Apocalypto (2006)Rated R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images.
Starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena.
LVJeff's Rating: 6/10
Photo ©Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.
Mayan First Blood
Mel Gibson has directed four movies, and now I've seen three of them: Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and his latest, Apocalypto. In this trio of films, Gibson manages to reveal much about his psychology, at once fascinating in that he apparently unabashedly ascribes to what might be considered conservative values in a Hollywood full of liberal stories, and somewhat scary because of his predilection toward gruesome violence. He obviously believes strongly in a few simple things -- loved ones are worth protecting at all costs; those who would harm them are evil; and such enemies deserve righteous retribution. At times, struggles involving these beliefs reach mythic proportions.
Apocalypto illustrates this point in a manner so basic and direct that its proposed scope is deceiving. All reports have indicated that the movie is about events leading to the decline of the Mayan civilization shortly before its conquest by the Spanish. The title card kicking off the film is a quote from Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." And througout the movie, scenes depicting the process of capturing tribal people for the purposes of human sacrifice point to this overarching theme.
But the main narrative itself focuses on the trials of just one man: Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). He's a Mayan tribal hunter with a loving pregnant wife and a young son; his little community is a joyful one, full of family and friends who are all close enough to play a few spirited practical jokes on one another. However, in a plot development reminding one strongly of Braveheart (even to the point of mirroring a distinctive execution scene), one night invaders raid their homes and bind the adult men and women, killing a few resisters. What these foreign Mayans would want with their captives is unclear, but Jaguar Paw soon learns a few awful truths, and the more awful they're shown to be, the more we, the audience, fervently root for his escape -- and perhaps even a few just desserts for his captors.
The story is effective and linear, but when you take a step back, it honestly feels like a Mayan version of First Blood. It's actually amazing how much this movie took me back to the '80s, with the revenge elements of Rambo and the thrill elements of seminal chase flicks like Predator and The Terminator. Gibson does everything in his power to manipulate the feelings of his audience, and give him credit for doing a good job -- the build-up is so well-paced and the bad guys are drawn so ruthlessly that we can't help wanting to cheer when a few of them bite the dust. The biggest triumph in all this is in presenting a protagonist we can get behind. Even though he's from an old and unfamiliar culture, his human qualities come through.
But I also suspect this result has a lot to do with Gibson's imagining of the people as beings not so different from modern Americans who value family, a supportive community, and good times. Jaguar Paw's tribesman enjoy hunting together, playing pranks on each other, and listening to the elders tell their stories, so the overall sensation is one we might get if we were watching a family reunion where they go out to the yard to play some football with the boys exhibiting some boys-will-be-boys behavior (at one point, we even get a nagging mother-in-law). On one hand, this is a smart approach because it communicates a universality between cultures past and present; on the other hand, it may also show a somewhat limited imagination, or -- at the very least -- too obviously reveal its moral analogies.
Those analogies, about the ways any strong civilization can crumble by not looking after its own the way its own small sub-communities do, may get lost in the translation under the shadow of its chase/kill-or-be-killed plot. Along with strengths, the movie comes with weaknesses, such as the tendency to depict the villains as mostly two-dimensional, thus clearly dividing the Good from the Evil. But overall the action is streamlined -- and replete with multiple instances of sickening blood, guts, and gore (I emphasize the word "replete," with decapitations, hearts getting pulled out, blood spraying, animal attacks, and more!) -- such that we become fully invested in the fate of the hero, Jaguar Paw.
And, despite a few pointers in the movie to remind us that this story correlates to the end of a people, the results of one hero's visceral and thrilling journey may be all we really take away from Apocalypto. Gibson's film entertains without leaving the stronger impression of scope it had the intention and potential to do.
©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 30, 2006