Reviewed in November 2006
Director: Mel Gibson. Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Raul Trujillo, Dalia Hernandez, Morris Birdyellowhead, Jonathan Brewer, Ramirez Amilcar, Israel Ross, María Isabel Díaz, Gerardo Taracena, Rodolfo Palacios, Ariel Galvan, Fernando Hernandez, Nicolás Jasso. Screenplay: Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia.

Photo © 2006 Touchstone Pictures/Icon Productions
What does the man who made The Passion of the Christ, having paved the road to sublime salvation in divots of flesh and gristle, possibly offer as a follow-up act? This question interests me far more than what Gibson is supposed to do and how he is going to be judged ever since he got pulled off that royal road, failed some breathalizers, and spaketh some vile invective. And yet, Apocalypto trumps even Mission: Impossible III as a big-budget, star-emblazoned action picture emerging in an especially inclement climate of reception. Supporters will be forced overtly to endorse Apocalypto in spite of the sins of its father-producer (and presume that its critics are capitulating to private vendettas), while detractors must fight the impulse to impugn the film by association with its dubious progenitor, or else must deny deny deny that Gibson's increasingly erratic behaviors and dangerous ideological confessions have anything to do with their rejection of the movie.

Gibson himself, beyond disseminating his general personal contrition (as he has been doing or attempting to do for months, in various venues), would seem to be limited to two strategies for recuperating his picture. The "It's Only Entertainment" Defense™ would position Apocalypto as a boffo populist thrill-ride, unmarked by Gibson's spiritual or political platforms. By contrast, the "It's More Than Entertainment" Defense™ would extract from Apocalypto a robust and dignifying ideological essence that doesn't tamp down the rhetorical fires we now associate with Gibson's persona but rather sets a new fire in a brand new camp, far afield from his recent, incriminating blazes. Astutely, if also inevitably, Gibson has towed both of these lines leading up to Apocalypto's release, underscoring the kinetic, adrenalized rush of the film's Most Dangerous Game plot while also linking Apocalypto's dark visions of a dying culture's intramural violence as a mirror for America's enmirement in Iraq, and for the other internecine hostilities that mark the modern American scene, if not the human scene altogether. (Look at this interview in Entertainment Weekly for one instance of Gibson's unwieldy synthesis of self-exonerations.) Within his new film's story, Apocalypse is certainly Now—and Coppola's film is explicitly invoked through Apocalypto's pivotal image of the pitch-blackened face of its endangered protagonist, rising from a muddy pit of quicksand and staring back at the jungle, the screen, the audience through the riled whites of his own eyes. But apocalypse for whom, and how, and when, and why? How soon is Now?

Well, search me... and I've seen the movie. The first thing to say about Apocalypto, though, is that this essential schizophrenia about what it is and for whom it exists is encoded into the film's very form. Commencing with Will Durant's decontextualized remark that "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within," the film implies a bent toward historical or sociological speculation that is almost immediately nullified by the ensuing slog of brutalities, portents, beheadings, guttings, bludgeonings, perforations, brainings, and animal assaults. Meanwhile, the finely dappled and lacquered cinematography of Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves), James Horner's compulsory score of anguished wails and wooden flutes, and the outlandish, untrammeled imaginations of the design and cosmetic teams bear the equal but opposite onus of elevating Apocalypto from the snuff-film register that Gibson's sprinting, grueling plot and his lascivious eye for violence obviously inhabit—a disreputable affinity for carnage which is flaunted as a blazon of honor by more honest if equally despicable "entertainments" like the Saw films or the current Turistas. A torture epic in pricy, upscale clothing, even when accessorized on both ends with glimmers of scholastic revisionism, is still a torture epic, and after an opening half-hour of exposition that is simultaneously wispy and crude, Apocalypto spends two solid hours leering at bodily traumas, delectating in viscera, protracting episodes of pillage and assault, and thinking of new ways for the barely delineated characters to expire, or nearly expire.

