Design Fiction in the Act: Children of Men
An investigation and interrogation of background evidence on screen.
I recently installed a nifty center console display in the janky time machine and was in the mood to rewatch Children of Men. Heck, while I have you here, why don’t we watch it together and talk about some of the artifacts we discover in that timeline.
This is the start of a new series where we will explore Design Fiction in Movies and Television. In this inaugural Design Fiction in the Act we will look at the Design Fiction embedded within the Science Fiction film Children of Men (2006) starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Cain, directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
A Quick Intro to Design Fiction
Here’s a boilerplate recap of what Design Fiction is for those who are new to it.
Design Fiction is a technique that involves developing artifacts and prototypes from a possible near future. The resulting archetypal objects hint at an imagined tomorrow, emphasizing the evidence of macroeconomic forces (society, technology, environment, economy, politics) rather than the forces themselves. Design Fiction often showcases the packaging, user manual, warning stickers, or advertisements associated with a given technology, for example. In contrast to Science Fiction's exposition of technology and society, Design Fiction represents them through tangible artifacts and archetypes. This allows Design Fiction to hint at possible futures, encouraging audiences to examine and interrogate them. By posing more questions than it answers, Design Fiction becomes a powerful world-building tool that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about the future being presented.
Children of Men in 3 Minutes
Here’s a spoiler-free logline for the film.
In a world where women have become infertile, a disillusioned civil servant must help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to safety, facing danger and chaos along the way, in order to ensure the survival of humanity's future.
Check out the trailer, most of the Design Fiction we’ll discuss today is in the embedded video below. See if you can spot it.
The Design Fiction within Children of Men
This movie is one of the best well-crafted cinematic story worlds I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The subtle details within, especially the Design Fiction subtly sprinkled throughout the film, is a testament to the level of detail this universe was imagined.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
We see a transit ad featuring a stylish dog wearing a £349 coat that is part of the GAP’s spring collection. What does this mean?
The use of Design Fiction here offers an intriguing glimpse into this dystopian society. The movie establishes early on that women have become infertile, resulting in no babies being born in 18 years. Therefore, pets have become a substitute for children. This societal shift creates a new market for goods and services, which corporations have capitalized on. This subtle fast-fashion retail ad featured in the film exemplifies this everyday mundane-future detail. While pet fashion is already a popular trend, the ad's high price tag, expensive placement, and association with a major human retailer turns it into a whimsical yet serious artifact. This cleverly executed Design Fiction detail provides a thought-provoking commentary on how society might adapt to a world without children.
Let’s look at another example.
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I found this microscopic detail funny. Check out his mug.
It's a common sight in offices to see people with mugs featuring pictures of their young children, almost like the O.G. smartphone wallpaper. However, in this short scene, a small detail is added to this tradition. This chap (the protagonist’s boss) is seen holding a mug with three adults on it, including an elderly couple. This clever detail, created by the art department, adds to the film's impressive worldbuilding efforts. It demonstrates how this society cherishes and celebrates the lives of older generations, or whoever’s left. This level of attention to detail is one of the many reasons why this is such a remarkable film.
In the scene above, where the train Theo (Clive Owen) is riding on is attacked by young people throwing eggs, an ad is visible in the background. The ad reads, "AVOIDING FERTILITY TESTS IS A CRIME."
Revisiting this scene in a post-pandemic world makes it feel more relevant. In a society where women are infertile, the idea of government-mandated fertility tests seems plausible, and the backlash against such mandates is expected. This Design Fiction detail raises questions about government control and individual autonomy, sparking a thought-provoking commentary on this society's future, as well as our own.
In the same scene, we notice some graffiti on the next billboard that reads, "LAST ONE TO DIE PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS." This humorous touch reminded me that even in the darkest of times, people can still find a way to lighten the mood.
Humor is an essential element of Design Fiction, though it does not always have to be funny. Design Fiction tends to approach its topics with a lighthearted tone. In this particular case, the serious and straightforward message on the previous ad is followed by an optimistic yet ominous (ominoumistic … optiminous … anyone?) piece of street art. This Design Fiction artifact details a balance between humor and tragedy, further contributing to its world-building.
In a later scene, we are presented with an establishing shot that features a digital billboard that reinforces an earlier ad we saw. The ad also reads, "AVOIDING FERTILITY TESTS IS A CRIME - Sponsored by HM Government."
In the bottom right corner of the shot, we can see graffiti for The Human Project, which appears frequently as a background element in the film's first act before being properly introduced as a group of characters later on.
It’s important to note that this film predates the formalization of Design Fiction. The practice has existed in film for a long time, but with the advancements of HD and, especially, 4K (and beyond) has opened up new possibilities for expressing Design Fiction in movies and television.
Next time you watch a sci-fi film, keep your eye out for what’s going on in the background. I look forward to doing this kind of post again in the near future, so stay tuned and subscribe so you don’t miss it.
World building is such a treat when done thoroughly. I’m glad to see even janky time machines have 4K movie players in the future (or is it the past??).