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Apocalypto

Visceral, Bloody, and Brutal

Mel Gibson has a thing for visceral and brutal violence as evidenced by his handiwork in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. If you’re a fan of this kind of violence, rest assured you’re going to have more than you can handle with Apocalypto. Gibson seems to really excel at this kind of thing, which can be viewed a few different ways.

On the one hand, Gibson is very creative in finding disturbingly visceral and intense ways to film death, human sacrifice, and dismemberment. On the other hand, it makes one wonder what this means to Gibson and why with each film Gibson makes the level of violence seems to increase. Apocalypto is the kind of film that would have been rated NC-17 or ‘X’ not that long ago and raises the question why a film with fellatio (The Brown Bunny) gets such a rating, but a film like this does not?

Truly, the incredible amount of graphic violence in Apocalypto becomes a real distraction after awhile and raises the question of exactly what Gibson is trying to convey to the audience. Violence/genocide is the foundation of all great civilizations is one "possible" message Gibson is trying to send. But, is this all he’s trying to say?

Apocalypto follows the journey of a man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who has been enslaved by a violent, vicious tribe and taken to their city to be sacrificed to the gods during the decline of the Mayan kingdom. A deus ex machina allows Jaguar Paw to escape his captor. Thus, a frenetic chase through the jungle ensues as Jaguar Paw attempts to save his wife and child while the brutal members of the tribe who enslaved him give chase.

To Gibson’s credit, there is a real air of authenticity to virtually every aspect of Apocalypto. Mel filmed in Catemaco, one of the last remaining tracts of rainforest in Mexico. The cast is comprised almost exclusively of indigenous peoples, and all of the dialogue in the film is based on ancient dialect tied to the Mayan civilization.

The pinnacle of this authenticity occurs when Jaguar Paw finally arrives at the city where he is to be sacrificed. Visually stunning, these scenes are filled with beautiful Mayan pyramids, art, and everything in between. One gets a clear sense of the level of complexity and majesty that was present during the peak of the Mayan kingdoms.

Complementing the visual authenticity of Apocalypto is the authenticity of the acting in the film. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Gibson wisely chose to use indigenous peoples for his primary cast. One of the exceptions to this is the half- Native American, half-African American Rudy Youngblood who plays Jaguar Paw. Youngblood learned Mayan for his role and does an intensely convincing job in his performance.

There is little question that there was much time, energy, and thought that went into accurately conveying the decline of Mayan civilization in Apocalypto. For this reason alone, Gibson deserves credit for his directorial efforts. However, the positives of the film cannot entirely offset its shortcomings.

It’s a film that is senselessly violent. One could argue that the violence accurately represents the Mayan culture and this would perhaps be true. But, the violence really does become a distraction and a turn off after the sixth beheading, the fourth time you’ve seen blood squirt out of someone’s head, and the fifth time someone’s been impaled with a spear. The gore in this film transcends that displayed in just about every horror film released this year.

Additionally, there’s a sense that Gibson is trying to make this some kind of "message" film as indicated by the quote displayed at the beginning of the film ("A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."- W.Durant), but by the end the message he’s trying to convey seems garbled at best or at worst, simply lost. Apocalypto is a beautiful film on some levels, but ultimately a misguided effort.


Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars