Thursday, December 9, 2010

APOCALYPTO (2006): A Civilization in Decline

Compared to Mel Gibson’s last film (The Passion of the Christ), Apocalypto is a mild movie.  This is oddly significant since an important scene in Apocalypto includes the depictions of the tearing out of hearts and the decapitations of many Mayan victims.  Apocalypto contains a number of typical Gibson touches that are on display in the Mad Max trilogy, Braveheart, The Patriot and, of course, The Passion.  It also borrows from a number of adventure movies that take place in the jungle, all of which seem to include scenes where someone is going over a waterfall.  There is also some resemblance to The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.  The last half of Apocalypto involves an almost conventional chase scene through the jungle where the hero of the movie, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), eludes his captors.  Yet having said this, Apocalypto is the strangest and most worthwhile movie I have seen this year.
Jaguar Paw lives in a small jungle village disconnected from the major cities of the Mayan empire with his pregnant wife and small boy.  He spends his time gathering food and hunting wild boar with a party of male villagers.  Jaguar Paw’s father is a magnificent hunter and tutors the many members of the hunting party (and especially Jaguar Paw) on the ways of life.  Sometimes the tutoring includes especially cruel and extremely funny pranks such as the tricks he plays on a weaker member of the party whose manhood is in question because this party member has been unable to have any children with his wife.  While hunting wild boar, the hunting party runs across some Mayan stragglers who are obviously in fear and who are fleeing some sort of pursuers.  Jaguar Paw senses their fear and is bothered by this.  Jaguar Paw’s father coaches him to never fear because it is the lack of courage and the association with those that do fear that rots a man’s soul.  (This becomes an ongoing theme throughout the move and is handled with a great deal less heavy-handedness than is usual for Gibson.)  Jaguar Paw suffers a nightmare about his contact with the wandering stragglers and, unfortunately, his nightmare comes true.  Soon Mayan slave traders arrive at the village and though the villagers fight valiantly, the adult members are all bound and taken away – that is everyone except Jaguar Paw’s wife who hides in a well with her son out of view of the captors.  Jaguar Paw’s father has his throat cut in front of his son, but even while he bleeds to death the father refuses to show deference for his captors or any sort of fear in front of his son.
The journey to a great Mayan city brings along a number of ordeals and hardships.  But it is along this trek that the member of the hunting party who was weak suddenly comes into his own.  He proves that he is a Man.  We also get to meet two interesting villains.  The leader of the slave traders has many of the same attributes as Jaguar Paw’s father and is notable for his bravery.  A second villain (the one who cut Jaguar Paw’s father’s throat) is a complete lackey and is notable for his sadism (becoming a common trait in a Mel Gibson film).  They lead the villagers to a great city with pyramids where we observe decapitated heads tumbling down a runway.  Some of the villagers are sold into slavery.  The rest, including Jaguar Paw, are led to the top of a pyramid where they are to be ritualistically executed.  A family that is gathered on the top of the pyramid, and who are watching and enjoying the spectacle, we are to presume to be royalty.  (The decadence of the family is clearly depicted in this scene, but I’m not so sure that an eight or nine year old boy as is shown here could be quite so unaffected by observing what’s going on).  Jaguar Paw watches as many of his friends are killed.  The claimed purpose of each human sacrifice was meant to appease the gods in a time of famine, but the actual reason is to control the masses and to excite their superstitions. Finally, it is Jaguar Paw’s turn to have his heart cut out and his head chopped off.  But while he lies on the execution block determined to die as bravely as his father, an eclipse appears in the sky.  The religious and political leaders of the city obviously knew the eclipse was coming and use the reappearance of the sun to tout their supernatural powers.  Because of this supposed fluke, Jaguar Paw is taken off the chopping block only to be forced to engage in another ritual game of slaughter where the slave traders would pick off their victims one by one.  Because of the efforts of the formerly weak hunting party member and because of the ingenuity of Jaguar Paw, Jaguar Paw makes his escape into the jungle and thus a fast paced chase ensues.  Through use of various items in the jungle, the leaping over a waterfall causing certain members of the villain’s party to leap after him, and the use of a boar trap that Jaguar Paw was familiar with, Jaguar Paw kills every member of those who pursue him.
In the end Jaguar Paw saves his wife, young son and newborn son from drowning in the well.  Along the way, he observes Spanish ships in a coastal harbor whose masters would soon topple the entire Mayan empire and along with it institute repression of their own.  Jaguar Paw, rather than meet the Spaniards, decides to go back to the jungle with his family to make a new start of his life.
