With Apocalypto, Mel Gibson has created a highly unconventional adventure film that supersedes most other films of the genre on the basis of originality alone. Gibson sets the mysterious events of the film near the end of the Mayan civilization and visually keeps his film at peace with its period décor. He recreates authentic looking villages and clothing and even cast various unknowns in all the major roles. From the very first shot of the film there is a sense that we are being transported to another time and place. The illusion is quite affective.
What’s lacking in Apocalypto is the storytelling done within the engaging world that Gibson has made. Plot seems secondary to bloodlust here as Gibson paints the downfall of Mayan society as a bloodbath that goes beyond realism and into something ugly and atrocious. The sheer amount of time spent filming fields full of mutilated corpses says something strong about Gibson’s psyche. He’s not making a justifiably violent film. He’s filming a slaughter. The scene in which Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) notices his village is coming under attack begins with a creepy amount of suspense, grows into a horrifyingly visceral moment of utter violence, and then keeps going and going and going. We see so much screaming and bleeding that it actually becomes dull. I was reminded frequently while watching Apocalypto of a quote from the fabulous Showtime series “Weeds” in which Jenji Kohan writes this regarding Gibson’s brutal The Passion of the Christ: “Religion my ass, it’s a straight up snuff film!” While I also felt that The Passion was grisly, it had an objective and a sense of sobriety that’s lacking here. In The Passion violence took on a dark and mournful tone. By comparison, Apocalypto seems like some sort of primeval slasher movie.
Conversely, there is some wonderful stuff done with these characters and their relationships in the first half of the film. Though we are forced to watch them be tortured over and over again as their captors lead them toward an unknown destination, the endurance of their spirits on this trip is probably the only bit of story that resonates with actual depth. There’s also a brilliant sense of association with these characters forged by the shape of the film’s script. It makes us as clueless as the captives with regard to where they are being taken. We know little of this society and their fates could be as gruesome as the mind could foresee (and maybe much worse). However, by the time we’ve reached the second half of the film, there is almost no story left to tell. Jaguar Paw is being hunted by various people with knives as he attempts to make the journey home to his wife and child (he hides them away during the earlier invasion to keep them safe). This entire portion is mostly filled with frenzied handheld shots of people running through trees while Jaguar Paw and his pursuers play cat and mouse games with one another. It’s a very tedious and very long section of the film that stretches much too far and surpasses even surrealistic levels of logic. At one point, a character is hiding from murderers while giving birth and drowning simultaneously.
Gibson is constantly playing with all kinds of themes and ideas, but never really narrows in enough to let us know what he’s aiming for with this movie. He just massacres people before our eyes and says nothing more about it. I was often reminded of The Proposition while watching this movie. That was an even more aggressively cruel film, but it examined with brilliantly unflinching eyes the cost of justice and the dangers of unquestioned morality. Brutal deaths were tragedies that spoke greatly of the flaws of mankind. In Apocalypto, brutal deaths aren’t fun either, but there’s no real sense that any of this serves a purpose beyond popcorn spectacle.
I clearly have some venomous feelings toward this film, but it is undeniably better than most action adventures of our day. If you love bloodthirsty evisceration films or similarly minded films of plotless brutality, Apocalypto will seem like a dream come true. For those of us with less of a taste for blood, the film still works in many ways. There’s the aforementioned sense of connection to these characters as well as a really exciting visual style that elevates the material well above the rest of the pointless action romps of the year. My anger toward it comes from a disappointment that it is not something even better than what it is (an above average thriller). There are small moments of actual meaning and just the faintest hint of a poetic touch here and there, but none of it gets used to the best of its potential. I did enjoy this movie, but it’s simply too torturous and too pointless to receive a more enthusiastic recommendation.