On the surface, Apocalypto
is an ambitious and richly imagined art film about the decline of a
great civilization, the Mayan empire. It's performed entirely in
Mayan, with subtitles. That's about as arthouse as it comes.
Yet inside this structure is a completely conventional script idea:
a man is taken from his family and swears to return to them. He is
kidnapped from his village after managing to get his wife and son to
shelter, then eventually escapes from his captors and leads them on a
lengthy pursuit back to his home.
arthouse film and the action/adventure film make an uneasy marriage;
so uneasy, in fact, that the film essentially divorces them. The first
half of the film is about the corruption and decadence that destroyed
what was probably the greatest civilization of the Americas. The
sophisticated art and architecture, a written language, and fairly
accurate concepts of math and astronomy. Although they never achieved
the levels of sophistication attained by the Greeks and Romans in
classical antiquity, there was probably a time before the Renaissance
when they were more sophisticated than Europeans in many ways. Their
achievements of their civilization, however, were spoiled by an
undercurrent of barbarism and human sacrifice, and a priestly class
that gained too much power over their lives. Apocalypto brings this
ancient civilization, with all of its wonders and terrors, vividly to
the screen, and breathes life into the paintings and temples that we
have previously only seen in tours and museums.
The sights and sounds of Mayan civilization are the stage which
impresses our eyes and ears, but our minds are engaged by the people
upon that stage for, as the film shows, they are no different from us.
They have beloved dogs. They treasure their children. They have
problems with nagging mother-in-laws, infertility, and erectile
dysfunction. They play practical jokes on one another and laugh
heartily. They tell stories which entertain and instruct. They are
capable of both compassion and cruelty at about the same levels we see
in people today. They fear the unknown. They resort to religious
explanations when they should trust in objective observation. They
implore their gods for mercy, and are willing to commit atrocities in
the name of those gods.
The script leads us to believe that it will look deep inside their
culture and see how it self-destructed, and it does keep that promise
for about 90 intense and fascinating minutes. Then it becomes a
different film. All the philosophical underpinnings are abandoned, and
it becomes a chase film in which our hero runs through the jungle
pursued by his former captors. There's nothing wrong with this part of
the film. In its way it is just as intense as the harrowing first
part, but it doesn't have much to do with 16th century Mayan
civilization. It's just a bunch of half-naked guys running through the
jungle in their underpants. They could be southern Asians in the 6th century,
or even vestigial Stone Age tribesmen of the 21st century, if
somewhere deep within the Amazon Basin. The movie's original premise, the
internal decay of the Mayan culture, is essentially abandoned to
present the usual jungle story filled with snakes and big cats and
quicksand and waterfalls. It's a good story, but is told at the cost
of abandoning the original premise.
Apocalypto has one other element which can be very annoying:
overuse of the deus ex machina. A script can get away with one
miraculous intercession of fate in the interest of a good yarn, but
miracles and coincidences happened so often in this film that the
story lost all subtlety. Just
as our hero is about to have his heart cut out on the sacrificial
altar, with the blade about to descend, there is a solar eclipse which
is taken as an omen, and he is spared. Later, at the very moment when he is about to be
overtaken and devoured by a jaguar, he inadvertently runs into his pursuers - and the jaguar turns on them instead.
Toward the end of the film, he is about to be overtaken by the last of
the hunting party and is on an open beach with no place left to hide,
when the Spanish conquistadors sail onto shore and distract his enemies,
allowing him to get back and rescue his family from their own series
of Paulinic perils.
Talk about a charmed life!
One caution on historical accuracy as well: the experts claim that
the sets of Apocalypto are all taken from Mayan ruins and artifacts,
but represent a historical mish-mash of different centuries and
different locations which have been condensed into one time and place
in the interest of dramatizing the culture more cinematically.
Furthermore, the urban culture portrayed here, according to
anthropologists, is actually more like the culture of the
Aztecs, with a few touches of decadent imperial Rome thrown in for
good measure. The crazed, assembly-line human sacrifice shown here was not a
common part of Mayan culture, if it existed at all.
Having noted those liabilities or potential liabilities, let me
point out that Apocalypto is a brilliant and underrated movie. Most
Hollywood filmmakers are offering us the same old pablum in a new jar,
but Apocalypto is genuinely original and audacious. The film's
creators rebuilt the heart of Mayan civilization, populated it with
breathing and recognizably real human beings, and told their story
entirely in their own language. The sights and sounds are imaginative,
powerful and consistently engrossing. The action is unremittingly
intense and involving. Most important, Apocalypto includes a grand and
sweeping story told well, which in turn provides the framework for an
smaller, more personal story which is also told well.
While Apocalypto seems to represent a lapse in Mel Gibson's
renowned gift for knowing what the people want (the box office was tepid),
there is no evidence of any lapses in Mel's filmmaking skills. This
film is arguably better than some of the Oscar nominees in several
categories for which it was not nominated. (It received only three
minor nominations for achievements in sound and make-up.) Even in the
grand prize category, I find it hard to believe that people think
Little Miss Sunshine was a better film than Apocalypto or Children of
Men, and I am the guy who has consistently argued that comedies should
receive a place at the adult table. I believe that this film would
have been nominated for far more awards if director Mel Gibson had
created it under a pseudonym. It seems to me that the film was
punished for the real or imagined sins of its creator.