Children begins with a terrorist bombing.
A military-operated checkpoint in Legend where the "healthy" are separated from the "infected."
Children: Theo enters his job at the Ministry of Energy through a metal detector.
Background graffiti reads, “The Human Project Lives.”
Legend: Decorated with U.S. Army ribbons, Neville evacuates his family from Manhattan in an early flashback scene.
Neville’s blackness can be viewed from the skewed perspective of white Christian Americans as extra justification for violence against “other others” (like Arabs).
Children argues that hope for the future lies with the wretched of the earth.
Kee, the first pregnant woman in eighteen years, is a Third World refugee. Before she reveals her pregnancy to Theo, she empathizes with the plight of livestock.
Legend's New York City permanently decorated for Christmas.
A crucifix swings from the rearview mirror of Anna’s SUV.
Where Anna refers to the test subject as “she,” Neville says “it.”
Evidence of Neville’s reckless treatment of the dark seekers lines the walls of his lab, as Anna discovers.
Legend eroticizes Neville in the tradition of some depictions of Christ on the cross.
“God told me. He has a plan.”
Anna hands the vaccinated blood to someone at the survivor’s colony. Legend’s focus on blood recalls Christological and nationalistic themes.
When Neville “listens,” he becomes a suicide bomber.
Cracks in the glass form the image of a butterfly.
Legend: “God Still Loves Us.”
Children: Theo looks puzzled when Kee claims to be a virgin.
Kee to Theo: “Gotcha.”
The Human Project arrives on their vessel, the Tomorrow. Theo gives his life to row Kee out to meet this ghostly ship.
Theo eavesdrops while Jasper explains the dialectical relationship between faith and chance.
In Legend, even the wildlife affirms the necessary social glue of “family values.”
by Kirk Boyle
Like many of the critics who praised Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men for being one of the best films of 2006, I found the film a topical post-apocalyptic treatise on a variety of contemporary political problems, from the “War on Terror” to environmental degradation. However, I did not fully grasp Children’s political significance until I viewed another dystopian science fiction film released the following year, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend. The formal similarities of these two films accentuate a stark contrast in how each represents a world shaped by the Anglo-American neoconservative movement. Legend propagandizes for what Children condemns — the neoconservative combination of religious and market fundamentalism with an aggressive foreign policy, a political economic agenda that journalist and activist Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
A comparative analysis of Children and Legend provides a glimpse into the political stakes of cultural representations of neoconservatism. To discern these stakes, I read Children through the lens of Legend’s ideological intentions — religious, economic, and geopolitical. The first section examines the metaphysics of each film. Characteristic of neoconservative ideology, Legend offers the moral palliatives of Christianity to allay and even justify the dubious workings of disaster capitalism. Despite its religious allusions, Children presents a materialist worldview not ordained by the heavens. In the second and third sections, I contrast Legend's utopian fantasy of late capitalism with Children’s dystopian vision. Although “green zone” and “red zone” refer to fortified and unsecured areas of Baghdad, these terms resonate with meanings that exceed military objectives in Iraq. Legend favorably depicts the winners of neoliberalization — those gated in the globe’s green zones — while Children identifies with those suffering in the red zones, the majority of the world’s population who are losing out in an age of unfettered capitalism. I conclude my comparative analysis by drawing on the work of two prominent social theorists whose intellectual interests dovetail with Cuarón’s aesthetic concerns, Klein and Slavoj Žižek, a cultural critic of postmodernity. I use their work to illustrate how Children and Legend represent political space in diametrically opposed ways.[open endnotes in new window]
The Alpha and Omega Man
Children takes place in London in 2027, eighteen years after a pandemic of infertility renders humankind unable to produce offspring. In the face of impending extinction, Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a white, middle-aged bureaucrat, helps Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a black, inexplicably pregnant refugee, rendezvous with the Tomorrow, a ship belonging to the Human Project. Although Theo cannot be sure that the Human Project exists, he gives up his life to escort Kee and her newborn to be rescued by this group of the world’s “brightest minds” and “wise men doctors” working on a cure in the Azores.
