Film Score: James Horner Cinematography: Dean Semler
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernández, Gerardo Taracena and Raoul Trujillo
Apocalypto is an historical action-adventure film. It’s a fascinating concept and it takes a director like Mel Gibson to pull it off. Like the Die Hard or the Lethal Weapon franchises, the deus ex machina is working overtime here stringing together coincidence after coincidence to get our hero, Jaguar Paw, out of certain death. It happens so many times that you would think it would destroy the suspension of disbelief, but Gibson makes it work. The insight into the culture of the Mayans is also a fascinating aspect of the film, regardless of how much of it is fiction. The second half of the film is probably most like First Blood in the way that the enemy suffers a high rate of attrition. The film was controversial for a number of reasons, the violence, the inaccurate history, Mel Gibson’s foibles, you name it. But what remains is an undeniably powerful film that is haunting in its portrayal of the kind of fear most people will, thankfully, never have to experience.
In the jungles of Central America Rudy Youngblood is hunting a wild tapir with the men from his village. As they are dividing up the meat Youngblood hears someone behind them. Another group of Mayans want to pass through and his father, Morris Birdyellowhead, gives them permission. Youngblood wants to find out from the group what happened, but Birdyellowhead tells him no. It is better to face the unknown with courage than to know what’s coming and allow fear to sow defeat. The danger is real, however, when the next morning slave hunters invade the village and take away as many men as they can capture. Those who survive the onslaught are tied up and marched through the jungle. As they pass by a young girl with small pox, she makes a prediction about a man who brings a jaguar and turns the day to night who will kill off all of the slave traders. Finally, they reach the city. But only the women are sold off as slaves. The men are to be used as human sacrifice. It’s a horrible scene of a culture desperately trying to appease the gods but with no idea that what they’re doing isn’t working. When it’s finally Youngblood’s turn, however, something miraculous happens.
Gibson certainly has enough experience with the genre to know how to film this kind of action movie. Multiple cameras, not only hand held but also placed in the canopy of the jungle, catch the chase from several angles and the editing by John Wright is impressive in the way that it propels the action forward without getting lost in a morass of different shots. Gibson also has the stomach to show some graphic killings, though this is the element of the film that is most thought provoking. Man’s inhumanity to man, it would appear, has almost nothing to do with civilization. If a culture can rationalize the killing and torture, from the ancient Mayan’s to the slaveholding southern United States, then it will go ahead and do it. On repeat viewings, the first half of the film is actually more moving than the second. It’s the same kind of powerlessness that one feels when watching a film like The Mosquito Coast. Those with power just can’t leave well enough alone.
Gibson and fellow screenwriter Farhad Safina purposely set out to write an action film that would be unique, and felt the way to go was back to the past, no CGI, no modern weapons, and a stripped down setting in which to stage it in. They also did their homework, consulting experts in the field to ensure as much accuracy as possible. Of course that’s nothing more than a challenge to other experts who came up with numerous inaccuracies. But that’s hardly the point. The dramatic arc of the film actually needs to take precedence over history. Whether the human sacrifice depicted in the film was more reminiscent of the Aztecs than the Mayans is also beside the point. The Maya did participate in human sacrifice. And the irony of the ending of the film is absolutely delicious, with the human slaughter by the aboriginal peoples of the region paling in significance to what was coming. Apocalypto is an emotional juggernaut that definitely has its flaws, but they don’t come anywhere near to attenuating the overall impressiveness of Gibson’s vision and the strength of the film.