Mel Gibson shows off his freak show of high production value and crazy storytelling in Apocalypto, a tale about how, in the Mayan civilization, they can slice your head off to appease their gods but they can never take your freedom.
Actually, they can take your freedom, forcing you to work in some kind of mine if you're a man or selling you off to the city folk if you're a woman, and that' if they don't first kill you for sport. So take that, King Edward I the Longshanks.
Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a happy-go-lucky jungle-dwelling Mayan-civilization-adjacent Central American native delighted to hunt wild boar to provide for his wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez), their son and their baby-on-the-way in an everybody-working-together village. It is the same village he has always known he hunts the same forests that his father has always hunted and that his father hunted before him. One day while out in the woods, they come across a band of despondent-seeming people, moving through the woods, clearly trying to outrun (or, actually, out-trudge) some existence-shaking horror behind them. Despite his father' admonitions not to let fear into his heart, Jaguar Paw can't help but worry. Luckily, he doesn't have to worry long as a party of war-paint-wearing destruction-minded Mayan slavers comes crashing into the village, setting stuff ablaze and killing or tying up all the adults. Jaguar Paw has just speedy enough reflexes that he' able to hustle his wife and their child out to a pit into which he lowers them. They'll be hidden, sure, but once Jaguar Paw is caught and a particularly evil slave-catcher cuts the rope, they are also trapped.
Jaguar Paw puts up the good struggle (which gets his father killed in traditional fate-worse-than-death villain-egging-the-hero-on style) but eventually ends up tied to poles with the rest of his village and on a forced march across the jungle.
Eventually, the group comes to a city, enormous and decadent. There, they learn their fates for the women, bondage. For the men, it' a walk up the steep stairs of the temple to have their heads chopped off as an offering the gods at the top.
Which god? I'm pretty sure it' the God of Bread and Circus as only the winging of a head or a headless body down the steep steps seems to distract the ramble from their open loathing of the upper class. Before Jaguar Paw can become a victim of political expediency, however, he' able to escape and takes to the jungle, desperate to make it back to the pit of starving family before he really is the last of the Mayan-concurrent Central American Indians. The road home, naturally, is neither easy nor lonely. We all know that nothing pisses off a group of blood-thirsty, human-jaw-bone-wearing kidnappers more than an unexpected escape.
I will try not to give away much more of the plot but I can't help pointing out certain historical circumstances that might be considered spoiler alerts if you think that Mexico has always been, since the beginning of time, a Spanish-speaking country. The movie tells us in the beginning via a Will Durant quote that what we are witnessing is the decay and collapse of a civilization. At the end of the movie, we understand that a truly crappy form of government and a somewhat gaudy style of dress is about to be replaced by another crappy form of government (call it blood sacrifice or Inquisition you're still killing people to distract the greater population from how lousy you are at general welfare-of-the-citizenry tasks) and gaudy dress. And perhaps the silver lining of having an egomaniacal director with racist tendencies spearhead your clash-of-civilizations movie is that there is no political correctness. There are no heroes, no white-hats. My people might be half loin-cloth-wearing head-lopper and half forced-conversion plague-carrier but neither group exactly stirs the ancestral pride.
So what is Apocalypto? Is it an action movie, with its escapes and its many, many instances of hand-to-hand combat? Is it a fairy tale of family loyalty? Is it an argument for the superiority of western culture? For the superiority of one man and his family over a ruling government? Is it just Braveheart in a hotter climate?
Well, yes, but it is more than that. Apocalypto is to Mel Gibson what Battlefield Earth is to John Travolta. It is a monument to ego, to creative hubris over reason, to fantastic excess over any sense of subtlety or restraint. It is a declaration that he, the star, thinks that even if the movie seems completely insane you'll see it anyway because he is, indeed, the hottest star burning the brightest in the crazy-ego big-budget universe.
As befits Gibson' admiral-to-midshipman outranking of Travolta, Apocalypto is much better crafted than Battlefield Earth. Its message whatever you might decide it to be is far more complex than the "yay Scientology" gist of Travolta' vanity project. Its cinematography, costuming and make-up are far superior even with the senseless slow-mos to the tilt-o-screen-camera work of Earth. The dialogue, well, heck, if Travolta thought Z-grade movie dialogue like his character' many bloviations on the inferiority of the "man-animal" was going to put his movie in some kind of Ishtar-Memorial Hall of Infamy, Gibson shall disabuse him of that notion with his rather workaday dialogue made memorial by the fact that it is in Mayan and delivered to his American audience of foreign-film-skeptics via the subtitle.
That' right, Gibson' making you read an action movie. Beat that, Travolta, with your little Dianetics meets Planet of the Apes..
And, just as Gibson is still a bigger star than Travolta, even with most of the country convinced he is a nutcase, Gibson' movie manages to transcend the godawful-mess level of film that is Battlefield Earth and find some weird new plane where this train wreck of a film is so spectacularly odd that you can't look away.
That' right, I'm saying to go see this crazy circus. Buy a ticket to this wacky diorama. It is laugh-out-loud strange at times and baffling at other times. But it is a masterpiece, expansive and burning with color and images that you aren't going to see anywhere else, at least not rendered so convincingly. This is movie is in its technical accomplishments and its audacity amazing. B-
Rated R for graphic blood-sacrifice violence and disturbing images. Directed by Mel Gibson and written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, Apocalypto is two hours and 18 minutes long and will be distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. It opens in wide release on Dec. 8.