Mel Gibson has become somewhat of a character these days. Gibson has become a bit weary of the “Hollywood” way of doing things and so has struck out on a course of originality that can be both inspiring and controversial as the man is himself. His “The Passion” film was viewed by many as the ultimate depiction of Christ’s suffering. At the same time just as many believed they were seeing a slant on Jews that was unfair. Just when a balance seemed to have been struck and his film was being accepted for what he claim…d it to be, Gibson the character mucks it all up. Unless you’ve been living in an isolated island somewhere with a mysterious bunker filled with corn flakes, you’ve by now heard quite enough of Gibson’s arrest and related comments about Jews. Undeterred by such setbacks, Gibson again chose a controversial subject and proceeded to create another of his “masterpieces”. This time the ancient Mayan civilization is the subject. Another film shot in an obscure language. These movies are overwhelmingly self-indulgent. That isn’t to say they aren’t any good. It just means that Gibson frankly doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.
Apocalypto is as complicated as the man who created it. The first observation I had was that the film was often best when it was at its simplest. Unfortunately Gibson doesn’t allow these moments to dominate with the impact they actually possess. There are inexplicable moments of slapstick that can only be explained by Gibson’s love for Three Stooges comedy. While that kind of buffoonery was welcome in the Lethal Weapon franchise, it is painfully out of place here. There is also a trend toward modern translations and phrases that are equally out of place. I’m obviously not learned in the Mayan language, so I can’t be sure if these phrases are actually what is spoken or simply misrepresentation in the subtitles. There is no question that the cinematography here is outstanding. The lush Mexican locations were well scouted and serve a great purpose in the overall realism of the film. Still, these beautiful locations provide a stark contrast to the brutality and violence often on display. The musical cues are also outstanding. The exotic rhythms and tones invite the viewer to become emotionally involved in the story. Finally, the cast is an excellent group of relative unknowns. Most of the actors are true native American descendents from as far north as Canada and into Mexico. Everything about this production gives you a startling visceral experience that I admit I haven’t felt in very many films I’ve seen. I missed this one on the big screen. I was admittedly put off by the Mayan language of the production. So my first experience was this DVD, which still gave me a relatively large screen experience.
Apocalypto is really two distinct stories. The first is almost a documentary study of the peaceful home life of a particular tribe. Gibson attempts, albeit too quickly, to endear us to these people and their way of life. We see these people in what are likely to have been common scenes of life for their time. This peace is predictably trespassed upon when an invading force attacks mercilessly. In short order the entire community is either killed or captured. A young pregnant mother and her young son remain, but trapped in the bottom of a well. As Jaguar Paw is being led deeper into the Mayan city, we see all the signs that this people is becoming industrialized. Jaguar Paw is led to one of the great pyramid structures where human heart sacrifices are occurring on an almost assembly line basis. Fortunately for our hero, a sudden eclipse spares his life, as it is decreed the gods are full. The reprieve is momentary, however, as the rest of the captives are now lined up for target drills. Jaguar Paw manages to escape, and the remainder of the film takes on the premise of “The Most Dangerous Game”. Waterfalls and quicksand tell us that originality is now out the window. Jaguar Paw makes it all the way home, but in the end we find the winds of change have arrived for all of these people.
The second part of the tale centers on Jaguar Paw (Youngblood). He has been captured by the invaders and forced to journey far away to the land of his captors. Here Gibson can’t resist the political jabs. The home of these Mayan conquerors is quite different from the thick jungles of Jaguar Paw’s home. Trees have been harvested almost to the point of extinction, and all around them is dirt and rock
In 1989 my wife and I journeyed to Chichen Itza from Cancun where we were on our honeymoon. The historian in me was quite fascinated by the grandeur of these structural remains. Some of these pyramids are still completely intact. You can climb the stairs where heads rolled in the film. From the top you can look out over the hot desert plains and imagine the once great society and culture is spread out as far as the eye can see. As I watched this film I was reminded of that pilgrimage 18 years ago. It got me to thinking. As I recalled standing there under the hot Mexican sun, I wondered why it was only the brutality and violence of these people that Gibson chose to display. What of the astronomical observatory that still stands thousands of years later? What of the cultural impact on the people of today? I wonder how Gibson would portray our own society given the chance to film its own ruins?
Apocalypto is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is absolutely a stunning transfer. Colors are as lush as the green jungles of Mexico. Black levels are superb and provide a depth of detail necessary for the images. Colors also shine in the Mayan city. The blue paint marking the newly arrived slaves is rich along with the other distinct tribal markings on the characters. The pyramid reds were unexpected but likely historically accurate. The only major flaw is that the film was made using both film and digital video cameras. While they join nearly seamlessly, there is a slight difference in grain and saturation. It may be hard to find these points, but once you do they become a bit of a distraction and you won’t be able to go back to not noticing again.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very effective. The James Horner score stands out as one of the most essential film scores I’ve experienced. There is very little dialogue, particularly in the last half of the film. Since the dialogue is Mayan and just about everyone must rely on the subtitles, the perfect centering is not so important here. There isn’t as aggressive use of surrounds as I would have expected for this film, but there is plenty of ear candy to help immerse you in the action. Again, the score does this more than anything else.
Mel Gibson and his film partner Farhad Safinia provide an entertaining commentary track. I actually found that the commentary was a plus to the film watching experience. There’s a lot of self admiration going on here, but there are some rather nice bits of information to gather. It helps that the dialogue isn’t so essential that you’re not splitting your attention so much here.
- “Deleted Scene” There’s one scene that depicts a badly burned deer heading away from the Mayan city. I’m not sure why it wasn’t used. You can watch it with Gibson’s commentary, but he never really explains why it was cut. All we know is there’s a deer out there pissed that his scene ended up on the floor.
- “Becoming Mayan: Creating Apocalypto” This 25 minute feature doesn’t really give us much more than is already offered in the commentary. The only asset is the behind the scenes footage. Most of the typical aspects of production are covered including costumes, make-up, and props.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of subtitled films. Reading the titles denies me the opportunity to explore the subtle film choices made. These minor details in set dressing or lighting often make a truly great film what it is. Good actors often make their mark with the slightest of expressions. It’s hard to catch those fleeting moments if you have to read what’s being said. Fortunately, for this film, the dialogue is almost a minor part of the film. This film plays out quite nicely as is. Still, Apocalypto is lacking that certain something. The film is presented beautifully. No one can deny the originality. But like the young victims of the Mayan sacrifice, the film manages to lose its heart somewhere along the way. This film is also not at all for the squeamish. The gore is very realistic and prevalent in some parts of the film. Somehow it is far more disturbing than more graphic depictions found in your typical slasher film. Perhaps it’s all in the context. And while Apocalypto will never truly be a great film, it is likely to move its audience with images that will “crawl into the soul of anyone who engages it”.
Special Features List
- Deleted Scene
- Becoming Mayan: Making Apocalypto
- Commentary by: Director Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia