Mel Gibson may be one of the most controversial figures working in Hollywood, but there isn’t much controversy to be had in his new movie Apocalypto. Instead, there’s a chase movie set amidst the last crumbling remnants of the once powerful Mayan civilization. That’s right, Mel sees the demise of one of the world’s most sophisticated civilizations as a Fugitive style thrill ride. Gibson sticks his audience in a time machine and uses it to show to them a half-naked Indian running through the jungle very fast.
That Indian is Jaguar Paw, a hunter from a village deep in the rainforest, captured by Mayan slavers and dragged across the countryside with his people to the heart of the Mayan civilization. There, they will be sacrificed to the Mayan sun god. Along the way we get a brief look at the slow rot eating up the Mayans: the people live in squalor, disease and famine are common, morality, if it ever existed, has been thrown out the window in favor of elevating the elite. But it’s not long before Jaguar Paw escapes and the movie gets down to business as he races through the jungle pursued by Mayan hunting parties, in a desperate attempt to get back home and save his wife, whom he left hidden deep in an inescapable hole.
It’s a simple and sometimes repetitive story, but Gibson does a capable job of telling it. He’s put so much effort into accurately capturing the details of the period in which the movie is set, that it’s immersive. Having his actors recite all of their dialogue in a dead language isn’t just a gimmick; it’s another piece of the puzzle in making a completely accurate portrayal of ancient Mayan living. People hate reading subtitles, but to me this is infinitely preferable to watching some poor Hollywood actor attempt a halting approximation of what it might sound like if a Mayan Indian spoke English. The film also shuns experienced actors, in favor of people actually from the region and in some cases, directly descended from the Yucatans the movie is about. Surprisingly, this works. He gets good performances, though it probably helps that you can’t understand what anyone is saying. Mel shoots it with the latest in digital camera technology, but rigs it in such a way that at times the movie looks like it was filmed on the fly by a struggling documentary crew. The result is a movie that plays like the best National Geographic special you’ve ever seen. It feels completely authentic.
Apocalypto is first and foremost a chase movie, all the talk about it being an examination of what caused the downfall of the Mayan civilization is mostly smoke and mirrors. That’s touched on, but only in passing. If the movie’s saying anything at all, it’s a hearty good-riddance to the sick, depraved Mayan culture. Maybe Mel’s glad Europeans finally showed up and brought in enough diseases to wipe out 90% of the Mayan population in just a few years. Is this his attempt at justifying the cultural genocide imposed on Native American cultures by the Catholic Church? This is not a balanced film. Apocalypto has a definite point of view on the Mayans, and spends none of the brief time it has left to fill between forest foot races on the good they achieved in their nearly 1000 years of American dominance. Not that I blame it, it’s kind of hard to pay attention to their achievements in astronomy when there’s a guy on top of the next pyramid over wearing human jawbones for shoulder pads and waving around a man’s still beating heart. I guess there are worse things than Catholicism. Who’d have thunk it?
Apocalypto is impassioned and well made, but the fact that it falls back on being a chase movie keeps it from really connecting. Focused for most its time on one running man, the movie never achieves the epic scale it needs to say whatever it’s trying to say about the bigger themes its looking for. Whatever his personal problems, Mel Gibson is still a good filmmaker and Apocalypto is a uniquely well made film. It’s just not a great one.