Historical inquiry or moral philosophy—even at the level of illustrating Durant's unprovable, perhaps tautological homily—have literally nothing to do with Apocalypto's purposes. In fact, part of why the opening exposition is so grievous is that Apocalypto can barely keep pace with Durant's already simplified schematic. Gibson and Farhad Safinia's script posits one population of gleeful, folksy, idealized Mayans and another group of bloodthirsty, treacherous Mayans, with a third tribe of displaced, hollow-eyed Mayans hovering around, between, and beneath the other two. Thus, the Manichean duel between Good and Evil exists simply as the given scenario of a laughably reductive film, rather than approaching the status of an actual idea, much less a credible critique. Establishing whether or in what ways these two Mayan bands, the Noble and the Savage, embody "a great civilization," or to what extent they even comprise one civilization rather than two, is quite beyond the movie's reach, or at least its curiosities. Consequently, Durant's quotation is not taken here as a serious provocation which the film attempts to authenticate or deconstruct, but rather as a Cliff's Notes summary of pre-genocidal New World history that lends Apocalypto a flimsy "intellectual" credential with which to bounce ahead into its id-driven regime of visual barbarism.

Nonetheless, all of the movie's dirty business conducts itself amidst the kind of lavish production design, beatific location photography, and underexplored, emphatically remote cultural context that supply Apocalypto with three crucial alibis: 1) the film will play as a serious "prestige" picture, notarized by evident expense and carefully recruited behind-the-scenes talent; 2) by taking a risk on unknown actors speaking an alien language within a regional idiom that Hollywood has roundly ignored, Apocalypto invites praise for its formal and cultural boundary-pushing; and 3) whatever lame dichotomies and social-Darwinist truisms that Gibson & Co. care to purvey will be recoded as eternal verities, rendered all the more cyclic and transcendental by the film's self-conscious appropriation of nature, the cosmos, birth, death, primogeniture, and religious ritual as visual and narrative motifs. Gibson's self-styled corollary to "If you build it, They will come" is "If you periodize it in the distant past and grace it with mythological signifiers, They will believe," even if that means believing that there is anything more to Gibson's sadistic suite of images (well-edited and capably shot though they admittedly are) than the effusive rewarding of base appetites.

I think that Gibson's real problem in mounting Apocalypto, and probably in mounting any project he might have undertaken post-Passion, is that the Christic narrative lent him perhaps the solitary subject for which his relentless, pugilistic, and literalist proclivities toward violence as a filmmaking style might exist as a fresh, credible point-of-view. The Passion has been rendered any number of times on screen, but never as the reductio in extremis of corporal destruction that Gibson realized for us. Given the theological scaffolding already built into the story, Gibson was not only relieved of having to construct a thematic justification for this brutalist approach, but his own sensibility emerged as distinctly well-suited to a fundamental(ist?) aspect of Christ's suffering that had been glossed or abstracted in other versions of the story. Not just Gibson's prodigious, aggressive faith, then, but his hallmarks and limits as a filmmaker lent themselves to that story in a way that they didn't quite lend themselves to Braveheart, for all of that movie's devout fans and awards recognition. Just like Apocalypto, Braveheart begins with an opportunistic and rather highfalutin declamation—narrated, in this case, instead of inscribed as an epigraph—that "history is written by those who have hanged heroes." Randall Wallace's script and Gibson's direction quickly delve into a complicated historical narrative whose layers, imports, and basic character motivations utterly fail to cohere, since the movie is much more interested in parrying a romantic, macho, and paper-thin idea of "freedom-fighting" as a noble, ahistorical, and barely impeachable slogan, not to mention a hardy, chuffing activity that looks splendid in anamorphic widescreen. Braveheart, for all its aspirations to do and say more, is not a credible chronicle of anything beyond Gibson's fervor for making it, and though it's the height of critical narcissism to second oneself, I maintain the merits of my prophecy at the end of that review that "the length and breadth of Gibson's directorial career may well be dictated by how many subjects he feels he can serve without adjusting his recipe of images, montage, and perspective one single bit."

