Set before the Europeans arrived in the New World, Apocalypto focuses on a small village in the Yucatan peninsula. The natives, Mayan by culture and language, live in relative harmony with nature and each other. A young hunter, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), lives with his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and their son, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez), in one of a group of huts that surround the village's center. As the senior hunter, Jaguar Paw's father, Flint Sky (Morris Bird), seems like the natural leader of the village. From the small group of hunters, one stands out (besides Jaguar Paw, that is), Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), who, due to a combination of his size and his lack of children, is the butt of the other hunters' jokes. While there's an element of rivalry in the relationship between Jaguar Paw and Blunted, they're also friends.
This seemingly idyllic existence doesn't last for long, though. Holcane warriors from a nearby Mayan city led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), a fearsomely tattooed and scarred warrior, and his second-in-command, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), arrive in the early morning and attack the village. The villagers who resist are injured or killed, the men and women are taken into captivity, and the children are left behind. In the melee, Jaguar Paw manages to temporarily save his wife and son, but only by leaving them inside a nearby well. Although Jaguar Paw promises to return and save them, he's quickly overcome by the Holcane warriors, tied to the hunters, and escorted through the rain forest toward the Mayan city.
Jaguar Paw's journey takes him through drought-stricken farmland, a mining operation, a shantytown populated by the sick and dying, a marketplace, and ultimately, the center of the Mayan city, where crowds comprised of different social classes, including the nobility, watch and listen restlessly to a high priest promise better times for the Mayans, as long as they appease their gods through human sacrifice. As he and his companions are covered in blue paint and escorted closer to the central pyramid, Jaguar Paw's begins to understand the fate that awaits him and his companions (a lesser fate, slavery, awaits the women). A combination of fate, luck, and a rare celestial event allows Jaguar Paw to escape the city. The Holcane warriors follow close behind.
Story wise, Apocalypto follows a straightforward, familiar path, from the opening scenes of idyllic village life, the ruthless attack by the Holcane villagers, Jaguar Paw's separation from his family, the journey to the Mayan city, Jaguar Paw's escape with the Holcane warriors in hot pursuit. His goals are simple, surviving long enough to free his family and escape to safety. Apocalypto's second half is essentially a riff on The Most Dangerous Game (a bored big game hunter lures men to an isolated island, and hunts them). The Most Dangerous Game was first filmed more than seventy years ago. Since then, it's been remade many times, several times unofficially (e.g., Surviving the Game, Hard Target), it's hard to go wrong with Apocalypto's second half, the all-chase-all-the-time sequence as Jaguar Paw attempts to evade and/or defeat the Holcane Warriors led by Zero Wolf and get back to his family.
Not surprisingly, the scenes set in the Mayan city treat the Mayans as impossibly alien and exotic, but again, no surprise here, the closer Jaguar Paw gets to the center of the Mayan city, the closer we get to what really fascinated Mel Gibson, and, to be fair, casual interest in Mayan and Aztec culture: human sacrifice. While the premise here is that the Mayans are furiously hunting, capturing, and executing their male prisoners to their gods as appeasement for presumed wrongs or sins, Gibson lingers lovingly over the rituals surrounding human sacrifice. With Jaguar Paw as our viewpoint character, we see and hear what he sees as he passes through the city, but his observations are from the outside looking in, a stranger in a strange land, awed by the city's grandeur, and terrified by the fate that awaits him and his friends.
Ultimately, Gibson's decision to minimize exposition and maximize action with gratuitous violence makes Apocalypto feel an expensive exercise in exploitation. While Gibson has talked publicly about the message he wanted to convey in Apocalypto, a cautionary message about cultures or civilizations ending as a result of environmental degradation, superstition, fear, and warmongering, the action first, dialogue second approach doesn't do much to help Gibson's cause. Apocalypto's muddled themes, superficial exploration of ideas (even using the word "exploration" is stretching things), and Gibson's obsessive, fetishistic depiction of violence betrays Apocalypto for what it is: a shallow action/adventure film with pretensions to grand themes or ideas with contemporary relevance.
Setting thematic issues and the exploitation question aside, some, maybe most moviegoers are going to object to how Gibson decides to end Apocalypto. While Gibson resolves the conflict between Jaguar Paw conflict and the Holcane warriors and whether Jaguar Paw arrives in time to save his wife and children, thus giving Apocalypto some measure of closure, Gibson also couldn't help himself and decided to include a deus ex machina that essentially makes Jaguar Paw's personal struggle meaningless, at least as promised by the film's title. When Gibson used a deus ex machina earlier in the film (i.e., the orphan possessed by a spirit who prophesizes doom to the passing Holcane warriors) was both clever and somewhat credible, but relying on a deus ex machina a second time is bound to leave moviegoers feeling cheated.
That's not to say Apocalypto is unwatchable. Far from it, actually. Gibson spared no expense when it came to production values. A few dodgy effects shots aside, the sets and costumes are top-notch. Say what you will about Gibson's choice in material, but he certainly knows how to attract top-tier talent. For Apocalypto, Gibson obtained the services of Dean Semler, a cinematographer with an Academy Award for Dances With Wolves (he also worked on the two Mad Max sequels, The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). Given Gibson's desire to film Apocalypto on location in Mexico and Central America, often under arduous conditions, Semler and Gibson decided to shoot Apocalypto on the latest generation of HD video, Panavision's Genesis camera system. Outside of occasional strobing during the chase sequences, it's almost impossible to tell that Apocalypto was filmed on HD video. It's that good. And Semler's cinematography is often stunning to watch.
Ultimately, Apocalypto's production values (e.g., sets, costumes, and cinematography) and one-hour chase sequence will be more than enough to entertain paying audiences looking for superficial entertainment with the patented Gibson twist (e.g., gratuitous violence and brutality). What that doesn't make Apocalypto, however, is anywhere as deep or insightful as Gibson promises in all the television ads where he steps in front of the camera to partially explain his intentions.
© Mel Valentin, 8th December, 2006
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