Call it a vanity project, or a self indulgent ego push, but no matter how you slice it, there's really little arguing that Mel Gibson's unusual jungle adventure film, Apocalypto, is an exciting and well made ultra-violent adrenaline rush. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it's not particularly deep, but it's entertaining, it's gory and it's fun. Think of it more as an exploitation film made with a big fat budget than an art picture and you'll find yourself in the right ballpark at least - this is basically a chase movie with really nice cinematography.
A Mayan tribesman named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and a few of his cohorts are wandering around their slice of the jungle when they run into a rather intimidating group of people from an unfamiliar tribe. These strangers move quickly through the area and Jaguar Paw and his friends are left wondering what exactly is going on here. Unfortunately for them, they find out the hard way when those same strangers show up and slaughter a bunch of people in Jaguar Paw's village. Before it all hits the fan, however, he manages to hide his pregnant wife and his small son away at the bottom of a pit. The rest of the surviving villagers, Jaguar Pay included, are rounded up and marched off to a city where Mayan priests begin sacrificing them to appease what they believe to be an angry god.
Soon, a full blown solar eclipse occurs and the people who were going to be sacrificed are instead essentially re-routed to a big arena where they're made to dodge various arrows and weapons and other assorted craziness. Jaguar Paw sees his chance to escape, and he takes it, hoping to make it back to the village that was once his home so that he can save his wife and son from certain death.
Short on plot but filled with plenty of detail and gorgeous cinematography, Apocalypto is not a deep film. It's possible to read things into it and enjoy it for more than what it offers on the surface, but really, it's an action movie set in the jungle that is essentially built around one big chase scene. Amazingly enough, it actually works quite well. The film is very well paced so that even at two hours and fifteen minutes in length it moves at a good clip, never overstaying its welcome. Violence junkies will much to appreciate about the picture as well. Gibson, never one to shy away from cinematic bloodshed, keeps the red stuff flowing particularly during a few very intense key scenes. It's all completely over the top and as gratuitous as any other mainstream Hollywood production you can think of but somehow it fits - this is very much a 'savage world' we're drawn into, where life is cheap and problems are solved with violence.
Alongside the action set pieces, we're also given an interesting and likely fairly accurate look at Mayan civilization. There's a lot of attention paid to small details, one need only watch closely as the camera pans through the village or through the city to see the extras and the sets all completely decked out in what we can probably fairly rightly assume is close to authentic detail. This, coupled with the fantastic camera work and fairly riveting score, give Apocalypto an epic feel that makes the movie seem more original and more important than it actually is. Gibson isn't really doing anything new with the movie. Sure, it's performed entirely in Mayan and all that good stuff but it's more or less The Most Dangerous Game with better production values and a lot more bloodshed. That's not a bad thing - he makes it work and does a great job with it - but the movie is what it is, and that's really just simple and exciting entertainment.
Apocalypto looks excellent in this 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Aside from some very slight edge enhancement which is only obvious in a few scenes, there's really not much to complain about here at all. Color reproduction is fantastic with plenty of lush greens and bloody reds used in the compositions and both the detail levels in the foreground and the background of the image look very sharp. Brightness and contrast seem fine and there are no problems at all with mpeg compression artifacts to report. Aliasing is held firmly in check and there are no issues with dirt, debris or print damage anywhere at all.
Audio options are provided in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks, both in Mayan with optional subtitles available in English, French and Spanish. While the DTS mix has, not surprisingly, slightly stronger bass both mixes are top notch. The surround channels are used very effectively and convincingly at just the right times without ever feeling like over kill. Bass response is strong and tight and your subwoofer will welcome the tough love while the higher end remains clean and clear. There are no problems at all with hiss or distortion and dialogue is balanced properly in the mix to ensure that it's never buried by the sound effects or the score. The optional subtitles are clean, clear and very easy to read and they remain free of any noticeable typographical errors.
The main supplement in the extra features section of this disc is a feature length commentary track from director Mel Gibson who is joined by co-writer Farhad Safinia. Gibson dominates the talk though Safinia is rarely at a loss for words either. Both men seem to really get along well with one another and there's a nice sense of humor to the discussion that keeps things fun but which doesn't overshadow the more detail oriented talks which covers everything from working with the natives on location to how and why certain edits were made to certain scenes. It covers most of the ground that you'd expect it to, detailing casting and location scouting as well as pre-production and some post production stories. It moves at a good pace and if you enjoyed the movie, this is an ideal way to see the film for a second time.
From there, be sure to check out the Becoming Mayan documentary which clocks in at roughly twenty-five minutes in length. This featurette is geared more towards the technical side of the production than anything else, detailing how the production crew strove for accuracy in the sets and costumes as well as the make up and smaller details like the weapons and what not. There's some solid on location footage here which is interesting to see, though one is left wishing that a more detailed and introspective piece had been made out of this segment, as it could have been a whole lot more.
Aside from that, Touchstone has included a single deleted scene available with or without optional commentary from Gibson and Safinia. This clocks in at roughly thirty-seconds and doesn't add much to the picture, it's more or less a quick bit about a deer. Gibson mentions trims and omissions to the picture in the commentary track, so it's a shame that the scenes he mentions are nowhere to be found here. It's probably realistic to expect a double dip sometime in the future. Animated menus round out the package, and the film is split up into some handy, well-placed chapter stops. An attractive slipcase fits over the keepcase packaging, giving the release a nice, classy look.
While there certainly could have been more effort put into the supplements, Touchstone have done an otherwise excellent job on the presentation. As far as Apocalypto itself is concerned, it's not a modern classic but it is certainly a fast paced and entertaining action movie that delivers some fantastic set pieces and lots of gory suspense. It won't appeal to all tastes but those who dig jungle adventures should eat this one up. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.