It's this rigid self-repetition, the opposite of real art, that really weighs against Apocalypto, creating a strong and hugely off-putting impression that Gibson hasn't "pared down" the action-chase genre to its essentials so much as he has backed himself into the dank, revolting corners of his own mind's eye, forcing us to see things he has already shown in earlier installments of a brief filmography, but with rather less pretense on this occasion that he has anything else to offer. After a preamble sequence in which Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), his young cohorts, and his solemn father hunt, impale, and dissect a tapir—giving that doomed stag in The Queen some impressive competition as the most ploddingly symbolized animal in a year of movies—Apocalypto captures a boisterous idyll of village life that very nearly duplicates the early chapters of Braveheart, followed by a nearly equivalent sequence of a hostile enemy raid. This pillaging sequence extends long after its basic repertoire of images and story-points has exhausted itself, as though Apocalypto can't cut away from the very mayhem it pretends to bemoan. Jaguar Paw barely has time to sequester his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and their toddler in a deep, circular ravine before he is drawn back into the grisly mêlée, impressed as a captive, and forced to witness the murder of his father. Indeed, this whole sequence is so gratuitously staged that it even recycles itself: having barely concluded the scene where Jaguar Paw unwittingly "outs" his father and prompts his murder, Gibson moves to a scene where Jaguar Paw casts a nervous, indiscreet gaze toward his family's hiding place, leading another enemy warmonger to sever their means of escape. One suspects, especially given Mrs. Jaguar Paw's enceinte condition, that Gibson will fall prey to a discomfiting (if very Searchers-like) temptation to render this rough, rocky maw as, of all things, a metaphorical womb; the implicit misogyny of this gesture is only heightened by the film's commitment to dropping the pregnant mother not once but twice upon her swollen belly.

Once Apocalypto kicks into high gear, Gibson will occasionally deign to cross-cut back to Jaguar Paw's bruised wife, lacerated child, and endangered fetus as they await their rescue from their own stony panic room in the earth's crust. Mostly, though, the movie details the onerous trudge of the captive Mayans toward their conquerors' metropolis, in long travelling sequences that bear more than a passing resemblance to Jesus' march beneath the cross. Next we behold the grotesque hedonism and odious human sacrifices that unite this savage city, in largely static sequences that bear more than a passing resemblance to the unruly public square of Jerusalem, where Pilate relinquished Barabbas and consigned Jesus to horrible assault. Apocalypto trusses itself up big-time in these sequences, festooning the innumerable extras in exotic clothing, demonic masks, prosthetic makeup and dentures, and wigs that look like nautilus shells. Two prisoners reach untidy ends while splayed across a pagan altar, in prostrate poses straight out of the Wallace-on-the-rack images in Braveheart. That film's trademarked blue bodypaint is also a linchpin of this trying but tired interlude. Lest the cinematography be outshone, though, by the grandiloquent mise-en-scène, Gibson furnishes big-studio Hollywood cinema with (I'm only guessing) its first point-of-view shot from the vantage of a severed head as it barrels down the steps of a ziggurat. After seizing a brief deus ex machina intermission in the form of a well-timed eclipse, the film offs some more Mayans with a guignol hundred-meter dash. Jaguar Paw, by notching a surprise kill of his own, survives this new trial with only a spear-wound in the side—not the first but the second invocation in Apocalypto of Jesus' abdominal trauma—and he flees into the jungle so that Apocalypto may devote its entire second half to his desperate escape and his captors' rabid pursuit.

