For some reason -- I can’t imagine why -- Mel Gibson is fascinated with the worst in all of us. The idea seems to be that we are bad by default, goodness is the extreme exception; other cultures, especially, are hotbeds of badness, as is the past, and exploring either or both of them is only useful insofar as it provides a cheap, false-fronted allegory for the present. As he leaves acting behind and becomes more and more confident in the domain of director, Gibson has grown increasingly bald-faced with his thematic (if you can call them that) preoccupations, dropping the markers in his path like bloody footprints; any two-bit terrier can pick up this particular trail. If you’re not a terrier, however, you have to ask yourself: What are the odds that bloody footprints are going to lead to something I want to see?
In the decidedly post-Edenic, Mayan any-time (though we eventually learn it's on the cusp of pre-Christian invasion) of Apocalypto, Gibson’s latest well-researched and imaginative snapshot of torture through the ages, the denizens of a small jungle village are murdered and enslaved by their big-city neighbors, who seem to be fresh out of human sacrifices. The film opens with a quote from Will Durant, on the fall of Rome: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."
Fair enough, and a promising opener that Gibson follows with... testicle humor. A lot of it. As far as I can tell, the downfall of Mayan civilization can be directly linked to a wanton excess of ball jokes and a bare-bummed community that finds them a little too amusing. Jaguar Paw, a young Mayan played with open-faced emotion by Rudy Youngblood, laughs it up as well, and when his village is duly invaded by bigger-balled, humorless Mayans, his father’s throat is slit, and, because Gibson has never seen a hugely pregnant woman he couldn’t dump down a well, Jaguar Paw leaves his wife and son helpless at the bottom of a huge crevass.
"Fear is a sickness," Jaguar Paw's father tells him, but there’s a fine line between a lack of fear and stupidity, and the rest of Apocalypto walks it with thumping bravado. Jaguar Paw, after being carted to the decadent, gonzo confines of Maya City (my guess is the production designer was influenced by early Burning Man as well as late Mayan), and watching his fellow villagers sold to the highest bidder or cut open to appease the gods, their beheaded bodies tossed down to the frenzied crowd like discarded party favors, finds himself outrunning his very real demons in a race to get back to his wife and son in the jungle.
The chase is a heated one, and back on his home turf Jaguar Paw is the Martha Stewart of jungle warfare, using a frog, a beehive, and a bog full of quicksand to great advantage. He's more galloping avatar than man, collecting enemies like so many points. Mad Max cinematographer Dean Semler does some very impressive work, and digital cinema has probably never looked this good -- but that also means a chockablock with high-def innards, and I celebrated Thanksgiving last week, thank you.
Intimations of a higher purpose are just that in Apocalypto, as nothing is learned about Mayan history, culture, people or why all three collapsed into ruinous mystery. The violence is so liberal, so heedless that its impact becomes meaningless and not to be trusted; like a lot of modern video games that adopt elaborate, often historical scenarios to contextualize (and, I imagine, liven up) the utter banality of bloodsport, Gibson uses dazzle camouflage in an attempt to add credibility to what amounts to an advanced, expensive roll in the muck of fetishized human cruelty.
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