Mel Gibson is always good for a surprise, and his latest is that “Apocalypto” is a remarkable film. Set in the waning days of the Mayan civilization, the picture provides a trip to a place one’s never been before, offering hitherto unseen sights of exceptional vividness and power. In the wake of its director’s recent outburst and unwanted publicity, commercial prospects remain anyone’s guess, and those looking for a reason not to attend will undoubtedly find one, be it Gibson’s tirade, the gore, the subtitles or outre subject matter. But blood-and-guts action audiences should eat this up, Gibson is courting Latinos, eco-political types will like the message and at least part of the massive “The Passion of the Christ” crowd should be curious, so strong biz is possible if these distinct constituencies are roused.
Despite the subject’s inherent spectacle, conflict and societal interest, Central America’s pre-Columbian history has scarcely been touched by filmmakers; Hollywood’s only venture into the territory was the little-remembered 1963 quasi-epic “Kings of the Sun,” with Yul Brynner and George Chakiris.
Cast largely with indigenous nonpros speaking the prevailing surviving dialect of the Mesoamericans, “Apocalypto” is exotic, wild, ferocious, teeming with startling incident and brutal violence.
With co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia, Gibson has cooked up a scenario that is fundamentally a survival and chase film, with a final act that trades on the human hunt motif of “The Most Dangerous Game” and Cornel Wilde’s “The Naked Prey.”
But both the grand conception of a civilization in decline and the extraordinary detail with which the society is presented make the picture much more than that, to the extent that it startlingly echoes another portent-laden year-end release, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men;” one film is set in the past, the other in the near-future, one was made in Mexico by a Yank-Aussie, the other in Britain by a Mexican, but both are contemporaneously resonant stories of pursuit through poisoned, dangerous lands on the brink.
Starting at a run and seldom stopping for a breather, pic opens on an animal hunt that occasions a graphically gross two-prong practical joke that instantly humanizes the characters. It establishes the relaxed, intimate, sensual nature of family-oriented life in a small jungle settlement occupied by the fearsome-looking but free-spirited protags. Chief among them is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), an athletic young man who has long flowing locks, sports tattoos, designed body scars, large ear adornments and a sort of chin plug, and wears nothing but a well-fitted loin cloth. His teeth are not quite as bad as those of his pals, which are very bad indeed.
Paradise comes to an abrupt end a half-hour in with the dawn attack of marauders who pillage with ruthless expertise. These guys are more heavily decorated than the locals, with bones through their noses and elsewhere. Two members of what the press notes identify as Holcane warriors stand out: the leader, Zero Wolf (the supremely imposing Raoul Trujillo), whose left arm and head are festooned with human and animal jaws, and the sadistic Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios, fantastically hateful), who, restrained from killing Jaguar Paw by Zero Wolf, instead murders the captive’s father in front of him, launching an antagonism that runs through the picture. Both of these heavies could stay in costume and stride straight into another “Mad Max” film.
With his surviving fellow villagers, Jaguar Paw is bound and marched off through the jungle, but not before he’s secreted his very pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and little son (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a deep pit, promising, rather against the odds, to return.
The greatest mystery surrounding the Mayan civilization is why it collapsed so suddenly. Gibson adroitly lines his film with hints of the numerous possible causes, including famine, disease, drought, increased warfare, a corrupt ruling class and general societal breakdown. A bedraggled group of emaciated natives is glimpsed moving through the forest early on, and the prisoners later pass by a haunted girl with “the sickness” who warns about the coming “blackness of day.”
The long central section of “Apocalypto” is simply great epic cinema, with generous dollops of chilling horror and grisly human sacrifice. Production designer Tom Sanders makes a huge contribution to the captives’ gradual entry into the great and chaotic Maya City. Each neighborhood is brilliantly detailed, from the derelict outlying shantytown to the industrial and more prosperous commercial districts, the slave market where the women are sold off and, finally, the staggering central plaza, where the first thing seen is a freshly detached human head being bounced down the long steps of a towering pyramid toward a frenzied crowd below.
Only then does it dawn on the shackled prisoners what’s in store for them. At the summit preside dissolute royals as well as a high priest who, time and again, plunges a knife into a man’s belly and, while the victim is still alive, tears out his still-beating heart as an offering to placate the gods to end the drought.
It takes a freakish act of nature to save Jaguar Paw, but he and the few other survivors are quickly made objects of sport in an arena, from which commences the long and eventful chase of Jaguar Paw by Zero Wolf and his minions back through the jungle. Double-whammy ending tips over into undue melodrama that some may find risible, and one aspect of the climax establishes the film’s time frame as much later in Mayan history than one might have guessed.
Notwithstanding the fantastic sets, costumes, makeup, body and hair designs and natural locations, perhaps the greatest impression is made by the performers’ faces, which are superbly photogenic and unlike any normally seen in movies. The attractive, agile Youngblood carries the film with room to spare, and is entirely convincing in his many dramatic moments as well as in the intense action. Casting director Carla Hool rates a huge bonus for tracking down the people who play everyone from the most savage looking warriors to the paralyzingly weird female aristocrats in the city.
One notable aspect of the characterizations is the general attitude toward death. The Mayans as portrayed here naturally fear it like anyone, but they accept it, just as they acknowledge physical pain as an everyday aspect of life. They are utterly without sentimentality, tears or remorse; when one is about to die, another will sincerely tell them, “Travel well,” and that is that. Blood and violence is abundant, but doesn’t feel exaggerated or out of line in relation to the material.
Production is a wonder. Dean Semler’s camera moves relentlessly through the densest of foliage and over the roughest of terrain on locations near Veracruz and in the rainforests of Catemaco, with some additional shooting done in Costa Rica and the U.K.; Gibson clearly knew the impact the lenser of the second and third “Mad Max” films could deliver. More remarkable still is that pic was shot on the new high definition Genesis camera system. Without a doubt, “Apocalypto” is the best-looking big-budget film yet shot digitally; one can’t tell it wasn’t shot on film.
James Horner composed an uncharacteristically low-key and moody score, full of threatening, choral-like synthesizer growling, woodwind interludes and alarming percussive strikes.