Apocalypto (2006): Gibson’s Exhilarating Action-Adventure

While watching Apocalypto, try to forget Mel Gibsons spiritual intent in making this pseudo-epic, and try to forget (if you can) Gibsons bad behavior off screen (DUI, anti-Semitic remarks, other prejudices). “Apocalypto” is the best action-adventure movie to have come out of Hollywood all year, with Gibson giving experts of the genre like Andrew Davis or Michael Bay a run for their money.

Everything you heard about Apocalypto is true. Set at the end of the Mayan civilization, the movie has no narrative or characters to speak of, its extremely violent, its played by non professionals who speak their own language, and its subtitled.

Keeping the dialogue to a minimum, Gibson, unsure of the kind of movie he wanted to make, has decided to structure his epos as one long chase, interrupted by torture scenes and fights with Nature and the elements. Apocalypto could have been titled, Run, Jaguar Paw, Run, because thats what the appealing actor is doing for two hours and ten minutes (its a long, long chase).

The real star of the picture is cinematographer Dean Semler, who provides an extraordinarily vivid and relentlessly powerful look at a culture seldom seen. Apocalypto boasts the kind of kinetic energy and visceral thrills seldom seen in a mainstream Hollywood film, and this one comes out of Disneys Touchstone!

The same gore and S&M approach that were evident in Gibsons previous pictures, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, are present hereonly more so. Apocalypto ups the ante of blood-and-guts (literally) Hollywood movies, using the same disingenuous logic of the crime-gangster films, namely trying to justify the gore onscreen by the realistic conduct of the films protagonists.

I may be doing disservice to Gibsons intent, but its possible to enjoy (if this is the right word) his massive, colorful, beautifully mounted spectacle while disregarding completely its historical setting, theme of the conflict between civilizations, and the end of the world message (hence the title). Nonetheless, since there is no dialogue, the movies purported goals of showing civilization on the brink of demise and the oppression of native cultures by large oppressive powers lack resonance for contemporary audiences.

Cast with indigenous natives, who reportedly speak the surviving dialect of the Mesoamericans, “Apocalypto” is wildly exotic and ferociously brutal, with torture scenes that involve tearing hearts out of humans, and cutting heads off and then let the camera depict the dismembered bodies falling down from steep rocks.

The skeleton of a script, credited to Farhad Safinia and Gibson, centers on half a dozen characters, who are taken as captives and then tortured to death. Apocalypto is basically a survival film, driven by the human hunt motif. The movie begins and ends with a wild chase. In the first scene, we witness a fast, brutal animal hunt that sets the tempo for the whole picture. The little info about the characters and their culture is offered in the first reel, after which Gibson forgets all issues that pertain to narrative cinema.

In the first chapters, Gibson establishes the intimate nature of family-oriented life in a small jungle settlement inhabited by free-spirited individuals. The only (intentional) humor in the whole movie is in these sequences, when a man is forced to eat testicales and later becomes an object of ridicule by his mother-in-law for failing to impregnate her daughter.

The sagas hero is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a handsome young man with flowing locks, tattoos, and body scars, who wears a loincloth. He is depicted as a family man, devoted to his wife and son. However, Gibson fails to offer any clues about the natives myths and values, thus preventing any emotional investment in them as human characters other than the generalized notion of being captives and victims.

The villages tranquil life is abrupted by the attack of brutal marauders, Holcane warriors, who sport bones through their noses. Their leader, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), is accompanied by the sadistic Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), who instead of killing Jaguar Paw, murders the captive’s father in front of him, thus launching the yarns chief conflict.

With his surviving fellow villagers, Jaguar Paw is bound and marched off through the jungle. Just before the attack, Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a deep, dry well. He promises Seven to return before she gives birth, and miraculously he does.

I suspect there might have been an earlier, more elaborate draft, in which Gibson and his co-writer dealt with the causes for the sudden collapse of the Mayan civilization. However, judged by whats presented on screen, we get only hints about possible famine, drought, and warfare.

In one of the films most bizarre and haunting scene, while moving through the forest, the prisoners pass by a young girl plagued with “the sickness,” who warns about the coming “blackness of day.” The exact meaning of her doom prophecy is never explained. As noted before, Gibson couldnt be bothered by such old-fashioned issues as dramatic conflict and characterization, instead resorting to a largely silent epic film, replete with horror scenes and grisly human sacrifice.

Whats missing in terms of narrative and drama is made up for by the elaborate production design, and Tom Sanders deserves special credit for his work, detailing the look and feel of each locale, from the derelict shantytown to the commercial districts, the slave market where the women are sold off and the central arena, where detached human heads are being bounced down the steps of a pyramid toward the cheering crowds below. The abundant blood and gore onscreen would please Tarantino and the fans of his Kill Bill pictures.

At least one reel is devoted to the chilling torture of the shackled prisoners, orchestrated by royals and high priests, who stick a sharp knife into a man’s body, while the victim is still alive, tearing out his heart as an offering to placate the gods to end the drought. Jaguar Paw and five other survivors are made objects of sport and ridicule in this arena.

The last reel depicts the long and eventful chase of Jaguar Paw, the only survivor, by Zero Wolf and his men back through the jungle. Periodically, to alleviate the intensity and variegate the proceedings, Gibson cut to Seven and her boy, trying to survive down in the pit. Various efforts to climb out of the place fail, and at one point, there are nearly drowned by torrential rains. In the midst of it all, Seven goes into labor and gives birth while carrying her son on her shoulders!

Casting director Carla Hool has done a great job in assembling a large troupe of savage looking warriors. The performers are appealing and photogenic. The handsome and energetic Youngblood is the closest the movie has to a protagonist, and he carries the whole saga on his broad and muscular shoulders, giving an utterly credible and compelling performance. Most of the action is seen from his POV, thus allowing the audience some possibility for emotional engagement.

Historians will have a field day with this picture, which takes liberty with facts and portrays the Mayans in a naive, idealistic way. They are peace-loving people who accept death and physical pain as integral part of their lives.

The sets, costumes, makeup, body and hair designs are extremely elaborate and detailed. “Apocalypto” is one of the best-looking films to be shot digitally. As he proved in the Mad Max films, Dean Semler is an ace lenser, and here his camera moves restlessly and relentlessly through dense forest and other rough terrains. According to the notes, the picture was shot on locations near Vera Cruz and in the rainforests of Catemaco, with additional shooting in Costa Rica and the U.K.

Who will see “Apocalypto”?

Realizing the potential effect of his bad press, Gibson has been conducting campaigns among ethnic minorities, specifically Latinos, and various ecological groups. The curiosity factor may also work in favor of the picture; after all, Gibson’s Previous feature, The Passion of the Christ, was a blockbuster that grossed $370 million.