With each successive film Mel Gibson has directed, he seems to become more and more removed from traditional filmmaking. That is not a complaint, certainly, as such, non-traditional fare still made within the Hollywood system can prove interesting, Passion of the Christ being the perfect example of this. However, in his latest effort, Apocalypto, which has just arrived on DVD, Gibson seems to have shed too much of what makes for interesting filmmaking (like a plot and fully developed character arcs).
The film follows the Mayan culture, on the eve of its downfall. Like ancient Rome after its Golden Age, by the time the film occurs the Mayan civilization is past its prime. It has become a bloated, self-serving, gluttonous civilization. The strong oppress the poor for the former’s “glory,” selling members of weaker tribes into slavery if they are women, and decapitating them for the larger society’s benefit if they are men.
The story, minimal though it is, follows Jaguar Paw, a Mayan man trying to make his way in his community. Jaguar Paw and his whole village are attacked by another Mayan tribe, which proceed to enslave them. The adult survivors of the attack — save Jaguar Paw’s wife and child — who have managed to hide, are tied to poles and made to trek through the forest. The children who survived the attack are made to stay behind and perish while on their own.
After a hellish trip through the wilderness, Jaguar Paw and his brethren arrive at their captors' city, but not before a little girl tells the captors that they will suffer greatly in the near future. The women of Jaguar Paw’s tribe are quickly sold into slavery and the men are dipped in blue coloring and prepared to be sacrificed. After two sacrifices involving the removal of the heart and eventually a beheading, it is Jaguar Paw’s turn. He is, through fate, saved, and with some help ultimately manages to effect an escape from the Mayan city. The last part of the movie (approximately 45 or 50 minutes worth) follow Jaguar Paw on his escape through the jungle, and the cat and mouse game between Jaguar Paw and his pursuers.
Jaguar Paw, the main character, grows very little during the course of the film. The main change in him is that he is able to go from losing a fight against a stronger enemy to winning. That change, however, is as much a result of luck and circumstance as it is Jaguar Paw’s adapting. He is essentially no different at the film's end than he was earlier. He has fewer friends now, but that is only because they have been murdered.
Apocalypto reveals nothing of Mayan culture, save their use of slavery, building of temples, practice of human sacrifice, and their complete and utter brutality. Gibson, as a star and a director has never been one to shy away from violence, but there is a level of bloodshed and viciousness displayed in this movie that is truly disturbing. From a jaguar biting someone’s face, to decapitation, to arrows through the back of the head coming out the mouth, and to clouds of blood created through brutal head trauma, the film is one bloody scene after another. Gibson goes out of his way to show a minimal number of breasts in the film, opting to earn a hard “R” rating with carnage.
The Mayans in this movie are depicted in an horrifically bloodthirsty manner. The one group, we are told, that is more bloodthirsty and brutal than the Mayans, are the Europeans. This is, apparently, supposed to make the audience feel okay about seeing a culture depicted with little to no redeeming value – “it’s okay that these people are so horrible, because we are worse.” But, that is a poor excuse for such a depiction.
There are, unquestionably, some wonderful aspects of the film. Apocalypto has a wonderful look to it, rich in color and intricate in detail. The Mayan city, even if the story does not linger there, is fantastic to see. There was clearly a lot of effort that went into the decorations on and about the characters in the movie, and a sense of realism to all the proceedings. One of the few bonus features on the DVD, a behind the scenes look at the movie, goes through, in detail, what it took to build and populate the city. It is a wonderful achievement, but for the five or ten minutes the film spends there it seems like too much energy went into the wrong place.
Apocalypto's plot is not terribly deep: a man is captured and then escapes. If the movie was not shot in a dead language and did not take place a half-millennium ago, it would be dismissed instantly as strictly a B-movie. But with Gibson’s name on it and the amount of time, money, and effort put into it (not to mention the clear pretentiousness of it all), it is hard to classify it as such. Rather, it is more easy to see this as a failed attempt on Gibson’s part to explore Mayan culture. There are some interesting elements present in the movie, but they are all overshadowed by its overly bloodthirsty nature.
Apocalypto’s DVD release contains a deleted scene, a behind the scenes documentary, as well as a commentary track by Gibson and co-writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia.