Yucatán, Central America. (No date is given, but certain events in the story took place in 1519.) The Mayan Kingdom is in decline, and the rulers feel the only way to halt it is to appease the gods by building more temples and having more human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a member of a jungle tribe who is captured and intended for sacrifice.
Apocalypto will certainly not be for everyone. Given that it begins with a tapir being hunted, killed and gutted, and features graphically gruesome violence more or less throughout, it’s quite understandable that anyone at all squeamish should give this a wide berth. However, some people will avoid this simply because of the identity of its director and co-writer, Mel Gibson. I certainly can’t condone certain anti-Semitic outbursts Gibson has made lately, but ultimately it’s the tale I’m reviewing here, not the teller. Apocalypto is a physically impressive, though often gruelling experience, that shows that Gibson certainly does know how to direct a film. It depicts its landscape with considerable flair. However, when it comes to the figures in the landscape, the characters in the story, it’s on less sure ground. Apocalypto features several shots of hearts ripped out of bodies, and somehow that’s an appropriate metaphor for the whole production. You’re impressed, your attention is held (two and a quarter hours pass by quickly) but you don’t, in the end, really care.
Gibson – clearly influenced by certain of Werner Herzog’s films - begins the film slowly, introducing us to the members of the tribe, who apart from hunting seem largely occupied in making babies. As with The Passion of the Christ, all the dialogue is in the authentic language, with English subtitles. (If that puts you off, don’t be – there are long stretches without much if any dialogue, and there are probably no more subtitles than there are in Dances With Wolves, say.) Then the soldiers from the city arrive. The middle of the film is an impressive setpiece where the captured villagers are led up the side of a high temple and severed heads bounce down into the crowd below. The way Jaguar Paw is saved from death is something of a scriptwriter’s convenience – and total solar eclipses don’t happen that quickly – but it sets up the last part of the film, which is a long chase sequence. In addition to his pursuers, Jaguar Paw has to contend with some of the hazards of nature, such as a high waterfall, not to mention a jaguar and a poisonous snake. Meanwhile, Jaguar Paw’s heavily pregnant wife and their son are trapped at the bottom of a deep hole…
The film’s ending is clear enough, but its intention is a little puzzling.
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|As the film ends, we see the Spanish conquistadors land. The Mayans’ world is certainly coming to an end, but is Gibson suggesting that Christianity is these people’s salvation? The conquistadors could be just as brutal as the people they supplanted.|
As a production, Apocalypto is physically very impressive, with Tom Sanders’s production design being a particular standout. The city sequences feature thousands of extras: no doubt CGI is at work here, but it’s a compliment to say that it looks convincing. Dean Semler’s camerawork – originated on HD Video, not celluloid – has a slightly bleached-out, grainy look that’s effective. This isn’t an actor’s film, but the cast do look their parts.
If you have the stomach for it, Apocalypto is certainly worth a look, but you may find it’s a film that contains many admirable things but falls short of being one you actually love.