One subtle way that Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men fills in the history of post-apocalyptic, infertile Britain is through the background use of advertising, and in particular, pharmaceutical advertising. Three drugs in particular are both discussed and advertised throughout the film: Quietus, a suicide drug, Bliss, an anti-depressant, and Niagra, a male erectile dysfunction pill. Each, in their own way, helps Cuarón paint a picture of future Britain, but in particular, Quietus reveals the true despair of the infertile future. Through Quietus and the more abstract discussion and presentation of disease and treatment, Children of Men critiques the modern use of and reliance on pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical advertising.
The most prominent drug in Children of Men is the suicide pill Quietus. It is seen in advertisements, discussed by Theo (Clive Owen) and Jasper (Michael Caine), and even used twice, once to kill rats by Jasper and once to actually kill Jasper’s wife Janice (Philippa Urquhart) as his compound is raided by the Fishes. The television advertisement for Quietus appears when Theo’s TV turns on to wake him one morning. It shows a man walking stoically into the sunrise as the tagline “I am free to decide my own destiny” echoes through the speakers. While at Jasper’s, Theo opens a Quietus box and reads the included instructions. Quietus, he reads, is 100% effective and it is also being given out freely by the government. For Cuarón, Quietus serves two functions. First, it symbolizes the general despair that is overwhelming humanity nearly two decades after the last human was born. The world is in chaos, and even “safe” Britain is over-crowded, polluted, noisy, and dangerous. In such depressing circumstances, death is seen as a peaceful, quiet way to escape. More significantly, Cuarón makes Quietus a government sponsored, distributed, and endorsed drug. It isn’t simply passively allowed; it is encouraged and even promoted. From the government’s perspective, dwindling resources and significant crowding have put extreme strain on the country. Large-scale suicide frees up resources and makes security and maintenance easier.
Cuarón’s use of pharmaceutical advertising is effective and seamless because it is rooted in the types of drug ads that have become ubiquitous within the last 20 years. The commercial for Quietus seen when Theo wakes up is based on modern pharmaceutical advertisements. It features a solitary man, out of context, looking into the sunset. Like many ads, this commercial does not explicitly discuss what the drug does, but rather focuses on more abstract concepts like personal choice, freedom, and peace. Although we know Quietus is a suicide pill based on Theo and Jasper’s discussion, the ad could just as easily be for Cialis, which also emphasizes personal freedom, choice, and happiness.
But Quietus offers a false freedom. At its core, Children of Men offers hope in a hopeless world and Kee’s baby is a symbol of that possible “Tomorrow”. Although there seems to be little worth fighting for, the people that surround her are so committed to that hope that they are willing to die, and as a result, they become martyrs for humanity. Quietus, on the other hand, offers death as a escape. It serves no cause in the betterment of humanity, but instead grants people a release from the difficulties of life.
What is even more troubling for Cuarón is that this option is being advertised by the government. Propaganda plays a large role in the film and we frequently see a relation between Cause (a sign urging Britons to report illegal immigrants) and Effect (illegal immigrants being transported in cages to the ghetto of Bexhill). Thus, we can assume that the Quietus advertising, in conjunction with the increasing terror and fear, has led many people to choose this option. Each unnecessary suicide diminishes the hope for human survival.
Cuarón bases this connection on the modern use of pharmaceutical advertising. Today, pharmaceutical companies spend over $20 billion annually in drug promotion, including nearly $5 billion in Direct-to-Consumer advertising (Campbell). These advertisements urge consumers to ask their doctor “whether the drug is right for them.” As a result, a study published in CMAJ found that patients with significant exposure to pharmaceutical advertising were more likely to request new medications, more likely to request medications that they had seen advertised, and ultimately 17 times more likely to receive new medications from their doctors than those who do not ask for them (Mintzes, et al). In short, pharmaceutical advertising results in more patients using the advertised drugs.
For the real world, Cuarón seems to be critiquing our increased reliance on both pharmaceuticals themselves and advertising’s ability to influence human decisions. It is important that he has chosen drugs that are generally qualified as “lifestyle” drugs that treat non-fatal diseases and problems (Woodard). Obviously, in a world with little hope of survival, it seems clear that drugs that treat things like high cholesterol, heart disease, or cancer would be less important. The drugs advertised in the film address short-term quality of life or even grant a permanent end to an immediate problem. Most importantly, the drugs don’t find cures to causes, but solutions to effects. The drugs do not actually address the living conditions that make life unbearable for the citizens of 2027 Britain, instead, they make those conditions acceptable. For Theo and those who help Kee, the goal of getting her to the Tomorrow is to offer some hope at curing the root cause of humanity’s problems. Instead of finding ways to manage the despair, the government should be finding ways to solve the problems.
