Movie review by Greg Carlson
With “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson continues to earn his well-deserved reputation as one of Hollywood’s most consistent purveyors of sadism and gore in the name of heroism. A mostly cornball hodgepodge of obviously telegraphed movie clichés, “Apocalypto” clearly prizes drama over historical accuracy, despite the retainer of academic experts to lend a false sense of “authenticity” to the proceedings. Period movies rarely bother much with the details. After all, the play’s the thing. Gibson’s thesis, however, manages to be both woeful and wrongheaded. “Apocalypto” positively reeks with the underlying notion that decadent cultures are doomed to destruction. It would be unfair to spoil the film’s ludicrous ending, but visitors familiar with Gibson’s oeuvre will smell it from quite a distance.
Set sometime during the Classic period of Maya history prior to the arrival of the Spanish, “Apocalypto” revels in the depiction of brutal violence as a Maya village is destroyed by a raiding party of native bounty hunters rounding up future human sacrifices. Central character Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) manages to hide his pregnant wife and small son in a rocky well prior to his own capture, vowing that he will return. A forced march to a teeming city center comes with all sorts of despair and torment, especially at the hands of nasty Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), Jaguar Paw’s cruel tormentor.
Along with co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia, Gibson imagines a Maya city as a chaotic hell on earth where people are bought and sold, hundreds of workers are forced into labor, and priests make gruesome offerings of young men whose hearts and heads are separated from their bodies. The means by which Jaguar Paw is spared from the sacrificial altar is as preposterously illogical as it is visually stimulating. The second half of the movie is largely concerned with Jaguar Paw’s desperate race back home, enlivened by the excitement of a band of deadly pursuers led by the ferocious Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo).
Gibson alludes to a handful of possible reasons for the collapse of the Maya, including agricultural failure, disease, and clueless leadership. In one scene that should have been excised, a little girl prophesies a laundry list of horrors, basically giving away the rest of the film’s action. Gibson typically plays to the lowest common denominator, and the second half of “Apocalypto” is bursting with ridiculously over the top ham-handedness, especially in its dealings with Jaguar Paw’s wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) as she goes into labor.
Gibson himself has suggested that the movie is designed to offer allegorical suggestions about the moral flaws of modern society and its politics, but does making a movie so attuned to the spectacle of bloodletting simply add to the list of what’s wrong with us? Gibson completely ignores the technological and scientific achievements of the Maya in order to focus exclusively on a heightened sense of the dominating culture’s view that indigenous people are subhuman savages in need of spiritual rescue. Gibson is all too eager to reinforce the long held stereotypes of colonialist philosophy, and “Apocalypto” is weaker for it.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/11/06.