Apocalypto


These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

(2006) Adventure (Touchstone) Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, Isabel Diaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Mayra Serbulo, Iazua Larios, Lorena Hernandez, Itandehui Gutierrez, Sayuri Gutierrez, Hiram Soto, Jose Suarez, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena. Directed by Mel Gibson

Hey, does anybody remember when Mel Gibson was one of the pre-eminent directors in Hollywood? When Braveheart won Oscars and he was the sexiest man alive and the darling of talk shows? I can’t think of a single actor who fell as far as Gibson did through mostly his own doing. Lindsay Lohan comes to mind but even her fall was less spectacular because she never achieved the heights that Gibson did in his heyday.

On the heels of his unexpected hit Passion of the Christ which was the first film to show Hollywood the box office power of the Christian audiences and essentially gave birth to a whole new subgenre – the Christian-funded and directed films which are largely promoted through churches and group sales, Gibson turned his attention to ancient Mesoamerica. This movie, with dialogue entirely in native languages (ancient Mayan although how accurate the language is can only be verified by scholars; I don’t remember any objecting at the time this came out) is supposedly taken from portions of the Popol Vuh, an 18th century collection of ancient Mayan myths and oral histories written down by a Spanish Dominican priest and was acted largely by a cast of locals.

Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) lives in a quiet village on the modern Yucatan peninsula with his pregnant wife and child. He is young, handsome and as the son of the tribal chief already starting to gain the respect of the tribe. While on a hunting expedition he and his friends come upon an unfamiliar tribe who ask politely for passage through their territory; their own homeland was overrun by a vicious tribe of Mayans and they are refugees trying to find a new place to settle down.

Jaguar Paw is disquieted by this and his misgivings turn out to be merited; the same vicious tribe attacks his own tribe. Jaguar Paw, already a bit paranoid, manages to secret his wife and child in a deep pit where they can’t be seen by the invaders. The rest of the tribe are raped, gutted or captured to be taken to the Mayan city to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw knows that he has to somehow get away and make his way back to the now-deserted village or else his wife and child will surely starve to death.

Gibson is no stranger to violence and cruelty in his movies. Even his more mainstream films can show some fairly extreme brutality and this film may be the most violent in his filmography. There are hearts ripped out of chests, jaguars ripping faces off, arrows protruding into basically anywhere on the body an arrow can protrude from, people eviscerated with dull blades…the list goes on. Some critics took issue with this at the time, pointing out that the Mayan culture was also responsible for advances in mathematics and astronomy. The American South also had some of the finest writers and musicians of the 19th century but oddly enough nobody bitched about 12 Years a Slave failing to portray that part of Southern culture nor did it need to. It always blows my mind when critics miss the point so badly. I certainly disagree with the critics who said that the final images gave them a sense of relief. From my take, it was more a sense of foreboding.

Then again, Gibson was already under fire about his drunken anti-Semitic remarks for the first time, an incident that occurred while the film was in production which undoubtedly soured a number of critics on the film. Not that I agree with Gibson’s point of view in that regard, but part of what we’re supposed to do as critics is separate the work from the worker, the art from the artist. My opinions of Mel Gibson the human being shouldn’t inform my opinions of the films he directs. Braveheart is still a terrific movie. The Lethal Weapon series is still entertaining.

This is a gorgeous looking film (if you overlook all the blood and gore) and Rudy Youngblood in the heroic lead is astonishing. I thought that he had all the screen charisma needed to become a huge star but sadly that didn’t happen, or at least not yet and not here. Looking at his performance now, he captures the feeling of a smart hunter, one who operates more on instinct than intellect and one who knows the jungle and its dangers intimately. He is out of place in the city of the Mayans and the escape sequence is nothing short of thrilling.

As someone who loves history I have to applaud Gibson’s willingness to tackle an era and a place not often explored in the movies. I wish that other films since then went back to the ancient Mayan civilization and looked at it from different perspectives but to date that hasn’t really happened much. Hopefully some filmmaker with little regard for Hollywood’s restraints will go that road someday.

I have mentioned the violence and the gore several times and I will admit that as time goes by in the film you get kind of numb to it and those who are sensitive (if they last that long) may find the blood and guts wearying after awhile. However, I have to also point out that these things are part of the story and necessary to the point Gibson is trying to make. It isn’t necessarily a pleasant one and the brutality certainly gets your attention.

I think that this is a brilliant, underrated film. If you can get past Gibson’s sins as a person and simply look at the movie as if it were directed by someone else, you may find yourself appreciating the artistry and the independence from the Hollywood mainstream. This isn’t like any movie the major studios have produced before or since and likely ever again. This is one of those movies that may take a little bit of getting used to but it is worth the investment.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Exhilarating action scenes. A look at a time and place rarely seen in American cinemas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence and sadism wears on you.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some very graphic violence as well as some pretty disturbing images; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital special effects crew playfully added a single frame of Waldo from Where’s Waldo? lying on the pile of dead bodies.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.7M on a $40M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Road to El Dorado

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Inside Llewyn Davis