Life is precious, and the world is a hostile place. These two truths are taken to new – and sometimes shocking – extremes in “Children of Men” and “Apocalypto”.
One film is set in the near future, and the other in the distant past, but both films are essentially chase movies set against the backdrop of dying civilizations, in which the survival of pregnant women, entire families, and society itself is at stake.
Children of Men
Children of Men is based on a book by British mystery novelist P.D. James, which she herself has called a “Christian fable.” The story takes place a few decades in the future, at a time when humans have lost the ability to procreate – a form of divine judgment, perhaps? – and the youngest person on the planet is 18 years old.
People respond to the imminent death of the human race in a variety of ways. Some turn to religion. Some take drugs to soothe their anxieties. Some turn to fascist governments, and others become involved in terrorist activities.
Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is just one of many Britons watching life go by, when he gets a surprise visit from his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). She has a favour to ask – and it involves an immigrant named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who has miraculously become pregnant and needs to be escorted safely out of the country.
The problem is, nearly everyone wants to use Kee to further their own agendas – or they would, if they knew that she was with child. And so begins a harrowing journey through a nation at war with itself; life here is increasingly rare and precious, yet people respond by dealing out nothing but death, death and more death.
The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) from a screenplay he wrote with at least four other men, is full of subtle special effects and stunning, virtuosic cinematography – so much so that at times it threatens to distract you from the story, which is only loosely based on James’s novel.
Some of the changes the film makes to the story are rather drastic, and even work against the book’s Christian leanings; an act of euthanasia, made to look so vile and brutal and dehumanizing in the book, takes a more loving and merciful hue, here.
But in its own way, Children of Men is like some strange allegorical version of the original Christmas story. There is a sense of peril, as well as a sense of awe, in this graphic, violent, R-rated film that the PG-rated The Nativity Story never had.
If Children of Men uses the future to address contemporary issues, Apocalypto uses the past to do the same. Directed by Mel Gibson from a script he wrote with Farhad Safinia, Apocalypto takes place during the last days of the Mayan empire, and it concerns a simple villager named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who is captured and sent to an urban temple to become one of dozens of sacrificial victims.
As with Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, so here: Gibson is obsessed with the definition of masculinity, and he tackles this subject by exploring the nature of father-son relationships (even The Passion begins with Satan taunting Jesus, “Who is your father? Who are you?”) and the nature of violence. A true man, in Gibson’s view, is someone who can take the pain – and sometimes dish it out.
But Apocalypto has bigger themes on the brain, too. The Mayan civilization depicted here is in a state of decay, and this is reflected in their careless disregard for the environment, and for the human beings that they neglect or abuse like mere animals. Any similarities to our own society are definitely more than accidental.
Some have tried to argue that Apocalypto is a staunchly Catholic tale, showing how the pagan Mesoamericans needed to be saved from their savagery by European Christians. But a more careful reading of the film reveals, I think, that Gibson isn’t letting any civilization off the hook. He who has ears, let him hear.
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Speaking of Mel Gibson, a ‘definitive edition’ of The Passion of the Christ is coming out on January 30. The DVD will have four commentary tracks by the filmmakers and various theologians, as well as two versions of the film and the usual bonus disc full of supplementary features. There is no word yet on whether Gibson’s recent efforts to make amends with the Jewish community will be reflected on this disc.
World Trade Center is on DVD now, and the special edition includes an audio commentary by Will Jimeno, one of the real-life survivors depicted in the movie, as well as a brief featurette on the scene in which Jimeno has a vision of Jesus. Jimeno credits the vision with “rejuvenating” him and giving him the will to stay alive.