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Apocalypto Print E-mail
Friday, 08 December 2006
ImageMel Gibson’s first film after “The Passion of the Christ” is also in an archaic language, requiring subtitles, but there isn’t very much dialogue. The story is told almost entirely in visuals; it would be easy to follow without any subtitles at all—but there’s no one around to tell us what “Apocalypto” means. That’s of Greek derivation, not from a language spoken by Native Americans before Columbus.

The movie has been getting some rave reviews, leading me to wonder once again if some of the press is shown one cut, some another. I found the film to be derivative, with an extremely familiar storyline, as if a standard Tarzan movie had been recast with Native Americans, and grafted onto Cornel Wilde’s “The Naked Prey. Almost every jungle movie cliché is trotted out, even though sometimes Gibson—who wrote the script with Farhad Safinia—does put an interesting twist on the tail of a cliché. Yes, like every jungle hero, his hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) does, *sigh*, get trapped in quicksand—more like quickmud here—but what follows is something new and creative.

That’s pretty much the case with the entire movie: we’ve seen this story—young man separated from his people, captured by bad guys, then dashes for freedom with his opponents in hot pursuit—so many times before. But we’ve never seen it in this context, a realistic restaging of Central America prior to the arrival of white men. At first, the story seems limited to the jungle where Jaguar Paw lives with his tribe, but after the halfway mark, it moves—in a creatively gradual manner—to one of the huge stone cities of the Mayas, a primitive but handsome urban area positively jammed with people. The second half of the film is a headlong chase through the jungle, with Jaguar Paw pursued by the tough Mayan Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and the brutal Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios, who’s excellent). Familiar with the terrain, Jaguar Paw is able to use the jungle to his advantage, killing his pursuers one by one. The ending of the film is peculiar and unlikely.

Jaguar Paw and others from his tribe are first seen chasing a tapir through the forest; the chase comes to a jarring halt with the tapir impaled on the spikes of a spring-loaded trap. (And as Anton Chekhov would have said, if you hang a tapir trap on the wall in the first act…..) They encounter a harmless troupe of strangers, fearfully passing through the jungle, hoping to reach safety. But what are they fleeing?
Jaguar Paw and most of the others play the old “YOU eat the tapir balls” trick on one of their number. We see that Jaguar Paw is very close to his pragmatic father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), who is wise in the ways of the jungle. There are scenes in their lively camp, with some broad jokes and acceptable but crude humor. These people are close to life—and close to death. They don’t have time for sentimentality when one of them dies; at one point, a man about to die is bid farewell with a simple “Travel well.”

Soon Jaguar Paw and his tribe learn what those other people were fleeing: better-armed (clubs with stone blades), better-dressed (human and animal jaws, hair plumes and more tattoes) and much more brutal invaders rush into the village, easily taking it over and setting fire to the huts. They kill some of the men, women and children and take the others captive. Jaguar Paw has time to hide his wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a deep pit, but has to watch as a particularly sadistic invader, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), who has quickly come to hate him, slashes Flint Sky’s throat in front of his son. A small group of children is left behind; they turn up, now banded together, shortly thereafter—and then are completely forgotten. I assumed that at the end, they would join Jaguar Paw, but nope.

The invaders lash the survivors to bamboo poles and set out through the jungle; it’s a rough journey, and Snake Ink loses no opportunity to tormet Jaguar Paw. When the group passes a former camp wiped out by disease, a small girl utters dark prophecies that soon come true. This introduces a strange element of fantasy, but like the group of children, it’s soon forgotten.

The batter tribespeople are taken through the outskirts, then the central area of a huge stone city the likes of which they have never seen. They’re painted blue—Gibson must have made a good buy on blue body paint for “Braveheart”—and taken to a giant pyramid. The first thing they see is a decapitated human head tumbling down the steps. They’re destined for a ritual that first involves their beating hearts cut out of their bodies, then their heads lopped off. The high priest, evidently working for a dissolute-looking child king, announces that these are attempts to placate the gods; the Mayas’ crops have failed, and these sacrifices are intended to restore the fertility of the land. The exhortations are made to the mighty god Kukulkan, an authetic Mayan diety.

Not that that means much to Jaguar Paw, who has to watch as friends’ hearts are cut out, then their heads lopped off. He’s next when an event occurs that, sadly, is one of the most tired, familiar clichés of this kind of story. I believe Mark Twain was the first to employ it, in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” but it’s turned up here and there ever since.

It does lead to a brutal scene that enables Jaguar Paw to escape into the jungle, running even faster than James Bond does in the opening of “Casino Royale.” He’s pursued by Snake Ink, Zero Wolf and others. As if working from a checklist of jungle dangers, the running men encounter a big cat, a snake, a waterfall, a quicksand bog, etc. etc. Meanwhile, back at that pit where Jaguar Paw left his wife and child, a monsoon-like downpour is gradually filling it just as she’s giving birth to a second child, adding a ticking-clock element to the story that’s more obvious and contrived than it is thrilling.

But it has to be admitted that often enough, “Apocalypto” is exciting and thrilling. Maybe Mel Gibson is copying other movies, but in many cases, he knew which movies to copy, which thrills to spring on his audience. He’s aided greatly by Dean Semler’s colorful (mostly green), evocative cinematography and the intensely dynamic editing of Kevin Stitt and John Wright.

At times, Gibson achieves what seems to have been his goal of realistically presenting a culture we’ve never seen before. In Jaguar Paw’s home village, an old man tells a dark and terrible story that sounds as authentic as a blowgun dart. The scenes of the Mayan city are lavish and believable, with elements of the bustling society sketched in realistically. An old man with “the laughing sickness” staggers up to the line of prisoners, laughing, sobbing and begging for—surprisingly—salvation. Gibson is trying to suggest reasons for the still largely-unexplained collapse of the Mayan civilization, but these are merely sketches on a wall we pass very swiftly.

Gibson is a talented director, but he seems overly focused on sadistic brutality; scenes of bloody violence were prevalent in “The Passion of the Christ,” and they occur often in this film as well. It’s as if he’s unaware that there are other ways to shock and excite an audience other than holding a still-beating human heart aloft in gory hands, in addition to featuring a jaguar chewing off a human face. There are many such scenes here, far too many.

And yet he also can crank up the excitement—a man chased on foot through a jungle by a snarling black jaguar may be intrinsically exciting, but Gibson uses many cinematic tools to make the scene even more powerful that it inherently is. He uses special effects very well; I’d be interested in seeing a making-of documentary on this film that points out where CGI was used. I’m sure it’s in there a good deal, but it’s invisible.

The production AS a production is terrific—every element of filmmaking, including James Horner’s imaginative score, is brought to bear on this story. Gibson marshals his team and tools with a sure hand, and yet he has chosen to tell a story that has been told so many times before. Coupled with the visceral effect of the gore and violence, it wasn’t surprising to notice that quite a few people walked out of the press screening before the movie was over. It’s not entirely surprising that it has already received at least two highly favorable reviews, but I found “Apocalypto” a well-made disappointment.

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