So here it is — Mel Gibson’s supposedly visionary Apocalypto, and, truth to tell, it’s about as visionary as a 1940s Republic Pictures serial with the glossy sheen of an Indiana Jones picture lacquered over it. (In fact, with a little script doctoring, it might have been serviceable as Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Sun.)
Gibson opens the film with Will Durant’s famous quote, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” According to Gibson the film is an allegory about the state of things in the U.S. under George W. Bush, with its human sacrifices intended to mirror those of servicemen being sent to Iraq. That’s a pretty heady claim — and a conclusion I doubt anyone would arrive at without Mel having explained it. Personally, I’m not buying it. This is simply another excuse for Gibson to strip his male characters down to a bare minimum of clothing and subject them to tortures various and sundry. (Anybody care to explain why the man who has frequently espoused views that can only be called homophobic is seemingly fixated on this topic? Is there something Mel would like to share with us?)
In many ways, the results aren’t far removed from the current trend in horror films to work more and more as “torture porn.” The difference between Apocalypto‘s nonstop parade of sadistic violence and brutality and that of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) isn’t all that great. Though for all the hoopla about Gibson’s violence and gore, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. It’s certainly not the first time anyone has depicted a beating heart being ripped from someone’s chest, and our old buddy Conan the Barbarian rolled a decapitated head some steps back in 1982. The dynamic is the same, but Apocalypto ups the ante by giving us more than one cardiectomy and a variety of rolling heads — and in the name of meaningful drama rather than adventure/horror schlock.
For that matter, Gibson’s slender storyline fits nicely with a standard horror movie format. The peaceful tribe of its hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), live in a bucolic world that’s depicted very much like that enjoyed by the usual group of hapless teens on a camping trip. They even indulge in what can only be called an early form of frat-boy humor, duping one of their number into eating a tapir testicle for kicks, before convincing him to rub chili powder on his private parts as a fertility drug. Life’s just a hoot until a raiding party from the seat of the Mayan government show up to capture victims to be sacrificed to the gods. (For atmosphere, they kill a lot of people outright, abuse some women and take others to sell as slaves — in short, they’re a lot like the Chainsaw Massacre clan, but in flashier clothes and minus the chainsaws.)
Before being captured, Jaguar Paw manages to hide his very pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and their toddler child (Carlos Emilio Baez) in an old well, so they miss out on the carnage, but have to face the possibility of starvation (and being attacked by irritable monkeys) unless Jaguar Paw can escape and rescue them, setting up the movie’s serial-like climax. Basically, that’s all the story there is.
The rest amounts to a lot of creative deaths, extended chase scenes and not one but two utterly absurd outbursts of deus ex machina contrivances to save our hero from certain death. The first can hardly be called original, since it’s cribbed from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Perhaps Gibson felt he was taking things back to their roots since Twain wrote, “It came into my mind in the nick of time, how Columbus, or Cortez, or one of those people, played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my chance. I could play it myself, now, and it wouldn’t be any plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand years ahead of those parties.” But whether that absolves Gibson of plagiarism, too, is another question.) The second is hard to discuss without indulging in spoilers. Let’s just say, if you’re ever being pursued by a couple of guys intent on your disembowelment, you’d be well advised to run straight toward the nearest “surprise” ending.
Gibson’s claims of deeper meanings apart, Apocalypto barely scores as a wild and wooly adventure tale, albeit an impressive looking one. Its fun is diminished by the unpleasant tendency to dwell on physical pain and the pointlessly repellent (check out that mountain of rotting corpses complete with buzzing-fly noises), but is occasionally compensated for by the unintentional humor of its overkill and scripting absurdities. All in all, it’s just no great shakes on any level, and despite the claim of the tagline, “When the end comes, not everyone is ready to go,” I certainly was. Rated R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke