Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer
Directed By: Mel Gibson
Written By: Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia
There was a time not too long ago when Mel Gibson was arguably the biggest actor on the planet. From the Mad Max series to the Lethal Weapon series (along with movies like Braveheart and Ransom) there was simply no stopping Mel Gibson. With the success of Braveheart (which earned him Best Director and Best Picture Oscars), Gibson slowly moved out from being in front of the camera to staying behind it. Of course, we all know some of the terrible things he’s said over the years, but let’s divorce the man from his work for the time being. More often than not, Gibson’s work has more to say than it appears to. Apocalypto is an example of this.
Apocalypto is the story of Jaguar Paw (Youngblood), a young man living in what is now Central America. He is the son of his village’s chief, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) and he is quite a brash, energetic man. He’s close to his friends, including the oversized comic relief Blunted (Brewer), and has a son from his wife Seven (Hernandez) with another on the way. Everything is fine until they encounter a group of wandering people. Their village had been burned down and are off to “start a new beginning.” Unfortunately for them, Flint Sky doesn’t heed the group’s warning, and soon their own village is ransacked by the Mayans.
After a long struggle (which results in the death of Flint Sky, the rape and murder of Blunted’s wife, and seeing Seven and son stuck in a deep hole), the remaining adults are tied up and marched to the Mayan capitol (the young children are left behind). Here, we see a very decadent and zealot-like society where the women are either sold off into slavery or promptly released with no further harm. The men don’t have it so lucky as they’re sent to the top of the Temple to be sacrificed to appease the gods. Luckily for Jaguar Paw, there’s an eclipse which stops all the sacrifices, and he promptly escapes back into the jungle. He’s chased down by the very warriors that captured his people, but it isn’t long before the roles are reversed…all while rushing to save his wife and son(s).
It seems really straight forward, doesn’t it? It would be easy to just take the movie as is: a captured man, gaining his freedom, fighting off those who have and will harm is love ones. There’s more going on here, however. Gibson isn’t just talking about the Maya here. He’s talking about the fall of civilization. In fact, the backdrop could have very easily had been Rome. The Maya are portrayed to being overly luxurious (amazingly embodied by a laughing overweight little boy who’s watching the sacrifices up close and personal), having and wanting things they clearly don’t need. Sound like modern day America a bit? It can be readily seen that their culture is slowly dying and it wouldn’t take much for a knockout blow to happen (more on that later).
The Maya are also shown to be religious extremist, resorting to human sacrifice to bring back rain and to end the spread of disease. Do not mistake this bloodshed for being completely savage in nature, however. The nobility knows exactly what they’re doing (see Rome putting on “games” during times of trouble). It’s population control they are practicing, not religion in the purest sense. The eclipse doesn’t take them by surprise, it’s the opportunity to allow them to stop the sacrifices saying it was a sign from the gods. Where many see a primitive culture, I see a very calculating ruling class at work.
The previously mentioned knockout blow is seen at the end of Jaguar Paw’s run from the warriors in the form of Christian missionaries. Gibson has said that he’s showing Columbus coming ashore (which is historically very inaccurate), but the point remains the same. The hedonism of the Maya is about to come to the end by the word of the Christian god. Some people think this is what Gibson is trying to say (and they may be correct as we do know from Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ of Gibson’s Jesus love affair). In my opinion, just as Jaguar Paw flees the materialism of the Maya, he rejects the Christians (even after his wife suggests they go to them) and returns to the jungle with his family. The Mayan civilization was crumbling and the Europeans were the catalyst for completing the job, but they aren’t celebrated here; rather it’s the simple life Jaguar Paw had once lived that is commended.
While Apocalypto does ask some profound questions, the movie itself is just good, not great. It takes a quite a long time for Jaguar Paw and his village to get to the Maya capitol (only exciting moment is a creepy little girl giving prophecy about the fall of the Maya). Once there, however, the film picks up at almost break-neck speed. The entire Temple scene is cleverly done, especially a first person point of view during one sacrifice (which even recalls a moment in Battleship Potemkin). The chase is exhausting for us as it is for Jaguar Paw (who runs for an entire day), though some of the warriors get a rather anti-climatic end. They, like the questions being posed to us, deserve more.
Bottom Line: Apocalypto is a good outing from director Mel Gibson in which he asks some very interesting questions about the nature of civilization and if we ultimately need it. However, there simply isn’t enough moments to take the film from good into great territory.