The plot of Mel Gibson's latest film, Apocalypto, is simple enough. The Mayan civilisation is about to collapse due to drought and the people have taken to human sacrifice in an effort to appease the sun god. Jaguar Paw's (Rudy Youngblood) village is massacred by warriors from the Aztec city about a day's journey away and he is captured, along with other men an women of his village, to be taken to the temple to be a sacrifice. A fortuitous natural event leads to avoidance of being sacrificed and, after being the victim of a cruel sport, he escapes. The rest of the movie is a thrilling chase through the forest as Jaguar Paw returns to his village to rescue his young son and pregnant wife who he has hidden in a deep pit, promising to return for them.
As an action thriller, Apocalpyto is excellent. The pace never slows, the acting by the non-professional cast is excellent and entirely believable, the photography absolutely brilliant, and the imagery of a crumbling civilisation very powerful.
I have to admit to not knowing much about Mayan culture and I felt, as I watched the movie, that I was learning a lot. But that's one of the problems with Apocalypto. After reading a couple of online articles written by archaeologists about the movie and its relationship to Mayan culture (see Related Links), it is clear that Gibson has not been faithful to the history or culture of the Aztecs. He has collapsed events over hundreds of years into a 2+ hour film with no attempt to convey the actual history. Gibson has also modified clothing, adornment, weaponry, body markings, and rituals to cinematic effect. The impression is also given that Mayan societies were extremely brutal and violent. They did, indeed, practice human sacrifice, but apparently some of the portrayals of violence in the film exaggerate historical reality.
Mel Gibson loves his violence! Apocalypto is ruthless in portraying, up close, the bloody fights and the human sacrifices. Some have even suggested that the Gibson's violence is pornographic - a suggestion I heard in relation to Gibson's previous film, Passion of the Christ.
Apocalypto is clearly intended as a metaphor for the condition of America -- as Gibson sees it. But, as some have pointed out, he is possibly sacrificing Aztec/Mayan culture in aid of his message. Some have suggested that the dreamlike arrival of Christians at the end of the movie suggests that, for Gibson, only Christianity can be the saviour of American society. For some reason, I thought that, after the collapse of the Mayan civilisation, the real collapse was about to occur with a colonial religion taking over where the Mayans had left off! I must be getting too cynical.
As a movie, Apocalypto works well. It is exciting, engaging, suspenseful, and provocative. But if the criticisms made by scholars is true (and it seems they are), then don't go and see this movie intending to learn something historically accurate about Mayan culture and history. Apocalypto is a mixture of fact and fiction.
As Traci Ardren has stated, 'It is surely no surprise that "Apolcalypto" has very little to do with Maya culture and instead is Gibson's comment on the excesses he perceives in modern Western society. I just wish he had been honest enough to say this. Instead he has created a beautiful and disturbing portrait that satisfies his need for comment but does violence to one of the most impressive of Native American cultures.' So, watch it with caution!
My Rating: **** (out of 5)
'Mel Gibson is always good for a surprise, and his latest is that Apocalypto is a remarkable film. Set in the waning days of the Mayan civilization, the picture provides a trip to a place one's never been before, offering hitherto unseen sights of exceptional vividness and power.' - Todd McCarthy/Variety
'It's "Braveheart" without historical significance and "Passion" without spirituality, though it dabbles in both, and it represents as brazen an act of career suicide as I can recall from a star director. If he were a first-timer, he'd never work again.' - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer
Sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images