In addition to critiquing the use of pharmaceuticals to cure effects rather than causes, Quietus also addresses the more general abuse of pharmaceuticals in our own world. In 2008, over 20,000 people died as a result of prescription drug overdoses. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has claimed that this represents a new epidemic in the United States (Roberts). Quietus simply cuts out the middlemen and makes death assured. It also plays with the now clichéd list of side-effects associated with most pharmaceutical ads. Now, the worst side-effect, death, is the goal, and it is 100% guaranteed.
Cuarón is not completely anti-pharmaceutical, or even completely anti-Quietus (Jasper giving Janice the drug is actually seen as a beautiful, loving, and graceful choice). But he is clearly skeptical of the industry. For example, although the film never reveals what has caused the massive infertility of humanity, Cuarón may see a connection between the increased use of pharmaceuticals for non-life threatening problems and the problems of reproduction. We see one instance of the potential harms of pharmaceuticals while Theo sits hooded in the Fishes interrogation cell. A newspaper visible on the wall claims that some drugs that attempted to treat the infertility actually led to death in users. In addition to the use of Quietus, Cuarón is consistently making connections between pills and death.9999 Perhaps the increased reliance on pharmaceuticals in the late 20th and early 21st centuries affected humanity’s ability to reproduce as well.
In this case, Cuarón has merely expanded upon a widespread belief that humans are overly reliant on drugs to treat non-life threatening illnesses, and as a result, there is an increased risk of drug resistance. For example, the CDC has warned against the overuse of antibiotics in minor infections and especially viral infections (which antibiotics cannot treat). They state, “these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective. People infected with antimicrobial-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer, more expensive hospital stays, and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection.” They urge for increased prevention strategies in the spread of diseases and proper diagnosing on the part of medical professionals to stop over-medication (“Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance”).
Drug resistance is an increasing problem. Just within the last week, India has reported at least 12 cases of tuberculosis that they say “has become resistant to all the drugs used against the disease” (McKenna). This new form of TB is related to the already difficult to treat MDR-TB which killed nearly 150,000 people last year. For Cuarón and Children of Men, this fact should not come as a surprise. In fact, Jasper references an influenza pandemic in 2007 (the film was released in 2006) that killed Theo and Julian’s child. According to the CDC, influenza is one disease that is becoming increasingly drug-resistant and the general reaction to the “swine flu” highlights the general belief that it is not a question of if, but when such a pandemic occurs.
While the usage of drugs like Bliss, Niagra, and Quietus might not directly lead to resistant forms of disease like influenza or tuberculosis, they are part of a more general reliance on prescriptions to treat effects, not causes. Because little is seen being done to promote the general well-being of the remaining British citizens through basic services like trash pick up or pollution control, it is clear that the government finds it easier and cheaper to distribute anti-depressants, sex drugs, and suicide pills than it is to actually make things better. Clearly, there are bigger issues at stake in Cuarón’s film, but the increased influence of non-necessary pharmaceutical advertising is symptomatic of a more general unwillingness to confront real world problems in a direct, realistic way. For Cuarón, Quietus is not such a far reach from the modern day ads that promise peace, relaxation, and serenity.
“Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Government. 4 October 2011. Web. 10 January 2012.
Campbell, Sheila. “Promotional Spending for Prescription Drugs.” Congressional Budget Office. United States Government. 2 December 2009. Web. 10 January 2012.
McKenna, Maryn. “India Reports Completely Drug-Resistant TB.” Wired. Wired Magazine. 9 January 2012. Web. 10 January 2012.
Mintzes, Barbara, Morris Barer, Richard Kravitz, Ken Bassett, Joel Lexchin, Arminée Kazajian, Robert Evans, Richard Pan, and Stephen Marion. “How Does Direct-to- Consumer Advertising (DTCA) Affect Prescribing? A Survey in Primary Care Environments with and without Legal DTCA.” CMAJ 169.5 (September 2003): 405-412. Print.
Roberts, John. “Report: Prescription Drug Deaths Skyrocket.” Fox News. Fox News Network. 1 November 2011. Web. 16 January 2012.
Woodard, Larry. “Pharmaceutical Ads: Good of Bad for Consumers?” ABC News. ABC. 25 February 2010. Web. 10 January 2012.