Apocalypto (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Apocalypto, Mel Gibson has proven it's possible to create a compelling action/adventure film in almost any setting. Gibson's theme (which is only partially developed), as revealed in an opening caption, is that all great civilizations fail when they begin to rot from the inside. Over the next 2 1/4 hours, he provides glimpses into the degeneracy of the Mayan society on the eve of its encounter with the Spanish conquistadores. However, Apocalypto is not a political tract or a dissertation about why the Mayan age came to an end. Instead, it's a high-octane adventure that concludes with one of the most intense extended chase sequences in recent movie history.

Apocalypto is not assigned a date, but since it concludes with an image of the arriving Spanish, one can assume the year is 1519. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a young warrior living in a peaceful village where hunting and making babies appear to be the primary occupations. Jaguar Paw has gotten off to a good start: his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), has given birth once and is pregnant with a second child. Still, Jaguar Paw has a distance to go to match the size of his father's family. Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) has ten children. The village's peace is shattered when a war party arrives from the center of Mayan civilization. The armed men torture, kill, rape, and maim. Jaguar Paw is able to lower his wife and son into a hole in the ground before he is captured and exposed to a forced march through the jungle. At the end of the journey lies the great temple and the prospect of being sacrificed to appease the Sun God.

Like two of Gibson's previous movies, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto doesn't avoid depictions of brutal, graphic violence. It is worth noting that some of the most heinous crimes, such as the rapes, occur off screen. Gibson makes it clear what's transpiring, but he doesn't feel the need to subject the audience to that. There's still plenty of blood and gore, including at least one instance in which the slitting of a throat is shown in unbroken detail. This is not a movie for the faint of heart.

There are more similarities to Braveheart than The Passion of the Christ. (While in the comparison game, it would be unfair to ignore the Aussie post-apocalyptic chase movie Mad Max, in which Gibson starred before his Hollywood career ignited.) Although the plot of Apocalypto is considerably different than that of Gibson's Oscar-winning picture, the spirit is much the same. This movie is about heroism and overcoming odds. Aside from the aforementioned violence, the only thing Apocalypto has in common with The Passion of the Christ is that both are subtitled. Because of this, a cynic could argue that Gibson has made the most expensive art-house action movie of all time. Will enough people put aside their aversion of subtitles in order to make this profitable?

Apocalypto is divided into three sections, as is true of many movies (both traditional and non-traditional). The film begins slowly, allowing us to get to know a small group of characters. We are given a glimpse into village life before everything comes apart in one of the most uncompromisingly vicious sequences in any movie released this year. The second part of the film encompasses the forced march to the city, ending with the selling of women into slavery and the preparation of men for sacrifice. The final act is a long chase. Lasting nearly 45 minutes, it maintains a high level of tension and includes many of the expected obstacles from this sort of jungle adventure: waterfalls, quicksand, and hostile animal life. Some viewers may feel exhausted when the movie is over. Apocalypto's final third is an unrelieved adrenaline rush. Action fans will love it.

If all the movie represents is a lot of pretty scenery and well executed action sequences, there would be nothing distinguishing about Apocalypto. However - and here's where the Braveheart parallel is the strongest - Gibson succeeds in forging a strong bond between the audience and the protagonist. This is done quickly and economically. We are shown the love Jaguar Paw has for his wife and son and the lengths to which he will go to keep them safe. He is also depicted as resourceful and durable. On more than one occasion, I found myself thinking of him as the MacGyver of the jungle. To provide an effective balance, we are then introduced to a villain, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who is as intelligent and dangerous as he is detestable. To up the ante, there's a second bad guy, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), who we probably want to see die even more than his boss, Zero Wolf. Snake Ink delights in torturing our hero when Zero Wolf isn't looking.

Apocalypto represents a forceful two-plus hours and it isn't for everyone. I appreciate that Gibson set this in a time and place we don't often see on screen. The cameras, operated by Dean Semler, make this long-dead world come alive. The setting makes the movie seem more exotic and less derivative, although those aspects don't lessen the excitement. Historians may quibble about the movie's accuracy, but Gibson isn't trying to make a documentary. The best thing I can say about Apocalypto is that, despite belonging to an overpopulated genre, it's unlike any other movie to reach theaters this year and, because it is as visual an experience as it is visceral, it is best seen on a large screen.

Apocalypto (United States, 2006)

Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Raoul Trujillo, Rodolfo Palacios
Screenplay: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: James Horner
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled Yucatec
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1