Apocalypto (2006) / Adventure-Action

MPAA Rated: R for graphic violence and disturbing images
Running time: 139 min.

Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Jonathan Brewer, Dalia Hernandez, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Mel Gibson, Farhad Safinia

Review published June 20, 2007

Actor-turned-director Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ, Braveheart) returns to bloody territory yet again with the adventure-action film, Apocalypto, which sees the ancient Mayan civilization on the decline shortly before the coming into contact with the Europeans who would eventually change their every way of life.  Although the story itself isn't much more than a standard chase vehicle, the production is elevated by Gibson's decision to recreate the atmosphere of the Mayan civilization as much as possible, which included very intricate costume designs, make-up, and actors that speak their lines in an actual Mayan dialect, Yucatec Maya.  Although the main story itself is simple, Apocalypto is unique for its immersive experience into a culture and world that is different than the norm, untainted by outside influences. 

The main protagonist of the film is a villager we come to know as Jaguar Paw (Youngblood), a hunter who sees his extended family and friends taken into slavery, if they weren't killed altogether, by a much more formidable presence.  Jaguar Paw saves his family (for the time being), but ends up captured himself, and finds that himself taken into the heart of Mayan civilization to ostensibly be used in a ritualistic sacrifice to restore the dying crops.  To save himself, and his family, Jaguar Paw must figure out a way from his bonds, and escape the deadly, brutal forces of his much more dominating captors.

Like Gibson's other works, Apocalypto is a violent, testosterone-laden treatment of historical events that concentrates more on the personal journey and hardships therein than it does in teaching anything about people as they really existed.  As long as you aren't looking for an accurate historical treatment, the film delivers a unique cinematic adventure that draws you immediately in through its realistic portrayal of the serene community existence, before seeing it all taken away in an instant.  Although brutal, perhaps to excess, Gibson's visceral style reels us into this peculiar world from the get-go, which helps us overlook the clichés of the last hour of the film. This could have been just a routine survivalist tale if not for the fact that we come to genuinely care about Jaguar Paw's emergence, and we hope for his tormentors to get their final comeuppance.

Even if you aren't into the somewhat gory nature of Gibson's vision, or even in the simple survival story at the heart of the film, there's no denying that Apocalypto is stunning to look at, full of rich imagery, gorgeous cinematography, and fantastic special effects.  Just from the point of view of recreating the times, while it may be somewhat anachronistic when looked at with a historian's eye, the level of detail involved is very impressive.  It's easy to immerse oneself completely in the world of the Mayans, even if they were reportedly not close to being as savage as depicted in the film.   

There is a debatably needless "deus ex machina" scene late in the film which might confuse the issues thematically, but by the time it arrives, most viewers will probably have resolved to take whatever Gibson throws at us at face value.  After all, once prophecies as foretold by sick young girls begin to come true, eclipses happen in the nick of time, and jaguars pounce on cue, what's one more coincidence to pile on to the fable?  Think of this more of an action movie with depth than a historical drama or political comment on the state of civilization's decline and you'll come a long way to appreciating Gibson's work for some gutsy in-your-face entertainment. 

Qwipster's rating:

©2007 Vince Leo