Directed by Mel Gibson
(in Yucatec, with English subtitles)
Possibly the most exotic action film ever made, Apocalypto takes you back to about 1500 in what is now Mexico before the white man arrived. The Mayans held sway over southern Mexico as a more advanced civilization (agriculturally, industrially and militarily) dominating various forest-dwelling tribes who survived by hunting. When the Mayans experienced crop failures they believed that it was necessary to perform human sacrifice to regain good favor with Kukulcan, their supreme god.
The story centers around a young man from one of the forest tribes, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who is captured by a band of bounty hunters paid by the Mayan priests to acquire young men to be sacrificed, appeasing the gods.
Mel Gibson’s stated theme (quoting historian Will Durant before the opening scene) is that great civilizations fail not due to attack from the outside but from rot from the inside. The idea isn’t very well developed in the film. Sure the Mayans are decadent and superstitious, but did that lead to their decline? Was their belief in human sacrifice their problem? The film fails to show how their decline was tied to any of those things. That failure didn’t have much effect on my enjoyment of the film, but Gibson should have left off the quotation. A quotation prominently displayed leads one to believe that the movie is trying to be deep and philosophical. Apocalypto is great for what it is: pedal-to-the-metal action set in a fascinating ancient civilization untouched by the while man.
This is an outstanding rendition of a classic old tale: a clash between a stronger, more advanced culture and a more primitive but pure and noble culture – making Jaguar Paw a “David” up against the Mayan “Goliath”. This could be dismissed as typical popcorn-cruncher action-movie stuff except for the exotic locale and the fine craftsmanship. Will Jaguar Paw overcome huge odds to defeat the bad guys and get back in time to save his pregnant wife and young son? Gibson first makes you care a lot about Jaguar Paw and family and then delivers over two hours of the most stunning action you’ll ever see.
Almost all good movies are three-act plays. Apocalypto builds you up in the first act: we meet the peaceful hunters in their village. Our affection for them turns into sympathy when they’re terrorized by the Mayan bounty hunters. How can Jaguar Paw free himself to return to his wife and young son? Second Act: the forced march – days in the jungle bound to bamboo poles -- to the spectacular Mayan city -- culminating in the epic human sacrifice scene on top of a pyramid a couple hundred feet high with a crowd cheering below. Act Three: Jaguar Paw’s escape and chase by the bounty hunters – great action – best action sequence of 2006.
The visual elements of Apocalypto, production design, costumes, and makeup put it in rare company, It’s absolutely the best of the year in those categories. The walk into the Mayan city culminating at the towering alter where the sacrifices are performed is an amazing trip into something too exceptionally designed to be imagined from scratch. The design team worked from available Mayan art and other archaeological elements. I’ve never seen such creative use and adornment of extras – what faces!
Also highly visual – although not for everyone – are the action sequences. In the human sacrifice scene a man is splayed across the alter. His heart – still beating -- is cut out and displayed to the cheering crowd below; finally his head is cut off and tossed down the steep stairway to the crowd. In another sequence, a jaguar tears a man’s face apart before being stabbed to death by Zero Wolf’s crew. The one and only reason not to see Apocalypto is the gore – it’s all appropriate given the subject material, but if you can’t watch over two hours of non-stop, graphic violence, you probably should skip it.
Childbirth scenes are a dramatic stable at the movies – women give birth in all sorts of adverse circumstances and the audience can’t help but be moved. Apocalypto has the most heart-wrenching one in memory. I can’t imagine how to top it.
Action movies require convincing villains. Apocalypto presents Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) as the leader of the marauding band of bounty hunters out to get Jaguar Paw and his tribe. Zero Wolf is not only scary and fierce but in a determined and focused way. This is business -- he’s in this to get paid – in contrast to one of his underlings, the sadistic Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios.) The two have a confrontation after Snake Ink pushes one of the prisoners off a cliff. Zero Wolf doesn’t appreciate that – he’s being paid by the head. After an intense stare down, Snake Ink backs down, confirming Zero Wolf’s status as the alpha male of the raiding party. Interestingly, while procuring the men to sacrifice was a job that he performed with the confidence of a professional warrior, he winced during the ceremonial sacrifice.
This is -- by far -- the best action movie of 2006. I know that many action fans have an aversion to foreign-language film. I really hope that those fans will make an exception in this case. It won’t hurt you to read a few subtitles for the sake of authenticity. It would have ruined the other-worldly feel of the film to put English dialog in the characters’ mouths. And you need to see this on the big screen – transfer to DVD will diminish this powerful film.
Images are copyright BuenaVista Pictures.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.