Over the past couple of years, few people in Hollywood have gotten as much negative press as Mel Gibson. And not just Britney Spears showing her hoo-ha type press, but true vitriol. Granted, Gibson’s drunken Jews and Sugartits rant didn’t do his public image any good, but nevertheless, it has reached a point where the pile-on is just pathetic. Hell, not even Russell ‘Punchy’ Crowe has taken as many shots to the chin as Gibson has. Despite all that, Gibson is still smiling, and his latest film, “Apocalypto” shows that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
“Apocalypto” is ostensibly about the impending fall of the Mayan Empire (hence the foreboding title), but in actuality the movie has little to do with the Mayans at all, and the story itself is pretty conventional. It opens with our buff hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) leading a breathlessly filmed hunt for a Tapir. Jaguar Paw is part of a tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in harmony with the Yucatan forest. However, on this day they receive a stern warning from another tribe they come across who are fleeing a group of Mayan marauders.
The next day, Jaguar Paw’s village is sacked by these same marauders, who tie up all the captives and march them across the peninsula to their capital. There, the women are auctioned off and the men are painted blue and offered as blood sacrifices to the Mayan sun god to end a devastating drought that has ruined the fields. However, Jaguar Paw is saved from evisceration by the fastest lunar eclipse in history, manages to escape from his captors, and tries to make his way back to his village, where he had hidden his wife and child in a well.
All that narrative hokum is balanced by “Apocalypto’s” visuals, which are expectedly impressive and otherworldly, and while not quite on the level of “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” they certainly grab your attention. The jungle is dense and dangerous, the rivers are mighty and the falling trees are thunderous. And then we get to the people. Body modification fans will get a kick out of this film. There are all sorts of stuff sticking in and out of everyone’s ears, lips and noses.
But the sequence in the Mayan city is the movie’s crowning achievement. A chaotic circus of chanting crowds, gyrating dancers and impaled heads, the Mayan city is a seething mess of Fellini-esque grotesquery, almost to the point of parody. As the scene progressed, I was reminded of some of the so-bad-they’re-good late `80s “King Solomon’s Mines” remakes. Even the subtitles, with their post-modern diction and erectile dysfunction jokes, play off this archetype. This is pure sensationalism with violence and savagery as currency to barter with the audience’s bloodlust. Nothing new, nothing revolutionary, and nothing we haven’t seen before.
Even the much talked about human sacrifice scenes aren’t half as graphic or gory as the bed wetting critics would have you believe. In fact, they are only a step or two up from “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom”, and I suspect about as accurate. I mean, yeah, the severed heads bouncing down the steps of the ziggurat like taunted Happy Fun Balls (complete with POV head-cam) were a bit gratuitous, but it brought a smile to my face.
And it was at that moment that I came to the realization that Gibson was smiling too. Laughing, in fact, at all of us who were wringing our hands in outraged consternation over his ‘unbalanced’ portrayal of Mayan culture. “Apocalypto” was never meant to be a historical documentary, nor is it a critique of any social structure. It is a straight-ahead adventure/chase movie, and in that context it’s pretty good. The final 45 minutes of “Apocalypto” is one long chase, and Gibson keeps the tempo and energy high. Black panthers, vipers, poisonous frogs, waterfalls and spiked booby traps all factor into this exhausting sequence. The ending is fitting, hinting at the socio-political trappings everyone was probably expecting, but leaves that bit hanging as food for thought.
I’d be remiss not to at least give my take on the flood of self-righteous indignation that has followed “Apocalypto”. It would seem that many people are simply up in arms over this being a Mel Gibson production. It is a convenient outlet for their perceived moral forthrightness, as Gibson has become the pariah du jour since his drunken tirade a few months ago. My bemusement stems from the fact that the people who declare that they will not patronize this film as a show of moral solidarity against Gibson’s apparent racism/anti-Semitism are the same ones who have several Disney films in their kids’ video library, consider “The Godfather” one of their favorite movies, “The Searchers” one of the great American Westerns, and admire the pioneering efforts of D.W. Griffith.
Then there’s the criticism of the level of violence. They are describing it as gruesome, disturbing and in poor taste, yet these same people won’t bat an eye at the next Michael Bay bloodbath. Many are also complaining about the historical accuracy of the film and the unflattering portrayal of certain unusual Mayan religious practices. But as I said before, Gibson isn’t making a documentary, and few complained about the historical accuracy of “U-571″ or “Pearl Harbor,” so even this is a moot point.
Given the excess baggage that “Apocalypto” brings with it, it’s easy to read too much into the movie and give it all sorts of hidden meaning and significance that it simply does not possess. The fact that many are trying their damnedest to do so seems to be a case of casting stones in a glass house. Too bad most won’t realize that “Apocalypto” is Gibson’s big ‘F*ck You!’ to the establishment. Veiled behind a year of hype and mountains of unrelated controversy, the film is nothing like the spectacle everyone is making it out to be. Gibson has put us over like a schmuck buying the Brooklyn Bridge. Gotta give the guy a high five for that.
Mel Gibson (director) / Mel Gibson, Farhad Safinia (screenplay)
CAST: Rudy Youngblood …. Jaguar Paw
Dalia Hernandez …. Seven
Jonathan Brewer …. Blunted
Morris Birdyellowhead …. Flint Sky
Carlos Emilio Baez …. Turtles Run
Ramirez Amilcar …. Curl Nose
Israel Contreras …. Smoke Frog
Israel Rios …. Cocoa Leaf