Set in New York in 2012, I Am Legend takes place three years after 90% of the world’s population dies due to the lethal mutation of a genetically-engineered virus. The virus, which initially cured cancer, transforms another 9% of the population into “dark seekers,” vampiric zombies who then “killed and fed on” the 1% with immunity (about twelve million people). Only one middle-aged man has supposedly survived the double-catastrophe of plague and monster invasion, Robert Neville (Will Smith), an African American Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. army and virologist, who spends his days at “Ground Zero” searching for a cure. When Neville produces a vaccine, he sacrifices himself so that two other recently discovered survivors, Anna (Alice Braga) and a young boy named Ethan (Charlie Tahan), can escape with it to a survivor’s colony in Bethel, Vermont.
Both films are thus set in major Western cities in the near future with main characters who pay the ultimate price hoping to reverse the catastrophic effects of a pandemic that (incidentally) struck in 2009. In a genre prone to religious allegory like end-of-times science fiction, these sacrifices carry Christ-like significance. Released on Christmas Day in the United States, Children doubles as a nativity story with Theo playing Joseph to Kee’s Mary after she reveals her pregnancy to him in a barn. Kee’s baby Dylan, like Christ, provides hope of a redeemed future for mankind, while the resistance movement that spearheads Kee’s flight to the coast fittingly calls itself the “Fishes.” The stigmata wounds Theo suffers — his cut foot and gunshot wound in the side — signify that he also plays Christ. The extra-diegetic effect of John Tavener’s accompaniment music, “Fragments of a Prayer,” bolsters a religious reading of Children by supplying a spiritual gravity to key moments throughout the film.
I problematize reading Children as a religious allegory at the end of this section. For now, I turn to Legend (also released during the Christmas season) to raise the political implications of its Christ figure. Legend’s final fifteen minutes quilt together the film’s scrambled Christian allusions (a New York permanently decorated for Christmas, Neville’s hanging on the third day of the film, a cross dangling from the rearview mirror of Anna’s SUV, etc.), and assure the film’s status as Christian allegory. In the penultimate scene when the dark seekers attack, Neville, Anna, and Ethan convert a walled-in space of his lab into a panic room. Neville typically uses this enclosure to secure infected subjects that he has captured for his vaccination tests. When the three of them enter, to their surprise they discover that his latest “human trial” has succeeded. As the leader of the dark seekers unremittingly rams his body into the enclosure’s heavy glass doors, Neville tries to reason with him. Neville pleads:
Neville’s use of the word “save” instead of “heal” or “cure” represents a slip from medical to ecclesiastical discourse. “Everybody” literally refers to the victims infected with the Krippen Virus (KV), but as a double entendre means mankind in general. If read metaphorically, Neville’s plea implies that everyone, including the dark seekers, are Christian sinners in need of salvation.
I find the shift in addressee from “you” to “everybody” all the more striking because of Neville’s consistent treatment of the dark seekers as wholly other. For example, earlier in the film, Neville records an audio “behavioral note”:
If Neville believes that the infected are no longer human, that they are different from humans not by degree but by kind, to put it in evolutionary terms, then he would not use the all-inclusive “everybody” to refer to his attackers. He would continue to use the objective pronoun “you,” which clearly differentiates the infected from the immune. The abrupt pronoun change announces a discursive shift in his rhetoric from science to religion.
Such nitpicky attention to linguistic detail might be insignificant in and of itself; however, the next scene indicates that Christ may very well return as a military scientist. As the “irrational” leader of the dark seekers continues battering the doors, Neville draws a vial of blood from the cured subject, shuffles Anna and Ethan into a coal chute, and gives her the vial. He says, “Anna, I think this is why you’re here.” She asks, “What are you doing?” He responds, “I’m listening.” In prior arguments between the two, Neville denies that there is a survivor’s colony (“There’s no survivor’s colony. There’s no safe zone.”), and he rejects that God is responsible for the outbreak of KV (“God didn’t do this, Anna. We did.”). The line “I’m listening” concedes to Anna that she has been right about the etiology of the plague and the existence of a colony. The key scene occurs right before the dark seekers attack:
When Neville hands Anna the vaccinated blood in the coal chute and tells her, “I’m listening,” he confirms that “the God” directed her to listen to his radio broadcast, remain at the seaport to save him, and take the cure to the survivor’s colony. In other words, he believes that he, too, has a role in God’s plan, a teleology that up to this point was revealed to Anna alone. When Neville “listens,” he accepts that he must sacrifice himself for the future of humanity. Accordingly, he pulls the pin of a grenade and runs at the dark seekers, transforming himself from skeptical scientist to savior-cum-suicide bomber.
