Apocalypto
Directed by Mel Gibson | Touchstone | 135 minutes
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Ramirez Amilcar, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, María Isabel Díaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Iazua Larios


Throughout the history of cinema two images of pre-colonial Native Americans have predominated. Image One: wailing, human-sacrificing, cannibalistic barbarians who would scalp a white man as soon as look at him. Image two: a serene and Edenic people, peacefully co-existing and at one with nature until evil Europeans methodically destroyed their lives. Of course, the term Native American comprises thousands of tribes, spanning many centuries, and covering thousands of miles. In reality, Native Americans were as closely connected with nature as most primitive cultures. Some, not all, did practice human sacrifice as many ancient civilizations did. Long before any Europeans arrived, they were quite capable of both noble dignity and terrible cruelty to one another.

Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s new film, takes place in an ancient Mayan village, just before the arrival of the and provides a more balanced vision of this people than Hollywood traditionally has. The Mayans tease each other, laugh, joke, and love their children. Some show fear. Some show pride. Some commit terrible acts of violence against their fellow men, yes, even human sacrifice.

In the tradition of great period pieces, Gibson effectively transports the audience to a setting, so remote from our own, with striking visual richness. Award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves) furnishes one beautiful shot after another. The audience is swept into a completely new world (no pun intended). The dense, untamed jungle looms so green. The crowded Mayan city with its exquisite pyramid and hundreds of natives pulses with bold and ominous life. The camera plunges into a gushing, shimmering waterfall. Impressive visuals abound.
Gibson co-wrote the script with Farhad Sarafinia, though the originality of this film is in the setting rather than the story and dialogue. The performances come mostly in the faces of this fairly strong cast of unknown actors. After his last film, The Passion of the Christ, in which the characters spoke Aramaic and Latin, Gibson continues his fascination with ancient languages. In Apocalypto, the characters speak the Mayan language of Yukatek with English subtitles. Though English-speaking audiences have long since demonstrated a willingness to overlook the inaccuracy of characters from far-away lands speaking English, the original language does add a potent note of realism. As with The Passion of the Christ, the subtitles do not distract from the story.
A young Mayan adult, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), hunts with his friends and his father (Morris Birdyellowhead) and happily raises his young family. Before long, however, a neighboring faction raids his small village, killing some and capturing others. Jaguar Paw successfully hides his very pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and toddler son, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez) in a deep natural crevice and tells them he will return for them. Soon he is captured and the vine leading to their crevice is cut, thus trapping them. Jaguar Paw is yoked with his fellow survivors and dragged away.
The captives are brutally lugged to a large city patterned after the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Here the women are sold into slavery and the men are slated for sacrifice in order to stem a plague which has descended upon the city. The men are painted blue in a scene drawn from one of the fiercest known forms of human sacrifice in the Americas. Atop a towering pyramid, the Mayan king spouts inane but emotionally charged declarations that these sacrifices will solve all of their problems. The multitude below howls in support. It is a speech worthy of many modern politicians.
Through a succession of fortuitous events, Jaguar Paw is able to escape and from here the movie evolves into a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping cat-and-mouse flick. In its last hour, Apocalypto shows similarities to the relentless chase sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and some ways resembles The Fugitive. So, despite its vague parallels to the decline of the modern Western world, and for all its lavish production, Apocalypto is essentially just that, an action-thriller, a chase movie.
It is really not about the decline of the Mayan civilization at all. It is about one man’s struggle to escape certain death and save his family… with some great action scenes. Those who enjoy these kinds of movies, as I do, will undoubtedly delight in Apocalypto. But others may be repelled by Gibson’s trademark violence, which is here in abundance. Those looking for substance will find something, but Gibson has not come close to reaching the depth of his last film. This is closer to First Blood than The Passion of the Christ.
Although Mel Gibson has received a great deal of negative press in recent months, Apocalypto must be assessed on its own merits. It is a visually stirring, truly exciting film. Despite his recent lapses in judgement, Gibson should be applauded for conceiving original ideas and bringing them to the screen with vivid authenticity.
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.