Tonight I went to go see Mel Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto. The movie is about the decline of the Maya as a result of the Global Zionist Conspiracy™. Actually, no. The story is rather simple, and is set against the backdrop of the crumbling remnants of Maya civilization. Jaguar Paw (Rusty Youngblood) is a young hunter, living with his tribe deep in the jungle. He has a very pregnant wife and young son, and the village is a tight-knit community. One day, while hunting, they encounter another tribe, who is asking permission to pass through their territory. This tribe is beaten and in fear of something, and Jaguar Paw later has a dream fortelling him to “run”. Shortly thereafter, their village is attacked, and after hiding his family in a hole, Jaguar Paw is taken prisoner along with his friends where he is brought to the large Mayan city – to be a human sacrifice to help the dying kingdom regain its prosperity. I won’t go into much detail after that, but will just say that he doesn’t die (obviously, that would make the movie end abruptly), but manages to escape and will use his knowledge of the jungle to try to outwit and defeat his pursuers, and try to reach his family in time.
This film was very interesting, for a few reasons. Firstly, it was filmed entirely in a Mayan dialect, so it’s subtitled. Secondly, it was shot digitally, and while there were a few shots that didn’t look great, overally you wouldn’t know that it was a wholly digital film. Thirdly, there are no mainstream actors in it. And finally, it’s violent as all hell. This isn’t a film for the weak stomached. It’s a brutal slice of Maya life, and nothing is really held back. People are knived, speared, gutted, mauled, decardiated, beheaded, and more. Because the story is pretty basic, we’re relying on the characters to provide the substance. And they deliver – there’s plenty of depth to their emotional journeys, so you can definitely believe what they’re going through is affecting them.
The only thing is, the violence is so overt, and so excessive, that it almost borders on parody. Yes, it’s shocking, but it is so pervasive that by the time a warrior gets hit in the head and has a spurting arterial wound, you’re almost laughing because it looks like something out of a Monty Python sketch. I’m not an expert in Maya culture, but things seemed to be pretty well researched. The only thing that felt a little forced was the very end of the film, when the Europeans arrive.
I wasn’t impressed with the cinematography. Dean Stemler, who has done some great work in the past, doesn’t bring anything stylistic to the palette of the movie, whereas Caleb Deschanel had a great look for The Passion of the Christ. There’s a great visual effects shot in the teaser trailer where we see the priest reaching his hand out towards the eclipsed sun, and see the city in all it’s glory. That shot isn’t in the film. Rather, the original shot is the priest holding out a human heart to show the crowd – and it’s prior to the eclipse. So there’s nothing too stylistic and “epic” about it – in fact, you probably can’t tell that there are any visual effects going on at all. While it makes it more natural, it makes it less impressive for some reason. Oh well.
James Horner’s unconventional score is a mixture of strings and occasional brass, with tons of percussion and ethnic instruments. It’s primal and instinctive, and with vocalizations done by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it’s got a pretty distinctive musical palette going on. Looking forward to checking it out on CD.
There are a lot of good things about Apocalypto, and they certainly outweigh the negatives. It’s a tad too long, and extremely violent, so you’ve been warned – but I’d recommend it if you want to see a slice of primitive life. With no marketable stars, a foreign language and extreme violence, it will be interesting to see how general audiences react to the film, which will open wide at 2,500 theaters.