecclesiastes 9:3 states, “the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” When each person in Children of Men dies, the human race inches closer to obliteration. With the resulting societal unrest in this future world, a religious cult called the “Renouncers” comes into prominence, flagellating themselves for the curse of infertility set upon them by a God apparently filled with Old Testament-style anger.

In another bible-influenced motif, the film is littered with animals acting as substitute children and companions, whose presence in this near-apocalyptic context alludes to the Genesis story of Noah and the Great Flood. The animal motif also serves to suggest a near-equivalence between men and beasts. As the author of Ecclesiastes writes, “the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same: as one dies, so dies the other, for all is vanity.” As humanity faces its extinction through climate change, so do animals, and in this view of skepticism and futitlity, there seems ultimately to be no difference between man and animal.

In the midst of this bleak dystopia, former political activist Theo (Clive Owen) has become cynical and apathetic. Theo, whose name comes from Greek for “relating to God or deities,” seems the antithesis of his name when we first meet him. He is weak and feeble, cringing and fleeing from violence, cowering when captured, running clumsily in flip-flops. But as the film unfolds, he finds redemption and strength when tasked with transporting a young pregnant woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey)—whose name alludes to the fact that she is the key to humanity’s survival—away from the city and to a safe ship, dubbed, aptly, “Tomorrow.” When Theo asks who is the father of Kee’s child, she at first kids that she is a virgin, but then answers that she isn’t sure who the father is. While this is a reference to promiscuity, it also recalls the non-earthly fatherhood of Jesus. In this scenario, Theo plays the protecting Joseph to Kee’s Mary, with that unborn child being a new Jesus, the savior of the human race.

As he takes custody of Kee, Theo sees her pregnancy as a miracle and an emblem for hope in humanity’s future. In assisting in the birth of her child, Theo becomes a man of God in ensuring the continuation of the human race. Shifting from Old Testament-style skepticism to New Testament-style optimism, Theo reaches a pinnacle of Christ-like divinity when he sacrifices himself in order to keep Kee and her newborn baby safe on the way to Tomorrow. In this cinematic journey laden with religious texts and subtext, Theo becomes the son of man who makes sure that there will continue to be children of men on earth.