Mel Gibson nearly makes up for some of Apocalypto‘s shortcomings with superb direction
There’s a lot of noise being made about the socio-political message of Mel Gibson’s latest historical epic, Apocalypto. The film opens with a quote by American philosopher/historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” and from there, the point appears to be that we should draw parallels between the state of the Mayan civilization during its waning days as portrayed by director Gibson on screen and the current state of American society.
But, like the constant intertwining of Gibson tabloid blather into the discussion of his filmmaking, any intended moral-making here is pretty vacant. The relatively brief scenes of the Mayan city in the center of the film show a pyramid of power, where fat, extravagantly adorned and very stoned-looking elite sit smugly atop a temple built on the collective backs of the masses who are succumbing to disease as slaves in the toxic quarries. How the crumbling society got to this point is up to us to figure out (despite his reported research, Gibson, along with co-writer Farhad Safania, invented the “history” of the film). The fact that the rulers are shown as being oblivious to the pain of their poor jungle neighbors as they gleefully cut out hearts and chop off heads in sacrifice is apparently where the message lies.
The thing is, there’s at least an hour-and-a-half of movie that is telling a much more rudimentary story around this bloody center. Remove the external influence of media (and lop off that epigraph), and Apocalypto becomes a much more simple (and superfluous) love story, in which a young native man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is forced to undergo many trials in order to be reunited with his pregnant wife and young son. The love story is very straightforward: Jaguar Paw, along with his village mates, is dragged on a painful journey to a Mayan city. There’s a pit stop at the center, where the women are sold off and the men are sacrificed. Jaguar Paw is given a chance to escape, and then for the second half of the movie is chased all the way back to his family. That’s basically it.
The big story here is the fact that, in cinematic terms, Gibson’s film is a bold, intuitive, brutal masterpiece. As would be expected from the blood enthusiast who crafted Braveheart and Passion of the Christ, the director spares no body part here (a dozen or so audience members walked out in the first few minutes—presumably put off by the first round of bloodletting, or possibly by the subtitles). From the unflinching removal of still-beating hearts at the chopping block to the Rambo-like guerilla fighting skills of Jaguar Paw, Gibson keeps things all-too-real. And if you can keep your popcorn down and one eye open, it’s a mesmerizing display of up-close animal violence.
The rainforest is appropriately dark and dangerous, with thrilling potential dangers leaping from shadows constantly, but the most impressive setting is the Mayan city. Gibson transports you into a fantasy world straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, where ghostly quarry workers covered in white dust cough up blood and executioners in unblinking over-sized monster masks bring nightmares to life.
It’s probably Gibson’s intent that the conclusion of the extended jungle chase scene, and the film, be a nod to the “new beginning” definition he’s attached to the film’s Latin title. However, even after making concessions to logic and historical accuracy, the tidy, ham-fisted finish reads more like deus ex machina than apocalypto.