With maybe 30 lines of dialogue spread over the last 90 minutes, Apocalypto is like a leafier, more adumbrated expansion on the icefield hunt in Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), re-outfitted for maximum Fangoria appeal with, among other horrifying spectacles, a slimy field of bloated, decomposing bodies; a black jaguar that chews the face off of one anonymous heavy in extreme close-up; a chintzy effects shot of orange-red blood geysering from the arteries of a mauled head; and, in a film that can't help but reprise its own preferred means of torturous death, a spring-mounted tapir trap that triggers just when Apocalypto needs it to. Even the rare moments of visual wit in Apocalypto run afoul of its compulsion to plow the screen with organic debris. How many thousands of times have we seen a cornered protagonist choose between certain annihilation and a death-defying leap over the edge of a waterfall? Apocalypto supplies a new and temporarily satisfying twist to this familiar episode, as the predators undertake the same fearless plunge as their human prey, until Gibson drains our amusement with another sadistic close-up of an unlucky warrior's head as it collides with a massive stone just beneath the surface of the water.

"I don't want people to watch that piece," Gibson has attested. "I've given them plenty of time to close their eyes, because that's really heinous." But it is exactly this hypocritical double-position of salivating over images that the film pretends to abhor—images, indeed, that the film self-importantly offers us as the tea-leaves in which we are to read a culture's imminent demise—that typifies Apocalypto throughout. Presumably we are meant to chuckle with enlightened knowingness when («spoiler warning») Jaguar Paw, having survived the ambush, the enslavement, the temple sacrifice, the obstacle course, the hunt through the forest, the jaguar, the quicksand, and the mano-à-mano with the Bad chief, sprints headlong into the most lethal enemy of all: the Spanish conquistadors, arriving on Central American shores just at the very rainswept moment when Jaguar Paw makes his final, futile dash for the beach. One wonders whether the Spaniards really needed to go to all this trouble when, in Gibson's 15th-century peninsula, Catholic iconography is already so prevalent. This fateful coming ashore, by the way, transpires at the same instant when («another spoiler») the fugitive's wife, gasping for air and hoisting her toddler atop her shoulders as their crevasse fills with water, gives birth to her child in an underwater effects shot that had my preview audience howling in their seats. Childbirth, improbably enough, is the rare human experience that Gibson doesn't associate with blood and mess. The incongruous, pretty-as-a-peach sanctification of her stalwart fertility is the springboard by which Apocalypto vaults from its pitiless mimesis of torture to a jaw-dropping embrace of kitsch, and if this counts as something of a new direction for Gibson, its future as an aesthetic isn't promising.

One curse of Apocalypto that I haven't found a way around is that an extended review almost by necessity gives over to a catalogue of plot-point tribulations and recycled motifs. In my experience, the film exists only as these things, permeated throughout by the director's congenital desire for ferrying the scarlet, steaming, shit-stained insides of people's bodies onto the surface of their violated skins, and thereby exposing the incriminating fact that his own films, particularly this one, have no analogous interior to unveil. Apocalypto unfolds as a web of death-drives, false devotions, lofty pretenses, auto-plagiarisms, sound but inarticulate craftsmanship, and lowest-common-denominator provisions of trauma as entertainment—all rendered through verbal and visual languages that only seem to offer the multiplex something it hasn't showcased plenty of times before (heck, plenty of times this year). Even the swaggering strain of chauvinist humor in the film, all cock-and-ball jokes and casually profane subtitles and nagging mothers-in-law, feels like desperately old news, and it never extrapolates itself as a fruitfully subversive formal energy, as in this past summer's brilliantly absurdist Crank, which spun dazzling, excessive, and cheekily self-conscious variations on the boilerplate image of one crazy-ass man on the lam. Apocalypto has a fast runner but equips neither him nor us with anywhere to go. It promises its audience a prophetic parable of The End of All Things but instead it gorges us on more and more and more of a disgusting, infantilizing same old same old. I'm not disputing that Gibson knows how to assemble a movie, but that's just it: he knows how to assemble a movie, which he has now made for the third consecutive time, under a different title, with cruder and less defensible images, and even less of a berth in the relevant community of real ideas. F

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Sound
Best Sound Effects
Best Makeup

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Foreign Language Film

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