With his personal life reduced to fodder for stand-up comedians, Mel Gibson tempts further derision with his latest film, an epic set during the collapse of the Mayan empire, with an almost exclusively indigenous cast speaking Yucatec Maya. Whatever his shortcomings, Gibson is a director with vision and ambition. Apocalypto takes place on a scale few filmmakers today would attempt, and it is a measure of Gibson’s talent and perseverance, as well as his respect for old-fashioned storytelling, that it succeeds as well as it does.
The film approaches its topic through a metaphoric back door, using the experiences of a group of enslaved villagers as a way to show what life was like as the Mayan empire peaked. Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia fall back on familiar stereotypes to set up the story. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young father being groomed as leader of his village, must overcome his fears when he is captured. Among his friends is Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), an imposing but kind-hearted strongman who is the butt of practical jokes. Their enemies include Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), a relentless warrior who will kill his own men if they can’t keep up with him; a son trying to live up to his father’s expectations; and Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), a sadist who toys with his captives. With such an absolutely foreign setting and characters, Gibson can ignore many of the credibility issues that dog other adventure epics. We can never know we certainty how the Mayans spoke and behaved, but these characters are always persuasive and at times deeply moving.
The plot could just as easily been staged as a Western, and many of the incidents in Apocalypto resemble those in adventures as varied as The Last of the Mohicans and The Naked Prey. If you’ve ever seen a jungle movie, you will be prepared for the poisonous snake, the pit of quicksand, the barbed booby trap, the man-eating cat, the deadly waterfall, etc. They appear like clockwork here, but with such heart-stopping beauty and unexpected humor, it’s as if they are being shown for the first time. Drawing on Dean Semler’s fluid cinematography and John Wright’s precise editing, Gibson gives even the hoariest moments a conviction and sweaty immediacy that can be tremendously involving, although few scripts would attempt as blunt a deus ex machina as this one does.
After The Passion of the Christ, it may be impossible to avoid finding religious inferences in all of Gibson’s work. Parts of Apocalypto have an Old Testament feel, just as any story about slavery and sacrifice might. But more insistent than religion is the film’s oblique but credible environmental warning, one based on solid archeological evidence.
For those who worry about Gibson’s personal beliefs, the good news is that Apocalypto is an engrossing, full-bodied movie filled with thrills and spectacle. When Jaguar Paw is dragged into a Mayan city, and the full scope of Gibson’s vision is revealed, the film commands respect and even awe. The bad news is an occasional lack of restraint that turns some scenes unintentionally funny, like the headless dummy that bounces the steps of a pyramid. Whatever your feelings about him as a person, credit Gibson for bringing an incredibly difficult project to the screen, and not only making it work, but on such a majestic scale.
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, Isabel Diaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena, Rodolfo Palacios, Ariel Galvan, Bernardo Ruiz, Ricardo Diaz Mendoza, Marco Antonio Argueta.
Crew: Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia. Produced by Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey Executive producers: Ned Dowd, Vicki Christianson. Director of photography: Dean Semler. Production designer: Tom Sanders. Film editor: John Wright. Music composed by Mayes C. Rubeo. Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo. Visual effects supervisor: Ted Rae. Co-produced by Farhad Safinia. A Touchstone Pictures presentation, in association with Icon Productions, of an Icon production. In Yucatec Maya with English subtitles.
Touchstone/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/138 Mins./Rated R