A visual treat
By Lady Liberty
*** 1/2 out of ****
Many people are under the mistaken impression that an "apocalypse" means the end of everything when that's not necessarily the case. It can also simply mean a great disaster or a major change. Either of the latter definitions might be suitable where the story told by Apocalypto is concerned.
The plot of Apocalypto is a relatively simple one. A young forest-dwelling Mayan man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is living happily as a hunter with his pretty and pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their young son. Jaguar Paw's father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) is a tribal leader and a hunter himself. The day-to-day existence of the group isn't easy, but the rain forest provides well enough that there's time for practical jokes and storytelling.
All of that changes when a group of men led by the terrifying Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) invades the village and takes many of the adults captive. Jaguar Paw's wife escapes their predations only because he manages to hide her and their child in a deep natural well. Unfortunately, Jaguar Paw himself isn't so lucky and he's taken away along with the rest of the prisoners. Looking back, the villagers see only their burning huts, weeping children, and the bodies of those who died trying to defend against the invaders.
After a long trek through the wilderness, the prisoners and their guards arrive at last at their destination: a Mayan city that's suffering from disease, crop failure, and even worse. It's not long before the prisoners learn that most of them have been brought to the city as sacrifices to appease the gods who will, it is hoped, be pleased and reverse the punishments the city has had to endure. Jaguar Paw, meanwhile, focuses on nothing but that he must escape to return to his village and rescue his wife.
Jaguar Paw refuses to believe that his wife may be dead already, or that he himself might die. Even when he's faced by the High Priest (Fernando Hernandez) himself, he remains convinced that he must get away. But even if he can manage an unlikely escape, he'll still have to get through Zero Wolf and his ruthless warriors, and past jungle hazards that even a man familiar with the forest might find deadly.
That's really all that there is to Apocalypto. And yet there's much, much more.
The actors cast in Apocalypto are almost all unknowns, and the vast majority have had nothing to do with show business before now (three of the primary actors are, as it turns out, accomplished Native American dancers). All of them speak their lines in authentic Mayan; many didn't even know English. Despite what might be considered drawbacks — at least by some directors — the casting was such that each and every character is eminently believable, and the device of using the Mayan language only made them more so.
Dalia Hernandez, a college student studying dance, is just terrific despite having never acted before. Raoul Trujillo is terrifying, a fact that relies more on his telling expressions and body language than anything else he does or even some of the blood-curdling commands he gives. And Rudy Youngblood, who has only had minimal film exposure before capturing the lead in Apocalypto, is just fantastic. You can actually see the young man grow up and harden over the course of the film, and that takes real talent to convey something so subtle.
The sets are spectacular in no small part because filming was done on location. In various interviews, you'll hear Mel Gibson talk of high temperatures, big bugs, and rainy seasons. But that in no way detracts from the awesome splendor of the jungle. With a brilliant cinematographer (Dean Semler) to capture the views, the film is visually breathtaking. Special effects and computers bring us much of the Mayan city, but it's often hard to tell what's real and what isn't because it's integrated so well.
Although the plot is deceptively simple, the framework for the story is much less so. Apocalypto takes place as the Mayan civilization is undergoing a downturn. In fact, the movie opens with a Will Durant quote: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Though nothing is later in-your-face obvious, if you look, the signs of destruction are everywhere and that, too, is a part of the story. Once you see that, of course, it's impossible not to draw parallels with the world today.
Mel Gibson co-wrote and directed Apocalypto, and he did both brilliantly. Despite being relegated to his characters expressing themselves via English subtitles, it's impossible not to get to know these people and to feel for them. Without cars or explosions, there are never-the-less chase scenes that rival the best and most suspenseful ever shown on screen. Say whatever else you will about Mel Gibson (I'm frankly of the opinion that we've all said something stupid at one time or another when we've had too much to drink), you can't take one thing away from him: The man is a genius behind the camera.
I don't know how strong anti-Gibson sentiment in Hollywood remains today, but if Apocalypto is considered on its merits alone, it's going to be winning some awards. Certainly, it should be singled out for cinematography. Gibson deserves some real directorial recognition for this one as well. I also wouldn't quibble if Rudy Youngblood got some notice here.
Apocalypto is over two hours long, and I'm not a fan of subtitles, yet the movie flew by. I was fascinated from the opening scenes to the end, and enthralled throughout whether I was horrified, appalled, amused, touched, or on the edge of my seat (in fact, I was all of these things at various times, and more than once). I had relatively high expectations for Apocalypto, and I have to give all due credit where credit is due: the film exceeded my expectations and then some, and I recommend it accordingly.
POLITICAL NOTES: The Durant quote at the film's opening gives you an indication that there's some relevance to us today, and sure enough, there is: from deforestation to pollution, from power hungry leadership to overpopulation, it's all there. I also drew some inferences that may or may not have been intentional where blind obedience to religion and religious leaders — even at the expense of the lives of others — is concerned.
Gibson's point here is that it's true that the Spaniards brought down the Mayan civilization, but that they could probably not have done so if the civilization hadn't already been dramatically weakened by its own excesses. Even if you choose to be blind where the lack of environmental concern or the population issues are concerned, I suspect you can't ignore that parallel!
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Apocalypto is rated R for "sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images." Let's be honest, here: hunting isn't bloodless, and human sacrifice is appalling. When both are presented in some detail, there's something to make everybody queasy. There's some nudity, of course, but it's of the National Geographic variety. It's the violence that's prevalent and which makes Apocalypto unsuitable for youngsters or for those with weak stomachs. The history, though, is something most students aren't learning in schools (I knew something of it purely because a personal interest caused me to do some reading some years ago), and the overall point is exceedingly valid. That the lessons are presented in such a stunning visual and exciting format is a real bonus, and those of age 16 or so and up should be able to appreciate the whole package.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.