In film, no debacle is complete without brilliant sequences, and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a complete debacle, all right. To find a movie with this combination of overblown, muscular, and dopey, you have to go back to Rapa Nui in 1994. But we need to be careful when we try to pinpoint exactly why it’s so terrible.
Critics have lambasted Apocalypto for its over-the-top violence, which is not so much disingenuous of them as it is unexamined. They didn’t complain about Saw III, because that’s a genre film, and it therefore gets a pass. But many of these same critics also didn’t complain about Saving Private Ryan, one of the most violent movies ever made, because that film had a God-and-country overlay that they bought into big time. By contrast, Apocalypto’s political agenda is so half-baked it’s not wroth talking about.
The real problem with Apocalypto isn’t that it’s excessively violent – though it certainly is that. It’s that the violence is so effective, and nearly everything else is such a failure, the violence stands out in sharp relief. The early scenes are especially terrible. As we witness the pastoral lives of young Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his peaceful Yucatec-speaking clan, the unpolished, non-professional cast is allowed to embarrass itself. As evidenced by similar scenes in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Gibson has no feel for light-hearted fare.
Yet he is a horror director born. He creates a long sequence of human sacrifice that is mercilessly harrowing. It’s upsetting in the way that seeing cattle slaughtered, or learning about the Nazi death camps, is upsetting: it’s the cold efficiency of blood on the gears. But scenes like this are not offset by characters we care about; so the violence become overheated nonsense, culminating in a climax so godawful over-the-top, it’s more unintentionally hilarious than any scene in years.
Gibson has said that his inspiration for the movie was that he’s never seen a good foot chase on film – and brother, is there ever a lot of running around, and yes, a lot of it works. There is a chase involving a jaguar that looks absolutely real. The actors are muscled and physical, effective when they don’t speak, tattooed and accessorized brilliantly as in Gibson’s The Road Warrior. But the characters don’t have much depth apart from their action; they are mythological archetypes, not human beings.
A curious thing happens as you watch Jaguar Paw use the forest to fight his pursuers: a poison frog, a wasps’ nest, mud to camouflage himself, jumping over a waterfall. You start to feel the clock turning back, until you’re watching a cartoon action movie from the ’80s – Lethal Weapon or First Blood, maybe. Gibson went all the way to Mexico, and spent his own money to shoot in a rainforest with a script he wrote himself. But everywhere he looked, all he could see were other movies. That’s kind of sad.
This and other movie, theater, and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.