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Much is being made of the violent nature of Apocalypto, as if it’s breaking new ground in the gore category. This is a vast overstatement and, in my opinion, categorically false. There is nothing in Apocalypto that hasn’t been done elsewhere. Gladiator was just as bloody, and probably more gruesome in its depiction of the infamous Roman pastime. As mentioned earlier, Quentin Tarantino has made an awful lot of money making bloody awful films. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill series are character studies in gratuitous, and downright sick, violent acts on screen. Saving Private Ryan and Flags of our Fathers contain graphic and gory scenes of dismemberment, decapitation, and death. The Saw trilogy and American Psycho follow the depraved minds of two serial killers; while Ridley Scott made sure that Hannibal was filled with the excessive gore that Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon thought best left to the imagination. The downright disturbing film Monster won Charlize Theron the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004. The rape scene at the end of The Accused was quite controversial for 1988, but critics argued in favor of its ferocity, because of its “educational” value. Examples could be multiplied, but the point is that for the majority of the critics to be on the “too violent” bandwagon is completely hypocritical and borders on the absurd.
Reviewers like Claudia Puig from USA Today and Andrew O’Hehir from Salon.com criticize Gibson for not showing the positive achievements of the Mayan culture, like advances in mathematics and astronomy. “Advances in mathematics, astronomy, science and writing are ignored in favor of a focus on the Mayans’ decadence and barbarism. For Gibson, the Mayans seemed to have been all about decapitated heads and extracted still-beating hearts. The impressive temples they built appear to be of little consequence.” But this is exactly the point that Gibson is trying to make. In spite of all their successes and advancements, the Mayans were unraveling from within. Their supposed scientific understandings were of little value when they began to encounter unexplainable problems. Astronomy and mathematics are meaningless when your citizens are dying from disease and starvation. Praising the Mayan culture for their superior advancements is beyond the scope of this film. Puig’s (and others) real problem with Apocalypto is that she has been brought face to face with the human animal, and she finds it a bit uncomfortable. The “science” of our own day has told us time and time again that humans are nothing more than cultured animals—necktie-wearing savages. Yet this “highly evolved animal” is expected to be somehow different from the ones that we watch rip each other to shreds on the Nature channel. “Gibson sure knows how to shoot a sequence, but he also doesn’t know when to stop with the blood, gore and maiming.” But this reviewer can’t provide a good reason why Gibson should stop. He has assumed that there is a line of decency somewhere that Gibson has crossed, but far be it from him to point out where that is or justify its existence. The human animal only stops when the rest of the animal kingdom stops, when its prey is dead.
This is where all negative critiques of Apocalypto lose their credibility. On one hand, they will praise the street violence of a Martin Scorsese or a Brian De Palma film, yet condemn the jungle violence of Mel Gibson on the other. I have never heard a reviewer intimate that Scorsese has an unhealthy fascination with criminal violence, yet many of his pictures are centered on this very theme. In fact, Scorsese justifies his onscreen violence by claiming that, “Maybe we need the catharsis of bloodletting and decapitation. Like the ancient Romans needed it, as ritual but not real like the Roman circus.” But, where do we draw the line between Scorsese’s “catharsis” and actually carrying it out? If watching violence on the screen is helpful toward repressing our “animal instincts,” wouldn’t actually carrying it out in a controlled environment be even better? Gibson has done something quite unique here, in that he has put the savage back into the jungle and shows him behaving savagely. Out here in the jungle, the “human animal” doesn’t wear a suit and tie, just a loincloth. He doesn’t shoot his enemies with Glocks or .38s, he slits their throats or smashes their heads with a club. Out here in the jungle—just like the Mean Streets of New York—it’s kill or be killed; after all, the human animal is no different from the bear or the lion or the tiger. In a society where life becomes expendable to satiate the gods—whether they’re adult sacrifices or pre-born “fetuses,” gods of nature or gods of self—the result is the same. Historian Arnold J. Toynbee famously noted, “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.” And that was almost fifty years ago, imagine how much closer we are today.