(2006, Mel Gibson)
Fun fact: Sometime in January 2013, I realised how appropriate Apocalypto, with all its Mayan prophecies of apocalypse, would have been for December 21st 2012, the supposed end-of-the-world date based on the Mayan calendar. Of course, this would have been more useful figuring that out before that date, but I guess we can’t have everything. So, after dumping it back in the general pile again, I finally pull it out to offer my opinion.
The good news is, I have an interest in ancient civilisations. The bad news is, I think director Mel Gibson is a bit of a terrible human being. This presents a problem, which led me to wonder exactly how I would feel about Apocalypto.
Set in Guatemala prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Apocalypto follows a young man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) as his village is attacked by a bloodthirsty rival tribe. Kidnapped and lined up for human sacrifice, Jaguar Paw seeks to save his family, trapped in a deep pit, while the rival tribe hear a prophecy that their civilisation is doomed. If you know your Central American history, you’ll know how true that prophecy turns out to be.
Apocalypto is a visual feast. No expense was spared on making this movie an absolute marvel to look at. The Mayan villages and vast temples are beautifully constructed, and the attention to detail in the tribal markings and clothing is spectacular. There are special effects coming out of the movie’s pores and the battles are gruesome and exciting.
However, this visual excellence isn’t all that consistent. While impressive for the most part, any time an animal shows up, everything flies out of the window, from obvious animatronic boars seemingly gliding through the jungle on rails to cuddly panther puppets pawing at the actors, the animal effects in this movie are laughably bad.
Also, some of the decent effects can be a little silly. When Jaguar Paw is being chased through the jungle for much of the second half of the movie, things start getting a little too exaggerated. He slide dodges attacks, emerges from quicksand pits covered in mud, glides through trees with alarming ease and magically dodges things he probably shouldn’t have been able to dodge. The man suddenly gains super ninja skills straight out of a video game halfway through the movie with no explanation other than “I don’t know, prophecy, I guess”.
Which leads me to my next point. This movie’s plot isn’t too hot. It exists solely to make a visually impressive movie about an ancient civilisation which seemingly confuses the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas, and doesn’t really teach us anything about the Mayans or even the Spanish invasion of their lands, which is left as a vague footnote at the end of the movie. While it’s certainly nice to see a historical movie that doesn’t necessarily need to tell a story that includes Europeans, the fact it doesn’t seem all that bothered about the Mayans themselves kind of negates that.
In fact, the movie is often a string of clichés. The creepy child that gives the apocalyptic prophecy is in itself a cliché, but the fact I anticipated the events that would cause that prophecy to come true isn’t a good sign. The story could probably be moved to any ancient civilisation and it would still work. And that’s a shame because I wanted a story exclusively about the Mayans.
Apocalypto is also ludicrously melodramatic. Almost every line of dialogue seems designed to be as loaded with poetic meaning as possible, while every action has to be highlighted in as dramatic a way as possible. It’s a movie that knows it’s an epic and is doing everything it can to make itself “epic”. This leads to a lack of moments of quiet reflection or long, drawn-out scenes of horror that could be edited down and still get the message across.
That said, Apocalypto is entertaining. It’s dumb and overblown and way, way far from the serious epic Mel Gibson desperately wants it to be, but still entertaining. A fun way to kill a couple of hours, but if you’re looking for a serious meditation on the decline of the Mayans, look elsewhere.
Starring Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo, Mayra Serbulo, Dalia Hernandez, Ian Uriel, Gerardo Taracena, Rodolfo Palacios, Bernardo Ruiz Juarez, Ammel Rodrigo Mendoza, Ricardo Diaz Mendoza & Israel Contreras
Written by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Produced by Mel Gibson & Bruce Davey
Music by James Horner
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by John Wright
Favourite Scene: Part of me wants to say the brilliantly gruesome human sacrifice scene, but really, my favourite scene was probably more likely to be the appearance of the adorable panther cub. Don’t judge me!
Scene That Bugged Me: That said, did the Mayans really do a lot of the whole human sacrifice thing? I’m pretty sure that was the Aztecs. Who lived quite some distance north.
Watch it if: You’re vaguely interested in the Mayans
Avoid it if: You’re an expert on the Mayans