Bo Howarth
Bo Howarth, NIU

Bo Howarth graduated from Lake Zurich High School. Some of his interests include horticulture, progressive rock, Adult Swim, and consciousness. He is an undeclared business major. Bo notes that writing “The Symbolic Resentment of Capitalism in Children of Men” was enjoyable because, as he says, “it allowed me to incorporate some of my most prominent interests into my writing, something I had never been able to do, as my interests rarely coincide with my academics.”

The film Children of Men (2006) is heavily saturated with political and religious symbols, some being blatantly obvious, and others much more subtle. These symbols strongly critique many aspects of modern life but in a much more futuristic setting. The significance of the symbols can vary greatly depending on the viewer; while many of the symbols are fairly universal, the very same symbols also reach out to a much narrower and more cultured audience. The symbols can be both noted and appreciated by those unaware of the symbols’ entire representation, but the symbols are more powerful and resonate much more deeply when presented to an audience conscious of the true significance. The film’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, uses these two-sided symbols to heavily critique the modern American’s capitalism centered lifestyle.

One of the most subtle but most critical, symbols surfaces when the viewer is first introduced to Nigel, the protagonist’s cousin. As a character, Nigel is fairly insignificant to the plot of the work, but he is essential to one of the most poignant messages in the film. Nigel is a very rich man in a very poor world. The viewer first sees Theo being driven to meet Nigel in a Rolls Royce, one of the most expensive automobiles money can buy. Rolls Royce is a company quite commonly associated with success. The company produces very few cars, which are driven by only the wealthiest of the wealthy. The amount of money required to make such a purchase relies directly on capitalism. To purchase such a car one must attain a mass of wealth, which generally can only be done in a capitalist society. The cars are driven to distinguish the owner’s success, a success achieved through capitalism. Nigel’s association with the car greatly reinforces his roots of capitalism.

While the Rolls Royce itself can be regarded as a symbol, it is the song playing when the car is seen that truly drives the point home. The song, entitled “In the Court of the Crimson King,” is from the debut album of the progressive rock band King Crimson. Satan, as a universal figure, has been known by many names. It is no coincidence that the song’s title features one of Satan’s more common names: The Crimson King. While no one in the band has confirmed the song’s satanic allusion, it is heavily speculated from the band’s later works that the song’s title directly references Satan. The playing of this song with the image of the Rolls Royce is what truly condemns capitalism. Cuarón uses this symbol to show his distaste for capitalism, associating it with Satan himself, the most evil of all figures. The music directs the viewers’ associations with the Rolls Royce away from success, and leans them toward a much more sinister theme: greed.

Yet two more symbols close to Nigel are the giant inflatable pig floating out of his window and his home itself—the Battersea Power Station. To someone unfamiliar with the works of the band Pink Floyd, the symbols are rather basic. Nigel has a pig floating outside of his window; therefore, he must be greedy. The pig is quite often used as a symbol of greed and can be interpreted as such by most anyone. The power station also follows a similar pattern, as it is a strong, and quite frankly, blatantly obvious symbol for power. However, to a Pink Floyd aficionado, these symbols are much more complex. Both the Battersea Power Station and the giant inflatable pig seen in the film appear together on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 release Animals. To fully understand the album, one must first understand band member Roger Waters. His life as a child and young adult was greatly affected by the politics in Great Britain at the time of his youth. His father had been killed in the Second World War. This led Waters to develop much aversion to his home government. The lyrics on the album, which were written entirely by Waters, greatly display his distaste with capitalism. The album features only five tracks, all named after animals symbolizing humans within the capitalist system. The first and last tracks on the album are both quite unlike the three core songs. They are very simple, musically speaking, and have little political charge. The bulk of the album, on the other hand, is laced heavily with political allusions. The album’s third track is entitled “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and focuses on the figures that Waters thought to be atop the capitalist system. The “pigs” are those who have gained from capitalism, such as politicians and big businesses, and strive to keep it in place. Theo’s cousin Nigel is one of these very people. To Waters, Nigel would be the epitome of the capitalist pig. He lives a lavish life of complete extravagance while the rest of the world is dying in poverty, yet he still works to keep the system that serves him, and almost only him, so well.

The second and third tracks from Animals are also referenced in the film, but their appearance is a bit more subtle. The tracks are titled “Dogs” and “Sheep” respectively. “Dogs” is centered on the businessmen operating under the capitalist society. The song emphasizes their ruthlessness within the business world and their nihilism with regard to not only the consumers who rely on them but also the “dogs” themselves. The album’s fourth track centers on the consumers on which the “dogs” and “pigs” feed. Entitled “Sheep,” the track portrays consumers as blindly following the orders of those above them in society, i.e., businessmen and politicians. These two components of the album are symbolized in the scene in which Theo is following the members of the Fish who have kidnapped Kee. As Theo is running, he passes a large herd of sheep running from something. As the camera pans, the viewer soon sees the sheep are being chased by a dog. Without noticing the deeper symbolism, the viewer sees the dog chasing the sheep and may connect the sheep to the general population and the dog to some more powerful organization, the government for example, but the viewer would miss the true symbolism Cuarón intended. For his message to be completely communicated the audience must understand how the symbol of the dog connects back to capitalism and all of the greed and poverty associated with it. The symbolism behind the sheep being chased by the dog is greatly enhanced by the other references to Animals.

Within the Children of Men universe “Quietus” ads and boxes are quite commonplace. As the viewer gets deeper and deeper into the film, he or she will learn that “Quietus” is a prescription suicide kit. Initially, one might not think to associate what is essentially poison with capitalism, but this is one of the most powerful symbols within the film. As a symbol, “Quietus” represents all that is wrong with the capitalist society. People are profiting off of the deaths of those around them. Suicide is now a business. The drug demonstrates the dehumanization of men by greed in such a situation as appears in the movie. While “Quietus” is a purely fictional drug and would be incredibly illegal in today’s society, it is not such a stretch to think that such a product might one day come to market. There simply is not yet enough demand to justify such a product. Were the world affected by such a plight as that in the film, “Quietus” would be waiting just around the corner. This drug symbolizes the worst of capitalism, and depicts it as poisoning the morals and simple kindness of today’s society.

The film Children of Men could be dissected for hours. The abundance of symbols within the film varies quite widely on subjects. Many of the symbols and motifs in the movie can be interpreted to mean several different things. Some viewers might see and interpret symbols within the movie very differently than others. This holds true for most symbols, save for those previously discussed. The interpretation of these symbols varies only in strength of message. When one understands the background behind the symbol, it becomes much more powerful and carries much deeper meaning than its more universal counterpart. These symbols, which each would only be seen by a certain niche within society, prove to be the most effective method for portraying Alfonso Cuarón’s dissatisfaction with the capitalist regime in power today.

Published by Aaron Geiger

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