How does one take Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" seriously? The film hides in a tower of self-importance with its subtitles and dissection of the last footsteps in free Mayan culture; truthfully, this is a jungle adventure using the same hoary adventure clichés that were left for dead 50 years ago.
Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a diligent hunter in his tribe, coming home to his pregnant wife and toddler son for comfort. When a ruthless clan sweeps through and captures Paw and the rest of the adults of the village, he is left helpless in the knowledge that his family is hiding in a dangerous cave, anxiously awaiting his return. Taken on a trip to hell and back with these butchers, Paw fights to stay alive and plan his escape to save his loved ones.
If anything can be said in favor of Mel Gibson's direction, it would be that he's not one to waver from his raw and unyielding vision. The sad truth about "Apocalypto?" This vision is one that audiences have seen before.
This is Gibson's first film after his booming success with "The Passion of the Christ." I wasn't too hot on "Christ," feeling it was more of a blood-drenched valentine to suffering than any sort of religious blue light special. "Apocalypto" is essentially is same set of circumstances; the picture is constructed as a passionate observation of the twilight of pure Mayan life, realized through rather stunning costume and production design. Basically, the film is another episode of the Mel Gibson Gore Hour, with the director taking the prospect of portraying history to dish up some more close-ups of beheadings and spurting wounds.
The river of blood doesn't upset me as much as Gibson's delight in pushing the grisly stuff right into the camera lens, subscribing to the adage that violence is ugly, but not helping his argument by staging the brutality like an Alice Cooper concert. Heads roll, chests burst, testicles are eaten, hearts are ripped out, and just in case someone in the back row isn't paying attention, Gibson pencils in some time for a Jaguar to rip off a warrior's face.
"Apocalypto" is wall-to-wall bloodshed; Gibson even steals from himself ("Braveheart") by using the throat-slitting of an important character to fully open Paw's eyes to the horror. Much like "Christ," it becomes gratuitous, as the filmmaker gets far too lost in the next body-impalement gag to fully contemplate the story, or even build the slightest whisper of characters; here the bad guys scowl and menace, and the good guys are completely angelic.
Not helping "Apocalpyto" is Gibson's choice to shoot a majority of the film, if not all of it, on HD. The smeary, graceless look of the film robs the picture of the ambitious portrait of life and death that Gibson is aching for. At times, it looks like a homemade video some gorehounds made in their Florida backyard, and at 140 minutes, the film could've used a more polished touch. Gibson loves the fluidity of HD, but like many filmmakers, fails to grasp its visual limitations.
The second half of the film is almost entirely one long, dialogue-free foot chase, with Jaguar Paw hoping to outwit, outlast, and outplay his pursuers, in a game of "Survivor" that hits every outdoor adventure cliché in the book – yes, even quicksand.
"Apocalypto" is one long Mel Gibson wet dream of cinema, and after "Passion of the Christ," he's entitled to it. However, there's no promise of eternal salvation to protect this film's nasty aftertaste; no religious tightrope walk to celebrate. This is Gibson's bloodlust pure and unfiltered, and it's depressing to sit and watch him make the same film for the third time in a row.
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