‘Apocalypto’: Masterpiece or misguided?

Peter Bart - The Back Lot

Will Hollywood fall victim to the Apocalypto Syndrome?

Small screenings of the still-uncompleted film are quietly taking place. The movie is rough around the edges — temp score and sound, scenes still to be honed.

But the word has seeped out: From Mel Gibson’s dark, troubled mind has emerged yet another brilliant exercise in filmmaking, extremely violent, yet compelling. The inner demons that play havoc with his personal life continue to energize his creative vision.

But how will his work be judged? The film is being released not just as “Apocalypto,” but as Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto.” Will the very community that understandably has been offended by Gibson’s inebriated diatribes be willing to pass fair judgment on his artistic contributions?

The film itself represents a defiantly maverick voice. Subtitles run throughout. The cast is totally non-professional. The action is virtually nonstop and the confrontations brutal.

A fiercely original work like this normally would be screened and promoted for Oscar nominations and critics plaudits. This will not be the case with Gibson’s film.

Hence, the looming Apocalypto Syndrome: Mel Gibson is not exactly a poster boy for tolerance. And that’s the paradox: Acceptance of his work demands exactly that.


Rarely have two releases struck such delight, and terror, into the hearts and minds of distribution mavens.

Both seem on their way to becoming almost mythic hits. But despite the bravado and credit-grabbing, the hard truth is that no one saw them coming. Indeed, taken together, the two movies provide the ultimate validation that nobody knows anything.

Twentieth Century-Fox’s decision to rein back the “Borat” release to 800 theaters may turn out to be inspired, or wrong-headed — the box office tallies of the next two weeks will tell the story. Surely the studio underestimated the magnitude of the “Borat” fever — unless, that is, the excitement keeps building toward a broader demographic acceptance.

Whatever the case, “Borat” provides a tumultuous reminder that a new face and a fresh idea can galvanize filmgoers more powerfully than can an assembly-line tentpole.

In some ways, the mega-success of “The Devil Wears Prada” provides even stronger evidence of this phenomenon. What marketing maven would have predicted that a talky chick flick, produced at a cost of $36 million, would generate an international box office total north of $280 million?

Examine the background of “Prada” and some interesting object lessons present themselves. A seasoned studio executive, Elizabeth Gabler, two years ago read galleys of an unfinished novel and decided to “go with my gut.” Gabler had been at 20th Century Fox since 1988 and had headed the Fox 2000 unit for seven years. Last year, she came up with a hit in a vastly different genre — “Walk the Line.”

Gabler talked with several writers, encountering the growing phenomenon that a studio can buy a writer’s “slot” (i.e. a few weeks of his time), but not his true commitment. The final script emerged from two individuals who were distanced from the Hollywood mill: Aline Brosh McKenna, and director David Frankel, who was responsible for several segments of “Sex and the City.”

And why did the film take off? Part of its success stems from the basic setup, simple as it is: A young girl venturing forth in a new job who finds herself in a series of exotic and stressful situations amidst the glitzy world of hot fashions.

And then there’s Meryl Streep, delivering the ultimate master-class lesson in how to underplay a role. Her share of the “Prada” gross will richly reward her for her efforts.

“Borat” is outrageous. “Prada” is edgy, yet understated. To the distribution veteran, both are counter-intuitive. Which obviously represents their strength.