Over the course of Apocalypto's two-plus hours, you will see a spear go through the back of a man's neck and come out his mouth, heads being rolled down stone monuments, blood spraying from someone's skull, and a pregnant woman fall down a hole and bounce on her belly no less than twice. And those are just the things that immediately spring to mind. I reached a point in the movie where I was no longer recoiling from the violence, I started laughing at the predictability of it. When Mel started the human sacrifices, I knew he wasn't going to let us get by with just one. He's compelled to show us a couple, and in the last one, the victim even stays alive to see his own heart pulled from his chest, all so we can get a point-of-view shot of his beheading. Once the machete comes down, the camera becomes the severed head, doing several spins and flips before finally being kicked down to the slavering hordes. Nice, eh?
I was more than prepared to like Apocalypto. I actually respect some of the gutsy choices Gibson is willing to make these days. Not even Werner Herzog, who could have made a much better version of this story (and may not have been judged so harshly by the likes of me, if I'm being perfectly honest), wouldn't likely have filmed the actors speaking in Mayan, for instance. The attention to detail is stunning. Whether or not it's historically accurate is up for much more knowledgeable people to decide, but it certainly looks convincing. When we finally arrive in the Mayan city, it's an incredible set piece. As the characters wander through the market on their way to the slaughter, we see many aspects of Mayan life, and it all looks to be crafted with care. No background detail is too small to escape the director's attention.
Gibson does, however, fall into visual cliché. While he doesn't resort to some of the cheeseball filmmaking techniques that made the storytelling in The Passion of the Christ so unbearable, he stacks the deck in Apocalypto in much the same way he did in The Passion by falling back on physical stereotypes to make his villains appear all the more villainous. The bad guys are easy to spot because they have sharp, angular features, bad teeth, and craggy skin. They cackle maniacally, and if they had moustaches, they'd surely twist them. Their gluttony is exemplified by an insert shot of a laughing onlooker who spits out the bright orange fruit he is eating when he sees a crowd scrambling for coins dropped on the ground. In case we had missed it, these city folk are greedy and vulgar. In comparison, our hero and his fellow villagers are all fresh-faced and attractive.
Which leads me to my biggest problem with Apocalypto. I was willing to stick with Gibson for the first half of the film, which sets up life for a tribe of hunters living deep in the jungle. On a hunting trip, they encounter a group of battered wanderers who are searching for a new home after their village is destroyed. The hunters and their families, led by Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) and his son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), are jocular and live well. They should have taken the travelers' plight as a warning, however, or even listened to their own tribe's spiritual leader when he told them the story of how men have an unceasing desire to take what is not theirs, because the very next day, a cadre of bad dudes sneak into their homes and start killing, raping, and pillaging. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife and their first child in a deep hole, but he can't escape capture himself. The marauders truss up the survivors and take them on a trek through the forest.
It's midway through this journey that I checked out of Apocalypto. The slave caravan runs across a young girl who is dying of some kind of plague. Sensing that the slave traders fear her, she decides to drop an evil portent on them. She cautions that the "sacred time" is coming, and those who aren't living right will get their due. That's right, Mel Gibson apparently made Apocalypto to warn our modern society of the price for its own wayward morals. Since he's apparently one to preach to the rest of us about how we've lost our way, he's decided the downfall of the Mayan civilization was due to the evil progressives from the city descending on the pure and innocent people living amongst nature. It's the material vs. the spiritual, and it's not a far leap to see that he's suggesting the same will happen to us, too.
Naturally, the girl's prophecy will come to bear in the last half of the movie. Jaguar Paw is going to escape and lead his persecutors on a chase through the jungle so he can save his wife and pull her out of the hole. It's going to be dicey, though. First, he has to get past every jungle movie cliché Gibson can squeeze in, including waterfalls, snakes, and quicksand. Then, he has to fend off the last of his attackers before the rainstorm fills the hole his family is in and drowns his wife while she is giving birth. Yes, I just spoiled part of the climax, but I don't care, it's ludicrous. You know Jaguar Paw is going to come out of it, because if he doesn't, who will carry on living the high moral life? If the core values of God and family can't be saved, we can't justify all the blood and guts the filmmaker spilled on the way.
I realize it's somewhat unfair to drag Mel Gibson's personal indiscretions into the critique of his art, but I honestly don't think Apocalypto would have rubbed me differently had he not had has his run-in with the law earlier this year. Even ignoring that, the director invites such scrutiny by his public indications that he is making films fueled by his personal belief. He is very clear he wants to deliver us a message. That's why the TV commercials for Apocalypto have footage of Mel Gibson talking about the meaning of the film, and why the movie begins with a quote about how a society destroys itself from within. He could have kept his mouth shut and just made a chase picture, with Jaguar Paw outrunning the slave traders and saving his family from ruin. Instead, he's trying to administer some medicine, and I hope most people will join me in coughing it back up.