Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson’s egregious gaff last August clouded its theatrical release in a totally unnecessary manner, but it was the media that made tenable the connection between his personal philosophy about his fellow man and a film focusing on South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press's process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame's cyclical nature.
Perhaps DVD can help his flagging interpersonal fortunes. Gauged solely by what’s up on the screen, Gibson shouldn’t have any issues at all. From a pure filmmaking point of view, Apocalypto is brilliant. It’s a tenacious throwback to the days when human beings handled action, not CGI and special effects. It uses it’s wonderfully simplistic storyline to pour on much welcomed buckets of atmosphere and design, and it purposely leaves the audience directly in the dark. As a result, we instantly identify with his lead character’s dilemma (protecting and/or returning to his family) and discover the wild and wooly ways this foreign world works, right along with everyone else.
Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating an excellent antidote to the plodding post-modern blockbuster. In a script that is elegant in its ease, Gibson identifies the good guys (Jaguar Paw's jungle dwelling tribe) and names the unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson's gift behind the lens. Using digital cameras and advanced filmmaking technology, there is a rawness to this imagery present that’s just astounding.
There are indeed shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely computer generated spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there's a moment during Jaguar Paw's last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer. In addition, the entire Mayan Temple scene is radiant in its crassly colorful depiction of debauchery. As part of Touchstone’s Special Edition disc, Gibson is on hand to explain how he captured every cleverly created moment. We even witness the attention to detail in the Behind the Scenes featurettes.
As for the performances, it really is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Still, he never comes across as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Naturally, there's a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. He even shows a softer side, doting on his son in a way that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw a palpable public enemy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. Thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.
While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don't really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson's ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we've never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. Some have criticized the authenticity of Apocalypto’s artistic assertions, but the added context of the DVD should help to resolve some of those lingering logistical doubts. Indeed, we learn that things were much worse – read: bloodier and gorier – than depicted onscreen.
Yet it’s the nonstop action of the entire last act, a foot race that seems to cover the entire length of Central America in its lightning paced logistics and epic scope that truly amplifies our appreciation. Obviously inspired by his stint as a certain Mad Max, Gibson emulates the best of Australian auteur George Miller and strips everything down to body parts and wooded paths. Instead of just spectacle (and there’s plenty of that) we get strategizing and opportunism. While some may question the seemingly boundless energy Jaguar Paw and his pursuers maintain, we recognize the urgency in both the escape and the hunt. Our hero has to get home to his family. The villains have a horrifying superstition to follow and feed (and a little eye for an eye payback to administer). By avoiding complicated motives and obvious stunt set ups, the action in Apocalypto’s finale is a solid cinematic adrenaline rush. It argues not only for the effectiveness of the film, but for the skill stowed away in Gibson’s bag of cinematic tricks.
For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the all time classics of the genre, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with the exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an inventive perspective. Besides, what's the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling celluloid statements? While it may be possible to judge a man strictly by his actions, art is not so easily categorized. It requires a different set of perceptive standards. Here’s DVD’s chance to change some minds