Apocalypto (2006)

Apocalypto first published by Film4, here slightly altered

Summary: In this epic Mayan adventure, Mel Gibson charts the End of Days, and hopes for a new beginning.

Review: No matter what you think of Mel Gibson, he is certainly an audacious gambler. His previous film The Passion of the Christ (2004) featured two dead languages, and was uncompromisingly gruesome – but, thanks to a vast, largely untapped constituency of Christian viewers, made the director a mint. Now his follow-up, Apocalypto, risks alienating the mainstream movie-goer even further. Not only are all its lines spoken in the Yucatec Maya dialect (spoken today only by inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula), but it boasts an all-indigenous cast of virtual (or in some cases actual) unknowns from across the Americas – both characteristics of a kind of cinema which, though readily accommodated by the arthouse, would normally suffer box-office death at the popcorn-churning multiplex where this filmmaker’s other sensibilities are at home. And as if this were not enough, just months before the film was due for release Gibson launched into a drunken anti-Semitic rant that undermined what little good will he had left with the liberal press.

All this may seem to be what one of the film’s characters would term a “bad omen”, but any Gibson-haters out there hoping to see the heart ripped out of his success may well find themselves disappointed by Apocalypto‘s relative merits. All at once a meticulous reconstruction of a lost empire, a ripping boy’s own adventure, and an eschatological allegory, the film has something for everyone (except the very young, owing to its violent content). Though by no means entirely free of flaws, in sheer cinematic terms it is Gibson’s finest film to date – and its spiritual underpinnings are thankfully less doctrinaire than might be imagined. 

A loving husband, doting father and skilled hunter, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) leads an idyllic life in his small jungle village – but there is trouble threatening paradise. Early one morning, a troop of warriors carries out a brutal raid on the village, marching off the surviving captives through lands ravaged by plague, drought, deforestation and pollution, and on to the big city, a Babel of consumption and corruption. There the women are sold into slavery, while the men are sent to the pyramid to be sacrificed as an appeasement to the gods – but destiny has a spectacular escape in store for Jaguar Paw. Despite his injuries and an implacable band of pursuers, he must dash back through the jungle to his home and overcome impossible odds, in order both to save the wife, boy and unborn baby that he has left behind, and to seek a new beginning for a civilisation that has lost its way. 

Like Braveheart, like Passion, even like Mad Max 2 before it, Apocalypto is yet another thinly veiled retelling of the New Testament gospels according to Mel, with, as the title suggests, the Book of Revelation thrown in for good measure. Jaguar Paw is a messianic figure whose advent has been prophesised, and when he is not being forced to bear a piece of wood on his shoulders, or stretching out his arms for execution, he is having his side pierced or miraculously surviving death. 

This kick-ass Jesus also bears witness to the End of Days, watching a whole society collapsing under the weight of warfare, disease, environmental degradation and depravity. Here Mayan civilisation is a mirror to our own, and its disintegration prefigures a broader Apocalypse. Yet when actual as opposed to metaphorical Christianity turns up in the film’s closing scenes, it has an unexpectedly equivocal status, as much a future problem as a solution to the current one – for does this ship of faith bring salvation, or might it just represent another form of crusading, conquering colonialism that will further ravage Jaguar Paw’s once Edenic community? It is an ending whose ambiguity might well serve, paradoxically, to unite rather than divide both evangelicals and agnostics in the audience. Gibson has always played to the crowd, but this is a subtle kind of equivocation that has previously eluded him.  

The film does have its share of potential controversies. Although Gibson is to be congratulated for being the first mainstream filmmaker to engage in any serious way with the Mayan civilisation, he might have focussed a little more on the culture’s extraordinary achievements in mathematics, astronomy and art, and a little less on its savagery and primitive otherness. Gibson’s decision to have an all-native cast is of course commendable, but cynics might wonder whether this also helped him avoid having to pay a vast ensemble at union rates. Of course all manner of experts will come forward to dispute the authenticity of this or that detail in the depiction of Mayan practices and architecture – and let’s not get started on that anachronistic ending. 

All this might be forgiven in what is, as Gibson has himself conceded, ultimately a work of fiction. Less excusable, however, is the film’s self-indulgent pacing. To be sure, the jungle sequences, shot in Mexico’s last remaining rainforest, are exquisitely beautiful, but there are just too many of them. Dean Semler’s mobile camerawork may impose a sense of fluid momentum on every event, but even so, there is only so much impressionistic footage of a man running through trees that can be endured by (no doubt urbanised, jaded and decadent) viewers before their attention gives up the chase – even if there is an angry jaguar, a perilous waterfall and quicksand to enliven the action, Tarzan-style. Without Gibson’s maverick, daredevil spirit, Apocalypto would probably never have been made at all – but apparently that same spirit prevents him from listening to reason in the editing room. Thirty minutes or so shorter, and this might have been a masterpiece – but as it stands, Apocalypto is still eminently watchable.

Verdict: All at once reconstruction of a lost empire, ripping boy’s own adventure, and eschatological allegory, Mel Gibson’s Mayan movie comes as something of a Revelation.

Anton Bitel