After the lucrative and controversial Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson plays it safe in Apocalypto by turning his time-traveling camera toward a different ancient culture, that of the Maya, in the early 16th century, right at the moment that their civilization is about to be devastated by the arriving hordes of Jewish Conquistadors.
Har de har. Just kidding, Mel. Had to get that out of my system. Ready to move on now (though I’d still like to work in a “sugar tits” joke somewhere).
Apocalypto is almost classically straightforward in its narrative. The early scenes give us glimpses of life in a small village, isolated from the better known urban world of the period’s city-states. Our hero is a twentysomething young man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). Jaguar comes from a long line of Paws: his Pa was a Paw, and his Pa before him, and enough Paws before him to give pause.
OK. Had to get that out of my system as well. Moving right along … .
Actually, Jaguar Paw’s father is Flint Sky (Morris Bird), a wise hunter, who is trying to prepare his son for the day when he’ll have to take over as family patriarch. But JP is reluctant: Things are dandy the way they are. He hunts by day with the other adult males, and they engage in what would qualify as locker-room banter if locker rooms had been invented yet. In particular, they taunt lovable oaf Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) with practical jokes, mostly involving his apparent bedroom difficulties.
Jaguar goes home to his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and four-year-old son (Carlos Emilio Baez). They play, they eat, they sing and dance, they listen to an elder tell ancient religious/mythological stories. In short, everyday life in the forest is pretty hunky-dory.
But one day in the forest they allow a homeless tribe to pass through their turf. “Our lands were ravaged,” the sad travelers tell them, and their misery unsettles everyone.
The next morning, their own village is attacked by a much better armed force from the city. They fight valiantly, but many are killed. Jaguar Paw manages to hide Seven and their son, lowering them down into a huge well. He feels obliged to go rejoin the battle, but promises to return and haul them back up. Unfortunately, the fight is a rout, and, along with the rest of the adults, Jaguar Paw is shackled and led on a long trek to the big city, all the time praying that it doesn’t rain.
Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), a marauder who was humiliatingly injured by Jaguar Paw, is looking for any opportunity to kill him, but is restrained by his commander, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), a massive, intimidating figure, who protects JP, not out of human concern, but because he regards him as his hard-won property.
The journey is brutal, but it’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the city. Some of them are auctioned off as slaves; others are intended as human sacrifices to appease the gods who are thought to be punishing the locals. Jaguar Paw manages to get off the hook, thanks to the very same plot device (with the very same sloppy science) that saved Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hell, if it’s good enough for Twain, it’s good enough for Gibson.
From then on, the movie is one long chase … and a damned good chase, at that.
So basically Apocalypto is 20 minutes of Everyday Life in a Mayan Village; 10 minutes brutal battle; 25 minutes of Slave Trek; 25 minutes of even more brutal Life in a Mayan City; 45 minutes of 16th-century Naked Prey.
The whole thing is absorbing, first as a glimpse into a lost culture, then as a traditional Good Guy Hunted by Bad Guys film. Gibson shows us some things that are very different from nowadays (like what they use for sutures) but more things that are recognizable (mother-in-law jokes, cheerleading routines, superstition).
Gibson was derided as crazy when he insisted on shooting The Passion of the Christ in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew, and we all know how poorly that little opus fared at the box office. He does the equivalent here, with Mayan dialogue subtitled in English – a decision that should be hailed by everyone except illiterates and that other filmmakers should embrace. For most viewers, it’s not important whether the niceties of pronunciation are observed; there is an illusion of authenticity that the use of spoken English would destroy.
Still, there are at least two scenes where Mel winks at the audience: a hilarious, coy reference to, I kid you not, Midnight Cowboy; and the use of everyone’s favorite four-letter word. Neither is technically anachronistic, but both pull us out of the film, ever so briefly.
It is no news flash that Gibson makes violent movies – so violent that they even squick out a lot of action-flick fans. Like The Passion of the Christ and, to a lesser extent Braveheart, the R-rated Apocalypto revels in explicit gore in a manner more reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust and 2000 Maniacs than John Woo’s X-rated The Killer, let alone something like Casino Royale. In the latter, it’s James Bond who is the butt of the torture; in a Gibson film, it’s the audience.
For better or worse, physical pain continues to be a key element in Gibson’s aesthetic. Mel never saw a skull onscreen that he didn’t want to smash, pierce, staple, or mutilate, or an internal organ he didn’t want to tear out of its body. Jaguar Paw goes through a lot of abuse; in fact, that he continues to be able to fight back nonstop through the night and into the next day, after being pierced in the torso by arrows and spears, is only believable within the conventions of screen heroism.
Nonetheless, Apocalypto can be highly recommended to those who find pleasure in watching gorgeous young men with taut physiques flexing their chiseled muscles in exertion, as the glistening sweat runs down their sugar tits – I mean, pecs.
With the exception of one particularly crude special-effect shot of a snake, Apocalypto is technically impressive: The urban sets are cool, and Gibson owes a big thanks to Dean Semler’s first-rate digital cinematography.
The implications of the title aren’t completely clear: Sure, we know that we’re watching a civilization approaching its own End Days, but there has already been speculation about parallels to contemporary America. The press kit’s brief timeline makes a point of noting that the Mayan calendar ends on December 22, 2012, when the world will go through a cataclysm of – dare I say it? – Biblical proportions. (Coincidentally, these issues are central to Tribulation 99, whose DVD release is reviewed elsewhere in these pages.) (I swear it’s a coincidence.)
Any specific parallels to the U.S. today strike me as strained. Yes, what goes around comes around, and bullying invaders should be prepared to be on the receiving end one of these days. And mighty civilizations, which never seem to recognize their own decay until it’s too late, always fall sooner or later. Still, the film, despite its time and place, may have a touch of autobiography: Jaguar Paw’s decision at the end mirrors the decision Hutton Gibson made in 1968, when he packed up 12-year-old Mel and the rest of the family and abandoned the decadent United States for Australia.
Apocalypto. Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia. With Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Bird, and Carlos Emilio Baez. Opens Fri., citywide.