It’s easy to find reasons not to go see the new Mel Gibson film. His transformation from lovable leading man to movie mogul has been rocky, marked by incidents of anti-Semitism and strange behavior. In discussing Apocalypto I’m choosing to put aside the filmmaker’s controversial behavior and file this review under “Judge the Art not the Artist.”
shares some of the characteristics of Gibson’s last film, The Passion of the Christ—the violence, the dialogue in a long extinct language and exacting period detail—but most of all it offers up the same passion. Gibson takes the conventions of a Hollywood action movie and transports them back to pre-Columbian Central America with gusto. Instead of a standard car chase a jaguar tracks the hero. Gone is the urban jungle replaced by a real one. Apocalypto really is a thrill ride from frame one until the end.
The film starts with an ominous quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” The internal rot that quote refers to is a tribe of vicious Mayans who pillage villages, destroying entire communities before kidnapping the survivors to use as human sacrifices. One strong willed captive, Jaguar Paw, narrowly escapes a grisly sacrificial death and is pursued through the jungle by a team of killers hell bent on capturing him and “wearing his skin as a suit.”
The bulk of the film is taken up by the chase as Jaguar Paw races to return to his homeland, rescue his pregnant wife and son who were left hiding is a giant crater and avoid capture.
It’s a bloody and nail-biting sequence. Gibson doesn’t shy away from the violence—there are decapitations complete with rolling head point-of-view shots, a nasty jaguar attack that could have been featured on When Animals Go Crazy and lots of cutting and jabbing followed by spurting blood. It’s strong stuff, but in amongst the blood and guts is a strong eco message and some timely political comment about leaders who lie (Rumsfeld anyone?) and don’t always act in he best interests of their people.