The film uses butterfly imagery to “objectively” buttress Anna’s “crazy” belief that divine reason undergirds all events, however coincidental they may appear to the theologically tone-deaf. Neville only converts after witnessing cracks in the glass doors form the shape of a butterfly, an image that leads him to recall his deceased child Marley’s (Willow Smith) words, “Look Daddy, a butterfly.” When he turns to Anna and Ethan, he spies a butterfly tattoo on her neck. This coincidental appearance of butterflies brings to mind a series of them throughout the film, especially the butterfly spray-painted on a tank from the opening sequence that reads, “God Still Loves Us.”
The repeated image of the butterfly may well refer to the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory, a branch of physics devoted to studying the minutia of causal relations within nonlinear dynamical systems (“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”). Where films like Red (1994) and Run Lola Run (1998) appropriate chaos theory to tell stories about characters caught in intricate webs of causation, Legend deploys the “butterfly effect” to insist that the apparently random events surrounding Neville’s life are divinely determined. The film incorporates a modern worldview based on contingency, but within a premodern teleology, much like a creationist museum diorama exhibits animatronic dinosaurs living side-by-side with Adam and Eve.[7b]
By combining religion “with the latest findings of science,” Legend exhibits one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism. As Žižek points out,
Because fundamentalists regard their beliefs as knowledge, they can justify any act, however horrific, as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, the fundamentalist conflation of belief with positivistic knowledge imperils the status of belief (an ironic inversion of the traditional fear that science undermines religion). Without beliefs in Enlightenment principles like universal human rights, the benefits of knowledge — clean water, health services, modern technologies, disaster mitigation — evade members of so-called “less developed countries,” whose rights we are no longer able to recognize. Without belief in these rights, we act as if we know these people are not fully “human” (just like Neville dehumanizes his test subjects and, as we shall see, the British government treats refugees in Children).
A skeptic might contest that the butterflies are a figment of Neville’s imagination, not fundamentalist “proof” of divine providence. Anna may believe and Neville may convert, but they could also be delusional. The coda that follows Neville’s fade-to-white sacrificial explosion, however, confirms that a Christian teleology based on fundamentalist “knowledge” structures the world of Legend.
In this coda scene, Anna and Ethan drive through a picture perfect autumn landscape, replete with blue skies and colorful foliage, until they arrive in Bethel (“House of God”) where they discover the survivor’s colony. Because our previous knowledge of the colony’s existence comes solely from Anna’s divination, its actual existence means that we are witnessing a prophecy realized. Tellingly, the point of view passes from Neville to Anna in this scene, shifting from the subjectivity of a skeptic to the objectivity of a fundamentalist. Anna, the audience is asked to believe, is not a traumatized survivor suffering from supernatural delusions; God has truly spoken to her and sent Neville, as Christ, to die for her.
As if the brute reality of the colony’s existence were not confirmation enough, Anna’s narration drives home the point that contingency has no place in the world of Legend:
Anna’s closing remarks sound like a military eulogy (a point I address later), but they also act as gospel, retroactively codifying Neville’s life as Christological. Like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix (1999), Neville fulfills his role as chosen one to restore humanity to its prelapsarian state. In true romantic fashion, the salvation of an individual doubles as the salvation of humanity. All survivors, infected and immune alike, become part of Neville’s story as he transfigures into the primordial father figure of “reborn” humankind. Anna, Ethan, and the rest of civilization owe him their existence; they are his legacy.
The debt implicit within the lines, “We are his legacy. This is his legend,” becomes clear in Anna’s last line, which serves as the film’s final word. After a cut to black, Anna stage whispers, “Light up the darkness.” With a total absence of referents on the screen, this line can only be interpreted as an injunction addressed to the audience. Not only are Anna, Ethan, and the rest of civilization within the film Neville’s legacy, we the moviegoers are, too. To pay our metaphysical debt to Neville, we must “light up the darkness.” In other words, Anna commands us to convert non-believing “dark seekers” to Christianity. Her disembodied voice delivers the inverse message of Sofía’s (Penélope Cruz) opening line in Alejandro Amenabár’s film Abre los ojos (1997). The theologically-laden “light up the darkness” inverts the Enlightenment imagery of “open your eyes.”
