Film Review: Apocalypto

Apocalypto

With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.

Apocalypto (2006)

ApocalyptoMel Gibson is not unfamiliar with controversy both as a director and in his personal life. The Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995) was a good but historically inaccurate film while The Passion of the Christ (2004) was brutal and caused outrage with some accusations of Anti-Semitism. With Apocalypto Gibson left himself open to further debate in his depiction of the Maya civilization in decline just before the arrival of the Spanish colonists, first spearheaded by Christopher Columbus.

In terms of the story Apocalypto is very simple with the visuals and action being given more prominence than the plot. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is part of a peaceful Maya tribe living deep in the jungle when his people are attacked by raiders, tying up their victims to be marched through the harsh terrain to their majestic city where a Maya King awaits. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his heavily pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez) before being captured by the raiders, led by the ruthless but at times merciful Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). After being taken to the Maya city, the women are sold as slaves while Jaguar Paw and the rest of the men are put forward to be sacrificed. When it is Jaguar Paw’s turn an eclipse suddenly covers the sun and the Maya onlookers are in fear but a priest assures those gathered that they have appeased the sun god Kukulkan and there is no further need for sacrifice. Jaguar Paw and the other men are sent to be killed but Jaguar Paw manages to escape and begins a perilous journey home to his family with Zero Wolf and a band of warriors in hot pursuit.

With a very basic story being offered to the audience we are left to rely on some impressive visuals, sweeping panoramic shots of the jungle, waterfalls and then the devastated terrain surrounding the Mayan city that Jaguar Paw and the rest of his village are marched towards. The Meso-American landscape is simply breathtaking and the Mayan city with the temple perched atop a seemingly endless stairway is magnificent to behold. Gibson sensibly opted to have Apocalypto use Yucatec Maya dialogue with English subtitles which makes for a more authentic experience. We are given an insight into Mayan culture with methods of hunting, worship of gods, sense of humour and practical jokes, and finally brutal warfare all being prevalent throughout the two hours.

The film’s opening with Jaguar Blood joining his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and a group of hunters in the pursuit of a tapir has an inevitable outcome and leaves little to the imagination. Apocalypto does have scenes that some audiences may find difficult to watch. Zero Wolf’s raid at the outset is organised but cruel as families are separated with children being left behind. Adults are clearly the only ones of any worth when it comes to slavery and human sacrifice. Jaguar Paw immediately gets on the wrong side of the vicious Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena) who is eager to kill the film’s hero only to be stopped by Zero Wolf. In response Middle Eye makes a show of killing Jaguar Paw’s father instead. Middle Eye’s violent nature shows no sign of relenting particularly in the journey to the Maya city where he watches a group of slaves, including Jaguar Paw, almost dragged from a cliff by one wounded and exhausted Mayan slave. Middle Eye simply waits to see if the quartet of slaves can haul themselves back to the surface and when they do he cuts the wounded Maya loose and hurls him from the cliff. His actions earn a fierce reprimand from Zero Wolf but no further action is taken. Human sacrifice is also unpleasant in Apocalypto with hearts being removed followed by beheadings and torsos thrown down stairways. This element of the film has been frowned upon for the Aztecs were said to be purveyors of mass sacrifice while the Maya performed it on a minimal scale. Finally, Jaguar Paw’s chance of escape comes when two slaves are released at a time by Zero Wolf and told to run towards a field of corn and beyond that the dense jungle. While the Maya slaves run for freedom, Zero Wolf and his men proceed to use them as target practice! Jaguar Paw escapes this fate but is wounded in the process and endures a horrific journey home with Zero Wolf, Middle Eye and a handful of other hunters close behind.

The lack of a major storyline is a negative point to Apocalypto but the fighting is brutal yet excellent in its execution. The performances are all very good as well and even with a somewhat predictable ending it still leaves a bittersweet taste. Gibson found himself in the midst of controversy again with Apocalypto with depictions of the Maya said to contain many inaccuracies. The Maya are somewhat one dimensional, simply hunters and warriors, whereas in history they were great innovators as well, somewhat lacking in the film. The arrival of the Spanish is said to put the film’s events in history around 1502, Columbus’ fourth expedition to America but this is also said to be far from the truth. Delving into the facts does hinder a film. I found that with Braveheart after reading two biographies about William Wallace and I know the same is true of Apocalypto. Like Braveheart, Apocalypto will always be frowned on for historical inaccuracy but some elements ring true and a good film is still to be found beneath the controversy.

Apocalypto is lacking in a major storyline but the insight into Mayan culture is fascinating. It’s violent in places but remains enthralling throughout and the final segment of the film with Jaguar Paw being pursued through the jungle is an exciting cat and mouse chase which is brought to an end in very surprising fashion. Uncompromising but good in equal measure, Apocalypto has much to offer.

Verdict: 8/10

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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