In 2004 Mel Gibson shocked the world with his depiction of the final hours of Jesus with the tasteless The Passion of the Christ. His next project, Apocalypto, was to be even more ambitious. Spoken entirely in Yukatek and depicting a pre-colombian civilization before any contact with Europeans, Apocalypto had great potential to explore a world never before visited in the cinema. The trailer indicated that could’ve been the case: it was creepy and ominous, but most of all, very visual and exotic. It’s a pity that there are only a couple of scenes in the actual movie that convey any of that sense of wonder. Most of Apocalypto is just a tame narrative lacking in imagination but bristling with historical inaccuracies and racism.
The problem with the plot it’s not that it’s simplistic, but that it is a complete waste of an opportunity to show something really new. Mel Gibson and screenwriter Farhad Safinia (is this a real person?) not only conform to the most formulaic story elements of the American cinema, their script does not even deliver as a satisfying action-adventure. And if that is the premise, there’s something fundamentally wrong here. If you have the means and the opportunity to make a film about a pre-colombian civilization, showing characters with a culture that has been so far neglected by most mainstream art forms, is action the genre you really want to go with?
We are presented with a Mayan village and their inhabitants, mostly hunters. Exposition follows in the most trivial manner, the group of hunters taunting a fellow who has marital problems. The comedy here is probably intended to disalienate viewers, but it seems like a cheap way out, instead of providing us with something that would be really interesting. Apart from them speaking Yukatek and the fact that they’re almost naked, there is nothing to indicate that these are mesoamerican indians: we have no sense of their culture, values, hopes and dreams.
This village is consequently seized by another group of Mayans, this time much more civilized. What they gain in technology they lose in morality, as they are portrayed as heartless and sadistic, killing all the women and children and taking the men to their city. Our hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) manages to hide his family in a pit, in the hope he can come back to rescue them. The sequence in the city is the only reason to see the movie, as it shows what Apocalypto could have been if Gibson wanted it to.
The Mayan city is visually exuberant, a marvel in production design. The Mayan aesthetic and architecture is as strange to us as anything in a science fiction movie, and probably even more alienating, since we still retain a sense of this being a culture that actually existed in the remote past. It is beautiful, confusing and terrifying at the same time, and for ten or so minutes the film lets itself be completely descriptive. And for the first time we see that which is most important in a film about ancient cultures. That, as obvious as it may sound, is culture.
Unfortunately in Apocalypto barbarism is not the absence of culture, quite the opposite. The urban Mayans are highly immoral and have seized the men from Jaguar Paw’s village only to sacrifice them. The biggest flaw of the film is not its excessive violence, as many have noted, but choosing to tell Jaguar Paw’s story over that of the Mayan civilization. The very elements that should have been the focus are only background to what becomes quickly an action film. The last fifty minutes or so of film is a cat and mouse chase in the jungle, complete with fights, a jaguar, and traps. Two particular scenes resemble a lot Mission Impossible II.
The ominous title, Apocalypto, reminds us that this is a time of revelation, and possibly the end. It doesn’t seem appropriate at all until the very last scene, which I will not discuss. I’ll only say that it, along with the title, suggest heavily that Apocalypto pretends to be a very serious movie about civilizations rather than people. Somewhere along the line, however, Mel Gibson decided that the fate of one not particularly notorious man is of more interest than that of a whole civilization.