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Without a doubt, Mel Gibson is an expert filmmaker. Say what you will about his public antics (or worse yet, the media’s bloodthirsty reporting of them) or his apparent love affair with the bottle, the man knows how to make a compelling film. Although I was underwhelmed by Apocalypto in its story, Gibson’s talent at making a tribe of Mayan villagers accessible to a twenty-first century audience blew me away. This is not a National Geographic documentary with a bigger budget; this is a blockbuster first and foremost, where the historical details play second fiddle. Gibson’s main goal with Apocalypto was making an action movie, specifically a “chase movie.”
I just wanted to fashion a really exciting chase. I wanted something fast and exhilarating. And I thought, What kind of chase? Cars? Nah, I'm sick of cars. Trucks? Planes? Been done before. Foot chase? I haven't ever seen a really good foot chase. A foot chase could be really primal, with animals and all sorts of stuff.
Gibson’s chase film has critics in a bit of an uproar as well. No longer content with bashing Mel the man for his public behavior, they are now resorting to questioning Mel the filmmaker’s sanity and his obsession with blood. It seems that making a violent film is tantamount to making anti-Semitic remarks in a drunken rage. “Nothing gets Mel Gibson's blood pumping as a filmmaker more than the sight, sound and splatter of someone's blood actually pumping or, in the case of Apocalypto, spritzing from an actor's temple, as the forest sunlight shines through the skull just so.” Critics seem to be unanimous that a film about human sacrifice should be much less bloody. It makes me wonder if these same critics have ever seen a Quentin Tarantino flick.
Apocalypto opens with a quotation from historian and author Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it destroys itself from within.” This quotation (and Gibson’s own cryptic answers to reporters) has done more to foster speculation that Apocalypto is really a modern critique of America and its political climate. Everything from the War in Iraq to immigration to religion is being analyzed in light of Gibson’s latest film. Nothing can be taken at face-value when Mel Gibson is involved, especially when he takes every opportunity to use the liberal media’s own tricks against themselves. Not long after his drunken tirade against Jews, he came out publicly against the War in Iraq and President Bush’s performance as Commander-in-Chief. The same media that was hanging him out to dry changed its tune almost immediately. This little stunt did more to clear his name with the media and in Hollywood (at least for a little while) than a hundred apologies ever would have. Mel doesn’t need a publicist, he does fine on his own.
The plot of Apocalypto is fairly anemic; a likeable, familial Mayan village is invaded and subjugated by a brutal tribe of bounty hunters and taken on a long hike through the jungle as prisoners. Their destination is the center city of the Mayan world and the prisoners are meant to be the freshest offerings to the “gods” who have allowed plague and famine to enter the Mayan world. Jaguar Paw, a brave with a young son and another on the way, is spared his life just as he is placed on the sacrifice block. An eclipse becomes a sign to the pagan priest that the thousands of human sacrifices that have preceded Jaguar Paw’s arrival have satiated the gods. What follows is an hour-long chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw escapes by killing his captor’s son and tries to get back to his village and his family. It becomes equal parts Tarzan and DieHard as Jaguar Paw uses clever tactics of the jungle to kill his pursuers one by one.
Where Apocalypto fails in its depth of story, it excels in sheer cinematic marvel. The photography is spectacular—without feeling overpaced. The film remains steady and steers clear of the temptation to deliver itself at a breakneck pace. The acting is remarkable, considering that almost none of the actors had ever acted before. The costumes, set design and computer graphics are equally impressive, all combining for a convincing step back into the Mayan culture. There are, however, several things on the “oh by the way” list that might interest potential Christian viewers. There is some female nudity in the film, although it is never gratuitous or full frontal. It is almost incidental and it is in no way sexual. In addition to this, an ill-advised subtitle and several grisly and violent scenes make Apocalypto quite worthy of its “R” rating.