Say what you like about Mel Gibson – and you might well say that he’s a fundamentalist bigot – but you can’t say that he doesn’t know how to create a world you can believe in.
As he did in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, in Apocalypto Gibson drowns you in the gorgeousness, grime and gore of the distant past. This time it’s the jungles and massive stone temples of the era of the Mayans, whose pre-European civilization dominated what is now the Yucatan Peninsula/Guatemala area in Central America.
Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a young husband and father in a hunter-gatherer tribe living in the jungle. It’s a good life – his wife is hot, his son is cute, dad is of the Wise Old Warrior school, there’s plenty of practical jokes going around, and the jungle is beautiful and full of food. Then one day a strange, bedraggled group of strangers passes through. They are fleeing something terrible.
Soon that terror arrives, in the form of Mayan raiders who rape, murder or enslave almost all the adults in the village.
The surviving tribesmen are hauled away by the fearsome Zero Wolf and his sadistic sidekick Snake Ink to a Mayan capital, a city festered with decadence and cruelty.
Apocalypto features a strong score and charismatic performances from Youngblood and the rest of the cast, but what is really extraordinary is how it looks. The cinematography is the best I’ve seen since House of Flying Daggers, with at least two simply jaw-dropping bits of camerawork during the last half-hour. Then there’s the fantastic piercings, tattoos, armour, weapons and jewelry. A helmet made from a jaguar skull. A chain of beads running from ear to ear through the nose. A knife with an obsidian blade and carved bone handle.
As Lauren said afterwards, this film is a feast for the senses.
However, it’s not a feast for the mind, despite Gibson’s effort to load it with meaning. He opens the film with a quote about how great civilisations decay from within before they are destroyed, but this is a load of old cobblers. Not all empires fall apart within before being overwhelmed from without and besides, as an accurate depiction of Mayan culture and history, Apocalypto makes Braveheart look like a historian’s doctoral thesis.
Elements of Mayan civilization that were separated by many centuries are meshed together, and their achievements in art, astronomy and mathematics are ignored in turning them into degenerate monsters. He also appears to have confused them with Aztecs, which is rather like confusing Greeks with Germans. Nor did hunter-gatherers like Jaguar Paw’s tribe lived near such Mayan cities.
But, aside from history geeks, who cares. Granted, Gibson should have made it clearer that this was closer to fiction than fact, but a movie is entertainment, not a documentary. Apocalypto will get a lot of people interested in the Mayans (it certainly had Lauren and I checking out Wikipedia) and is a thrilling action movie.
But, even given that it is something for adrenaline junkies, Apocalypto is excessively violent. As he showed in The Passion, Gibson has a disturbing taste for blood. He drenches Apocalypto in it. For me only two moments were truly in-your-face disgusting, but those with more sensitive tastes will find much more of it hard to watch. And, for all the inventiveness of the carnage, it gets a bit repetitive.
Still, despite its flaws this is an exciting film set in a vivid and fascinating world, with images that will linger for a long time. If you think you’ve got the stomach for it, do see it on the big screen.