The Impact of Setting on Pathos

Children of Men and Advantageous are strikingly similar in the underlying threat to humanity they both depict – infertility.

Frankly, of all the films we’ve examined throughout this course, I find this concept to be the most convincing as a realistic, relatable concern for the audience. It’s a natural evolutionary response to the burden overpopulation places on our global society. We already see humanity planting the man-made seeds to combat our own fertility in the forms of religious doctrine, abstinence sex education, surgical procedures, birth control, and abortion. Evolutionarily, it makes sense that over time our bodies will adapt so that these anthropogenic measures to reduce birth rates will no longer be necessary, and it’s easy to see how the unintended consequences of this could be long-term infertility and a reduction in birth rates that is either too rapid or too drastic. However, the way these two films approach the concept of infertility is drastically different and one is infinitely more effective than the other.

The problem with Children of Men mainly stems from its setting. This was a film released in 2006, yet, set in 2027, it depicts a world that has not had a single birth in eighteen years, implying that the last birth was in 2009, and thus somehow, by only three years after the film’s release, humanity will have entirely ceased to be able to reproduce. Immediately, the audience loses any ability to relate to the film, as this is simply crazy. Evolution is a process that takes billions and billions of years. Even reproductive diseases, which are not suggested to be the cause of the widespread infertility here, would not go from being non-existent into having infected everyone in the entire world within a time frame of three years. Therefore, we already get the sense that this is more of a kooky sci-fi type of film than one with a realistic warning message to present to humanity.

In addition to this troublesome timeline, the disastrous, primitive, uncivilized world humanity has devolved into just doesn’t sell. Somehow, because humans stopped making babies, everyone decided to go to war and start nuking and killing each other. Honestly, this seems like the opposite reaction one would expect from a species on the verge of extinction. Suddenly, you have a massive abundance of resources with the reduction in population, job availability will likely rise, and the segment of the population that is generally the most of a financial “dead weight” on developed societies with child labor restrictions – the youth – is gone. From the perspective of a 2006 movie viewer, it’s difficult to imagine the world I know suddenly being entirely destroyed, my fellow humans becoming mindless savages, and my species being on the verge of extinction 21 years from now. Not to mention, the film loses any potential to become a time-tested classic as even ten years down the line it becomes clear the film’s prediction for what is to come of humanity missed the ballpark completely. Imagine watching this in 2050, when overpopulation has smothered the global economy, and laughing at the filmmakers who tried to sell the idea of humanity being on the verge of extinction twenty-three years ago.

Now, there are clearly counterarguments to my commentary. Scholars have suggested that the psychological and cultural devastation on humanity would be immense, which is true, despite the significant fact that many couples today suffer from infertility and continue their lives without significant psychological trauma. There are also the practical points about the industries that thrive due to children – education, toys, baby products, entertainment that primarily appeals to tweens and teens, and endless others. (Although, as a counterpoint, I would add that families with the financial burden of children on average spend less money on other things, so the loss of industries that thrive from children’s presence would be balanced out economically by an increase in money going into other industries.) These points are not without merit, but, really, a few industries go out of business and the world descends into chaos? Frankly, I have too much faith in humanity to even believe that the most reasonable argument – that simply the psychological impact of knowing that mankind is on the verge of extinction will cause everyone to start killing each other – makes very much sense.

The film could have very easily avoided these troublesome areas by not giving a specific timeline, but merely creating a very futuristic-looking dystopia where the youngest person in the world was much older than 18 years old. It’s easier to see how a massive loss of the adult population would lead to chaos, as we would see a decline in workforce participation much too great to overcome, dispersed unevenly between developed and developing nations. In some countries, this would lead to an abundance of resources and in others create a scarcity, which would cause a global feud for more equal distribution of man power, food, and other vitals. The film chooses not to focus on the nitty-gritty details of humanity’s destruction, however, rather choosing to spend more time focused on the aftermath of such chaos. Unfortunately, personally, I just can’t feel too concerned for any character’s fate when I keep reminding myself: These characters can’t really be in this situation a mere 18 years from now.

Advantageous models a much better approach to the same concept. The film is set in an unspecified year, yet it looks reasonably close to our present-day society. Therefore, while we don’t have to convince ourselves that this could happen too soon, we do start to look for links between our lives and this plot. Additionally, the film proposes a more moderate infertility crisis, with a stable society that is suffering from growing concern over the future of humanity, but is taking more measured, civilized steps to combat this problem.

Rather than seeing a crazy dystopia where it’s every man for himself in a brutalized society, we see the effects of infertility on a smaller scale. The film focuses on one particular family – a single mom and her daughter – instantly developing pathos with the audience. The characters are more relatable and live a life that would be considered normal today, with concerns not different from those of many single parents. We grow more attached to these characters as we see them in a setting similar to our own, struggling with the same hardships that many of us do, and the film spends more time slowly developing their personalities, making them out to be normal human beings. This is how, in my opinion, a dystopian film with the goal of portraying a relatable message should be done. Present a society almost exactly similar to the real, present world, and change one significant factor, then depict how characters living in a world just like our own would react to this change. The setting is much more believable and connects with the audience on a more personal, emotional level. We become more engaged viewers, as we feel like this is our own society we are witnessing on the road to destruction.

Both Children of Men and Advantageous are decent films, but when juxtaposed they make a strong case for the importance of setting in fiction. The vague relatability of Advantageous acts as a foil to the dogmatic specificity of Children of Men.

However, my concluding question will present a possible alternative viewpoint. What entertainment value might be lost for some more fantasy-minded moviegoers if all films strived to be more realistic? Is it possible that audiences don’t want to see movies about their own lives?


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