As in, quasi-pornographic gore and whole-hog blood and guts. Full throttle. Up close. Thirty feet high and in stereo-surround sound. For almost two hours and twenty minutes.
Needless to say, those with delicate constitutions may wish to think twice before queuing up for tickets, and those expecting a thoughtful examination of the Mayan culture should probably look to PBS or National Geographic instead. That said, Apocalypto is an unrelenting battle film with enough mano-a-mano combat to satiate even the most hard-core fan of hard-core action.
Set in Meso-America in the early 16th century, the story revolves around Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose village is targeted and subsequently eviscerated by a rival tribe of warriors. To detail the complexities of the “conflict” would be pointless; the film basically spends a good, solid hour showing the villagers chased, beaten, decapitated, tortured, raped and killed in all kinds of gruesome ways, over and over again. Eventually, the carnage subsides (temporarily) as Jaguar Paw and the few surviving members of his village are captured and brought to a giant Mayan city where bad, bad things will happen. The warriors in the city need to make human sacrifices to the Sun God in order to appease him (it?), and Jaguar Paw and his peers are simply the latest offerings in a massive, massive line of victims who number in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
This gets us to the 80-minute mark or so, with the remaining hour of the film comprised of Jaguar Paw’s efforts to escape the city and avoid being the next casualty in a bloody, bloody endeavor. He’s determined to reunite with his wife (Dalia Hernandez) and little boy (Carlos Emilio Baez), who spend the entire movie trapped in a secret cave awaiting his return, and proceeds to fight tooth and nail (literally) to succeed.
The film is simultaneously well-served and poorly served by its relatively simple storyline: man wants to live and save his family. There isn’t much in the way of historical relevance, since the general gist – “Wow, Mayans were seriously angry!” – is pretty clear from the get-go. Little explanation is given for anything, and potential audience members might be wise to brush up on their Meso-American history in advance of the film. (I knew virtually nothing, and didn’t learn much while watching.) At the same time, the lack of historical context and back story allows for wall-to-wall action that never gets bogged down in dialogue or character development.
To that end, director Mel Gibson and his filmmaking team have clearly gone to great lengths to create as authentic an experience as possible, from the dialects (all characters speak Mayan) to the casting (virtually all unknowns). Suspension of disbelief is very, very easy and the film envelops the audience wholly and completely…with the exception of a couple of pieces of dialogue that land like lead balloons onscreen. (Did the Mayans really have a phrase that translates to “he’s f**ked”? Probably not.) The whole thing is an experience, not just a movie.
Again, and it can’t be said enough, Gibson puts his characters through hell, and the reason is never quite clear. Watching Apocalypto, I wasn’t sure why Gibson even made the film. Was it to test his mettle as a filmmaker by pushing himself to the cinematic extremes? Was it to test the limits of the MPAA by helming what might, in the hands of a lesser-known director with a smaller budget, land an NC-17 rating for its extreme content? Was it to reveal a previously unexplored part of history and expose it to the masses? Or was it simply to fill a cinematic niche, however tiny or remote it might be?
I have no idea. But for a visceral, violent and somewhat vague movie-going experience, you’ll find no film more appropriate to fill that niche than this one.