I have remarkably little reason to criticize this movie for anything.  The movie is extremely violent but, unlike The Passion of the Christ, Gibson does not dwell on the violence.  Whether the movie is historical or ahistorical is tough to say.  Revisionists will be offended at the portrayal of the Mayan aristocracy, though historical accounts and archaeological evidence do suggest that many human sacrifices did take place.  We just don’t know how many human sacrifices actually took place.  The problem with many of the historical accounts is that they came from the Mayan conquerors, the conquistadors from Spain and Portugal.  These individuals obviously had their own historical agenda, which was to justify their miserable treatment of the Indians.  But I don’t think that Gibson was guilty of bringing in his own historical interpretation on this one.*  For one, the building of the pyramids did not come about because of decent or humane treatment of the Mayan masses.  Only a complete exploitation of the people and an appeal to their deep religious instincts could have ever made such an undertaking possible.  Second, though Gibson does show his contempt for the aristocracy and the slave traders among the Mayans, he also shows complete respect for the bravery, humor and beauty of the Mayan villagers.  Whether he is making a statement that the villagers are inherently closer to God than the members of the city (as one reviewer I have read implied) is really not something that Gibson ever overtly states in the movie.  Finally, there seems little question that the Mayan empire was in a state of decline when the Spaniards arrived.  A soft and rotten ruling class had sometime back replaced the warrior class.  This made it possible for just a few hundred Spaniards who had arrived by boat to easily topple the Mayan empire.
Gibson uses little dialogue in this movie and, other than a couple of conversations between Jaguar Paw and his father, he could have gone without using subtitles altogether.  How authentic the Mayan dialogue is will have to be left up to the scholars, but what little dialogue there is makes an extremely strong statement.  Only Gibson would have gone to this much trouble to make this movie, and that’s what makes him the most peculiar moviemaker that is left.  One can see why his personal life is in such a mess because he likes to take wild chances.  The difference between the making of his movies and the rest of his life is that he’s very sure about himself when he is behind a camera.  He does not listen to advice (which offends just about everyone), he keeps the story straightforward if not simple, and he deals with universal themes.  His movies contain an almost tribal passion.  With all of the sadistic villains that inhabit his movies, there is also an abundance of strong-hearted individuals that are always on the lookout for further avenues to redemption and reaffirmation of their human decency.   This is what brings his movies closer to greatness than all of the petty hot air that’s being tossed around by the other effete moviemakers trying to fit into a certain niche.
Gibson will probably be ignored for another best picture nomination with Apocalypto.  He will receive all sorts of mixed reviews from people who just adore his movie to those too sensitive to anything remotely vital.  His right wing and religious rants, his anti-Semitic statements, the diatribes of his crazed father will all be written about him again – none of which seems to have any bearing on the artistic qualities of his movies.  Gibson is trying to make a moral stance that will be called outdated.  He has made a number of movies condemning political oppression that will satisfy no one – at least in his movies, Gibson is impossible to pigeonhole.  I like Gibson as a moviemaker because he is a one-of-a-kind wild man.  He seems only now to be coming into his prime as a movie producer and director.  He is willing to spend millions of dollars of his own money on projects that could just as well leave him broke.  He has picked movie topics that on their surface would not appear to appeal to anyone and, if not attended by all moviegoers, are at least spoken about by everyone.**
* No reviewer should be criticized for being skeptical of Gibson’s historical take.  If we were to believe Gibson’s We Were Soldiers, the Communists would have been driven out of Southeast Asia by 1966.  American soldiers apparently understood their mission so well that they didn’t even need supplies to defeat the Viet Cong.  And in The Patriot, Gibson attributed to the British occupiers during the Revolutionary War atrocities (i.e., setting fire to a church killing dozens of unarmed people trapped inside) that had actually been committed by Nazi soldiers.
** I know that I may sound too generous in my praise.  Understand that I do feel many of Gibson’s earlier efforts are barely worth watching.  The Lethal Weapon series, Ransom, Tequila Sunrise, The Man Without a Face and Maverick, whatever their original entertainment value may have been, are so much like other popular movies that I can’t enjoy watching them a second time (if I even enjoyed watching some of them the first time).  Gibson as the leading man likes to ham it up so much that he often wrecks promising projects.  He comes close to destroying Braveheart by being holier-than-thou with his one-word pronunciations (“Freedom!”), and the movie is only saved by the acting performance of Patrick McGoohan as the evil King Edward I.  By the way, if you want to watch a movie for its action sequences, just rent Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee, which is only 97 minutes long, rather than watch Braveheart, which is almost three hours long.
December 18, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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