To each film’s credit, Legend and Children stage a discussion of the antagonism between the worldviews of antiquity and modernity. Children’s response to this discussion implies a significantly different ideological commitment than the fundamentalist one found in Legend. Although infused with religious themes, Children defends the secular principles of the Enlightenment. Two scenes from the DVD chapter titled “Faith and Chance” show how Children’s treatment of Christianity contrasts with Legend’s.
A line by Jasper (Michael Caine), Theo’s aging hippie friend and retired political cartoonist, precedes the first scene. Jasper proclaims,
Jasper likens Kee’s baby to Jesus, and the Eastern religious peace offering works to denote a theological meaning to his proclamation. The next scene, in which Theo questions Kee about her pregnancy, juxtaposes this religious setup.
This scene ironizes a religious allegorical reading of the film, and it thwarts the temptation to draw parallels between Kee and Theo’s adventure and the nativity. More importantly, it depicts the film’s protagonist succumbing to this exact temptation. A slight beat follows Kee’s false declaration of virginity in which Theo considers her baby as immaculately conceived. After he says, “Sorry,” Kee laughs and points at him to signal that he has fallen for her prank. Her child may be a miracle, but Dylan is certainly not the second coming.
The jocular atmosphere of this scene conceals a serious point about Theo’s belief structure and its relation to the film’s ontology. Theo’s character has a trajectory that opposes Neville’s. Whereas Neville moves from disbelief to faith in a plan God has laid out for him, Theo develops from gullible believer to existential hero, to someone who courageously acts without any metaphysical guarantees. Like Neville, Theo believes but he anchors his “faith” in this world and not the next. He takes responsibility for helping Kee reach a human project spearheaded by a group of scientists. Theo’s belief in his duty to Kee, her baby, and humanity is thus ultimately self-imposed.
Theo and Kee’s secular belief rejects the dualistic ontology proffered by Legend, in which acts in this world are ultimately dictated by another. Instead, Children supports a monistic ontology (“the world is all that is the case”). Although monistic, the film’s conception of being is not naturalistic — where humans, like everything else in the universe, are determined by cosmic forces beyond their control (the environment, the laws of physics, genetics, etc.) — but dialectical: Theo et al. do not choose the context within which they must act, but their actions shape the trajectory of history.
The scene that follows Kee’s practical joke confirms the dialectical nature of the film’s ontology. While smoking pot, Jasper waxes philosophical on the “mythical cosmic battle between faith and chance” to Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former midwife and Kee’s caretaker.
This scene demonstrates a crucial difference in the two primary characters' belief systems. Miriam is New Ageist. She meditates, prays in a mix of creeds like an omnist, and believes in a universe guided by conflicting binary forces (like premodern cosmologies which pit a masculine against a feminine principle). As an aged hippie, Jasper and his supposed witnessing of a UFO — a story Miriam shows extreme interest in hearing — does not appear to offer much of an alternative. Yet, Jasper distances himself from Miriam’s fundamentalist “knowledge” by joking (equating the profane couple Lennon and McCartney with the sacred couple Shiva and Shakti) and, more importantly, by responding to Miriam’s teleological belief that “everything happens for a reason” with skepticism. (That “everything happens for a reason” is the same teleological belief that structures the world of Legend.) Indeed, it would be a mistake to read Jasper’s discourse on faith and chance in the mythical, cosmic terms that he uses to introduce it. In the above scene, Jasper affirms a dialectical ontology that is at odds with Christian, New Ageist, and naturalistic worldviews.
Jasper supports a dialectical ontology by giving Dylan the paradoxical status of an object of both faith and chance. Theo and Julian’s child operates as a chance event and the outcome of “their faith put into praxis.” Contingency rules his conception as Julian’s pregnancy is unplanned. Faith enters when Theo and Julian retroactively take responsibility for him, when they make him “their sweet little dream.” According to Jasper, faith involves taking responsibility for contingent events, not affirming some divine plan. Likewise, Theo and Julian meeting among a throng of protestors is a chance event, but their reason for being at the rally and for becoming a couple is governed by something more than chance, by their belief that they can change the world. As Marx famously explained:
Acting to change contingent circumstances forms the basis of a dialectical ontology, of which Children exemplifies and Legend lacks. While Theo struggles under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past, Neville saves the world under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from “the God.”