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TIME on the set:

Still, he likes to confound expectations–he wears a cross containing relics of martyred saints, but he can swear like a Quentin Tarantino character–and those who peg him as a reactionary may be surprised to learn that his new film sounds warnings straight out of liberal Hollywood’s bible. Apocalypto, which Gibson loosely translates from the Greek as "a new beginning," was inspired in large part by his work with the Mirador Basin Project, an effort to preserve a large swath of the Guatemalan rain forest and its Maya ruins. Gibson and his rookie cowriter on Apocalypto, Farhad Safinia, were captivated by the ancient Maya, one of the hemisphere’s first great civilizations, which reached its zenith about A.D. 600 in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. The two began poring over Maya myths of creation and destruction, including the Popol Vuh, and research suggesting that ecological abuse and war-mongering were major contributors to the Maya’s sudden collapse, some 500 years before Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Those apocalyptic strains haunt Apocalypto, which takes place in an opulent but decaying Maya kingdom, whose leaders insist that if the gods are not appeased by more temples and human sacrifices, the crops will die. But the writers hope that the larger themes of decline will be a wake-up call. "The parallels between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what’s happening to our own civilization are eerie," says Safinia. Gibson, who insists ideology matters less to him than stories of "penitential hardship" like his Oscar-winning Braveheart, puts it more bluntly: "The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys."

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