Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a machine of a film; racing amongst the endless forests to the towering Mayan temples. It may, in fact, be the first movie in history to contain a foot chase that lasts upwards of an hour. Like him or hate him, Gibson is a born filmmaker, able to direct with a knack for natural surroundings and lush beauty. He effortlessly transplants us to other worlds; worlds we know very little about.
The sudden demise of the Mayans remains one of the world’s great mysteries. Gibson and fellow screenwriter Farhad Safinia use the Mayans to shape what is otherwise, when you get to its core, a standard-issue revenge story. The Mayans are on the verge of collapse and are pillaging nearby villages and raping the women. The captives are escorted to the Mayan temple, where they are sacrificed to the gods. Among the captives is Jaguar Paw (Youngblood). With his pregnant wife and son the sole survivors back at the village, Jaguar Paw must battle a group of Mayans, as well as the elements, to reach them before it is too late.
This simplistic premise serves the film fine in terms of action and awe-inspiring moments, but it does next to nothing when it comes to historical value – something I was hoping for, even in the slightest. This is a tricky line to toe, but Gibson takes the risk with conviction. He knows that the average moviegoer is interested primarily in an exhilarating experience, and that is what he delivers – if you can handle the violence.
I can say with confidence than Apocalypto is in the top three most violent movies I have ever seen. Beginning to end there is excruciating violence via blunt objects, still-beating hearts ripped from chests, and enough bloodshed to make Quentin Tarantino gaze in wonderment. There is a certain poetic quality to it, even if it does get completely over-the-top and numbing by the third act. It almost seems as if Gibson revolves his entire pre-production around the violence, then weaves a story between it. This is a polarizing method for film making, but in this case it succeeds primarily because of Gibson’s masterful direction and pacing.
The cast, made up entirely of unknowns, lends a remarkably authentic feel to the entire project. Speaking entirely in the Mayan language, we are immediately enveloped. Newcomer Rudy Youngblood is a strong physical presence, particularly when he is asked to completely carry film for its final hour. He doesn’t transform into some superhero for the grand final chase, but rather remains grounded in the reality that Gibson creates from the outset.
Gibson was a divisive filmmaker pre-Apocalypto, and he has upped the ante post-Apocalypto. He wallows in violence and pushing the tolerance thresholds of audiences who view his work, but there is a certain poetic beauty to the madness. I would encourage him to do some more homework before his next period piece as it would add even more to the experience. Audiences are still capable of being entertained and learning. This is certainly not for everyone, but those than can handle it are in for one heck of an adventure story.
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
Length: 136 Minutes
Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images.
Theatrical Release: December 8, 2006
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia.
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Ramirez Amilcar