Mini-post: Animals in “Children of Men”
As part of the (now indefinitely canceled) Philosophy at the Movies series I run at my institution I showed the phenomenal 2006 Cuarón movie Children of Men (based on the P.D. James novel “The Children of Men”). It’s a great movie that touches on a lot of different topics, but one thing that struck me on this re-viewing was the overwhelming presence of animals in the film.
We see this not only in the number of animals that people keep around (Jasper’s dog, the cows at the farm, the animals kept in the refugee cities, the zebras in the London palaces, etc.) but also in the number of dead animals that we see (e.g. burned horse carcasses in the fields). I think there are only a few scenes in which there are no animals around. It’s obvious that these were explicitly put in the movie on purpose (after all, one doesn’t just “accidentally” put a zebra in one’s film). But why are they in there? What are the writers and directors trying to tell us?
I have two theories. The first is that we're being reminded that even in a world without children, we don't lose the instinct to take care of other living beings. However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that the presence of these animals is in a world in which people don't care about other people. One might very reasonably wonder what good it is to remind us that we'll still be inclined to take care of goats, sheep, and dogs in context in which we put foreigners in concentration camps and murder our comrades in cold blood. In this light, it seems that the presence of animals in the film is just a way to highlight a tragic quirk of human psychology.
This might be correct, but I think there's a bit more to this reading that that. In particular, I think we can get a better grasp of the film if we qualify the object of care in this circumstance. Namely, it's not that people will continue to care for any living being in the event of an apocalyptic crisis, but that they will continue to care for what they perceive to be innocent living beings. To the people in the film, the camps, the quarantines, the violence is all justified (rightly or not) by the assumption that the other is someone that must be controlled, arrested, and killed if one is to survive. The refugees must be put in camps because otherwise they would destroy the last remaining bit of a stable social life in England; likewise, comrades must be murdered if, when, and because their plans interfere with the organization's bigger political plans. In that sense, other living human beings are presented as a threat and tainted by the fact that they have their own interests and their own projects that might interfere with one's own.
The same can't be said for animals in this context. And importantly, even outside of this context (like our own), the same can't be said for children. Both animals and children are not simply living beings, but more importantly, they're innocent living beings--ones that are either impossible to mark as threatening, or that are not yet marked as such. And in a world without children, it is only animals who have that status. Thus, it's possible that the presence of animals in the film could be a reminder of our instinct to search for and nurture innocence.
The second theory, which I find more interesting, is that their presence is there to draw a stark contrast between animals and humans as a way to get us to focus on some distinctively human features.
Let me explain. It's clear that both groups ostensibly inhabit the same physical environment, yet, the tragedy of global human infertility is only a problem for one of those groups. Why the same event don't affect the animals in the movie in the same way as the humans can obviously be explained in two ways: first, the animals aren't themselves infertile (or at least we have no reason to think they are), and second, most animals just aren't the kind of creatures that care or can care about things like this. This might seem like an obvious and stupid thing to point out, but bear with me for a moment. Jasper's dog, the refugee's goat, the chicken in the camp, etc. not only don't care (or are incapable of caring) that humans aren't having babies, but, presumably, they aren't capable of caring whether they're having babies either. One can imagine that tomorrow all dogs (cats, sheep, etc.) could be rendered infertile and nothing would change for them (though, of course, it would be a tragedy for us). There would be no desperation on their part, no depression, no suicides, no doggy alcoholism. They simply don't seem to be the kinds of creatures that are consciously bothered by the fact that they can't have children.
Nor does it seem that they're they the kinds of creatures that can come to think that their lives are pointless in light of something like their collective infertility. This is not to say that animals don't live very rich internal lives, nor that they can't be depressed or despondent as a result of certain events. But it does seem correct to say that they don't reflect on what their life means as a whole in light of a pandemic, and that they don't deliberate on whether it's worth it or not to continue living.
The same is not true for us. Even though we are also animals, we are the kinds of creatures who can and do reflect on whether it's worth continuing. One of the underlying themes in the movie is a constant background sense of nihilism and dread in the prospect of a childless future. This miasma is handled in two ways by the population: medication to keep going (presumably some kind of anti-depressant) and euthanasia to stop (as presented by the 'Quietus' drug which not only promises you the freedom to 'decide when' to go, but also grants your next of kin 2000 pounds and is actively encouraged to be used by 'illegals'). The very decision to continue or to stop is something that appears to be a uniquely human phenomenon and a uniquely human problem. This, I believe, is why there are so animals in the film.
So, on that light note, remember to wash your hand, stock up on beer, and stay safe.
[P.S. My remarks on animal cognition are obviously not empirically verified and are not supposed to be authoritative on the matter. If it turns out that animals do face such internal struggles, then this second interpretation can still hold, but only at the expense of being a poor representation of animal psychology. Which, of course, happens all the time.]