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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Apocalypto" (2006)

This will not be a review of Mel Gibson’s personal problems or how he dealt with them. This is a review of his latest movie and nothing more. I have already heard from several people that they will skip Gibson’s movie, because of his drunk driving incident last July. That’s fair enough and a good statement to make. For those of you who will leave that at the door, who won’t be taking that stance and who want to see the movie based solely on its content, I can say you’re in for a treat. I am guessing, however, that you’ll be outnumbered and Gibson will have proven wrong the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I would never think to try and defend Mel for his actions that led him to this situation, but I can certainly defend this film.

For my money, it’s a damn good time at the movies. It’s fast, relentless, artful and daring. It has a storyline that has been told over a dozen times in horror movies and thrillers, with slight variations. It has no pretense about it other than wanting to thrill the hell out of you, which it likely will. It seems to be a splitting of the difference between two of Mel’s most popular movies. With Apocalypto, he has taken the action of Braveheart and combined it with the intensity and savagery of The Passion of the Christ. The camera doesn’t shy away from the violence and the action is beautifully staged.

The story goes like this: A peaceful tribe gets invaded by a brutal Mayan tribe who chain the men up and take them captive in order to appease a God, whom they feel needs human sacrifices in order for their culture to maintain prosperity. One of the captives, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), manages to escape this fate. He runs. They chase him (even though they don’t need him for anything). Meanwhile, Jaguar Paw’s pregnant wife hides with her son in an underground cave, unsure of how to get out if she should have to, you know, give birth.

But back to Jaguar Paw and the other Mayans. For the second half, Apocalypto pits one man against eight in a fight for survival. More than anything, it’s a chase film with elements of horror. Jaguar Paw starts out as the victim, but eventually becomes the killer. As we’ve seen in many revenge films, the chasers become fearful of the capabilities of their prey. After incidents involving panthers, waterfalls and tiny little darts, they have every reason to turn around and just go home. But what fun would that be for us?

The brutal nature of this film should really be underscored. The Mayan execution sequence is a triumph not only in design, but in the depiction of a merciless hell on earth. The innocent men are brought up to a tower high above a large mass of spectators, who cheer as severed heads roll all the way down the long stairway. The headless corpses eventually follow and are stacked like bags of moss. This cruel world has been brought to vivid life in such a way that we not only flinch and wince at the thought of such a thing existing, but we’re kept in total suspense as there seems to be no way out of it, other than maybe the viewer getting up to walk out, which some might.

When I walked out of Apocalypto, I thought I had seen Gibson’s finest directorial effort yet. Days later, though, I realized that it may have been a knee-jerk reaction. The film moves at such a brisk pace, you don’t really have time to think about such leaps of logic, such as how the underground cave can fill up with water so fast from one simple rainfall. We also don’t learn much about these cultures other than the practical jokes they might play on each other, a story around a campfire or the odd mating ritual. The storyline seems interchangeable, as this could easily have been a fourth Mad Max film.

But what Apocalypto lacks in food for thought, it more than makes up for in thrills and intensity. This film seems to come not from the mind of Hollywood Mel Gibson, but of the one we saw on South Park. He seems to revel in this brutality and upping the ante each time. It’s almost infectious, even though we know he wants us to make a connection on the spiritual themes between this and The Passion of the Christ. Gibson still ponders what spiritual force turns men into monsters, only here we just sit and hope the monster doesn’t catch up to its prey. It’s one hell of a chase all the way through. Take it or leave it. I’ll take it.

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