It’s sometimes hard to remember that Mel Gibson is a formidable filmmaker. After the controversial release of 2004’s Passion of the Christ, his arrests, and his slew of unhinged, drunken tirades, this talent became understandably lost in the shuffle. His 2006 effort Apocalypto (the last film Gibson directed) however, is a clear reminder of his directorial strengths. This ambitious, Mesoamerica-set action film is ferociously staged and brilliantly paced, clearly designed to get your blood pumping harder than any of the story’s poor human sacrifices. Within its visceral narrative, Gibson also sets up a dialogue on the role fear plays in the decline of civilizations. And, considering that Apocalypto’s release coincided with one of the Iraq War’s many nadirs, this imbues it with a slight political value.
What’s unfortunately missing is context. Similar to Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto’s focus is extremely narrow, myopic even. One of the criticisms leveled at the film is that it distilled the complexity of Mayan culture down to its most basic and unsavory. These qualms are partially credible. Apocalypto is almost solely preoccupied with sanguinary aspects of the Mayan culture; although, to be fair, the story is set in the 1500s, when the Mayan civilization was reaching its twilight hour. More distressing are Apocalypto’s simplistic characterizations, a proclivity that runs the gamut of Gibson’s directorial work and ultimately cheapens it.
Apocalypto possesses an air of authenticity, partially due to its use of an approximation of the Yucatec Maya language, the actual language used by the Mayan people during this period. For me, personally, this is enormously meaningful. It’s incredibly grating to watch period films set in non-Western countries that feature Hollywood superstars speaking in English and acting like jerks. Composed entirely of Native American and Indigenous Mexican actors, Apocalypto’s cast also adds to its immersive edge, offering a relatively unique movie-watching experience.
The story itself centers on the harrowing growth of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young Mayan tribesman. One day, while hunting in the jungle with his father and fellow tribesmen, Jaguar Paw runs across another tribe fleeing the horrors of war. Somewhat shaken by this encounter, the tribe heads back to their bucolic village, which consists of a peaceful and well-functioning community. The next day, however, this serenity is shattered. Mayan warriors led by the fearsome Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) attack the village, ravaging its physical structures and killing many of its inhabitants. Those who survive find themselves enslaved and forced to march back to a sprawling Mayan city for additional torments. Before he is captured, Jaguar Paw manages to lower his pregnant wife and small son into a narrow hole in the ground. While this spares them from being either enslaved or killed, it effectively leaves them trapped, without means to survive for more than a few days.
The film’s aesthetic value comes across beautifully in its opening scenes, specifically through its costumes, hairstyling and makeup. The appearance of the Mayan characters is striking, with each individual’s tattoos, scarring and jewlery appearing ornate and handcrafted. In these scenes Gibson also evokes the Maya’s cultural sensibilities. He gives viewers a sense of the community’s social mores and political values, suggesting how powerfully fear can undermine them.
Sensitively tackling this subject would be difficult for anyone, but perhaps even more so for a powerful, white director, known for making inflammatory remarks about marginalized groups. Apocalypto’s opening scenes are laudable, at least in the sense that they depict Jaguar Paw’s community as having positive aspects. While there are traces of the whole “noble savage” trope, the film thankfully avoids characterizing the Maya solely as innocent children of nature, seen in something like Terrance Malick’s mostly-amazing The New World.
Exponentially more controversial is the treatment of the film’s second group of Maya: the invading horde that enslaves Jaguar Paw and his friends and family. This group of tribesmen is incredibly savage, sadistic even, possessing none of the faint nuance and complexity of Jaguar Paw’s clan. Their loathsome nature is reflected in the city where they eventually take their captives: a sprawling, nightmarish cityscape, marked by rotting sewage, decimated crops, and every variety of human cruelty. The apogee of this sequence is where the film begins to delve into human sacrifice, which sparked considerable rancor from Maya scholars at the time of Apocalypto’s release. Many of these experts pointed out that Gibson’s film conflates the Maya with the Aztec, while begrudgingly admitting that the Maya did occasionally practice human sacrifice. To me, it doesn’t really matter the extent that the Maya engaged in this activity. More important is that, from a basic storytelling perspective, the characterization of Zero Wolf and his clan is unbelievably simplistic and lazy. It siphons complexity, distilling the conflict between Zero Wolf’s and Jaguar Paw’s clans to black and white, good vs evil.
Without question though, the overall historical veracity of Apocalypto still merits conversation. During the scenes set in the Mayan city, Gibson depicts human sacrifice on an almost genocidial scale. And while this certainly creates a sort of transfixing horror, it doesn’t feel necessarily responsible. This hallucinogenic crescendo of terror contains notoriously inaccurate wall paintings – which prefigure the type of cruelty Jaguar Paw’s crew is soon to experience – and depictions of Mayan priests that make the sadistic guards of The Passion of the Christ look like cuddly Teletubbies. Once Jaguar Paw makes a daring escape from this traumatic metropolis, things become even more upsetting. The young tribesman stumbles through hundreds and hundreds of destroyed bodies, which have been unceremoniously dumped in an area that is directly adjacent to the Mayan city’s crops. This is not only another example of the film taking the violent qualities of the Maya to comical, “LOL” levels; it also makes no sense, as one would assume that a big pile of rotting bodies might potentially affect the viability of future planting!
Still, it’s hard to deny that the final third of Apocalypto is a riveting action extravaganza, where Gibson reverts to what he does best: thrilling the hell out of you. Jaguar Paw’s final flight back through lush jungles and raging rivers is startling in its beauty and relentless pacing. You certainly feel Jaguar Paw’s exertions, even if at times the character comes across as mildly superhuman, like when he makes a Fugitive-style tumble over a waterfall. Sound designers Sean McCormack and Kami Asgar shine throughout Apocalypto, but perhaps most spectacularly during this final chase. The dangerous ambient noises of the jungle come alive during these scenes, adding to the frantic nature of Jaguar’s fight and flight actions. These are all mixed together through the work of Kevin O’Connell, Greg P. Russell and Fernando Cámara, which provide a textured, dynamic quality that still makes room for the late James Horner’s unnerving and propulsive score. It is really no wonder that all the film’s sound designers were Oscar-nominated.
With such effective and raw filmmaking on display, one sort of forgets about the Apocalypto’s inaccurate and troubling treatment of the Maya. What the story’s conclusion can’t conceal is the film’s core failing: shoddy characterizations. As mentioned, the gang of Maya led by Zero Wolf is devoid of complexity or nuance. It is reduced, more or less, to a band of almost satanic demons. The worst of these is Gerardo Taracena’s sadistic Middle Eye, a psychopath so utterly evil it makes you almost want to hoot in disbelief. The cruelty this creature displays throughout the entirety of Apocalypto certainly pushes you to cheer on Jaguar Paw during the conclusion, creating the type of vicarious involvement that most films can only dream of having. This still doesn’t change how cheap it feels. It’s uninspired and frankly beneath a man of Gibson’s talent.
This should give you a strong picture of what works and what doesn’t in Apocalypto. Despite an undeniably stylistic bravado, Gibson’s film is deeply flawed. This is embodied in not only its dubious depiction of an indigenous population, but also in the core principals behind its writing.