The film focuses upon the plight of an ancient village on the Yucatan Peninsula. The native men hunt tapir in the jungle. They play practical jokes on each other. (Evidently, guys have always questioned each other’s manhood and suffered under their mothers-in-law.) At night, the community gathers around the campfire to dance and tell stories. They embody the classic concept of the noble savage, living at one with the rainforest.
Their idyllic existence is disturbed when a bloodied and beaten rival tribe passes through. These neighbors offer a cryptic warning: "Our lands were ravaged. We seek a new beginning." The source of their misery soon materializes. Maya warriors from the city launch a surprise attack. They burn down the village and cart off the men and women to the Maya capital as slaves. It is a chilling vision of an empire in action, robbing and looting a less advanced society. "Apocalpyto" ignores the technological breakthroughs of Maya culture, questioning whether it can even be called "civilized."
The villagers’ forced journey out of the jungle leads to a series of remarkable urban vistas. Gibson and his Central American crew create a haunting vision of Maya civilization gone rotten. Crops are failing. Children are diseased. Yet, the heir to the throne is chubby and slovenly. The Maya are depicted as sadists, flocking to human sacrifices for both entertainment and religious conviction. They seek to appease the Maya deity, Kukulcan, to restore health and prosperity to their crumbling civilization.
But a bloody stream of human hearts and rolling heads cannot prevent paganism from failing. Priests offer false assurances from atop a majestic pyramid, while in the streets, the prophecies are full of doom. Life has been reduced to blood sport.
At the most basic level, "Apocalypto" is a love story. It is about our relentless drive to protect our families. Husbands and wives endure tremendous pain to preserve the next generation. Actor Rudy Youngblood brings conviction and presence to the role of Jaguar Paw. Dalia Hernandez portrays his pregnant, long-suffering wife, Seven. We root for Jaguar Paw on his journey out of and back into the jungle. He must conquer his fears and recover his best instincts to defeat the ferocious Holcane warriors.
As the army leader, Zero Wolf, Raoul Trujillo demonstrates how rites of passage can devolve into sending our sons to death. "Apocalypto" borrows conventions from chase movies and jungle adventures (including quicksand!). Through Jaguar Paw’s harrowing tests, Gibson demonstrates his belief in the redemptive power of suffering.
"Apocalypto" is also about searching for signs, taking care of our environment, retaining our humanity. People study the skies and respect nature as sources of divine revelation. They sense that something is horribly wrong in their society, but no one knows how to fix it. The villagers are taught to "Ask for whatever you wish and you shall have it." Their prayers to pagan gods echo contemporary appeals to the Virgin Mary to protect our children.
But a hole remains in humanity, keeping us unsatisfied, always wanting more. Beggars plead for salvation. Only divine intervention can save our hero from certain death. Jaguar Paw must take a plunge to conquer his enemies. He emerges from the water with the mark of his oppressor washed away. He reclaims his name and his heritage as the son of Flint Sky.
While "Apocalypto" distinguishes between the natural hunting of animals and the perverted hunting of humans, the audience must endure a substantial amount of bloodletting to figure that out. It points out how human blood can poison our wells and despoil the rainforest. Yet, an awful lot of blood is spilled to convey the message about ethical use of force.
Cinematic violence remains a double-edged sword. It must be wielded with caution. But "Apocalypto" indulges in myriad means to kill or be killed. As in "The Passion," the protagonists are tortured in protracted, graphically violent sequences. Gibson even offers close-ups when a Jaguar mauls its human prey. And the requisite mano y mano showdowns revel in savagery. Viewers will be both satisfied and repulsed.
Having heard ample criticism regarding the violence in "The Passion," Gibson has refused to back down. "Apocalypto" hits hard and fast, without apology. It is both disgusted and energized by the headless bodies cast down from altars. "Apocalpyto" reminds us of our roots, of the blood sacrifices that forged ancient religions. It collapses the distance between their culture and ours, forcing us to consider the barbarity still lurking in our own souls.
When Jaguar stumbles across a sea of human sacrifices, we are snapped back to Auschwitz, Rwanda, or even Iraq. How far have we come? Is civilization just a veneer, easily stripped away by our bestial roots? Mel Gibson openly acknowledges his bloodlust, but asks, “Do we?” He reveals our hearts of darkness, an apocalypse then and now.
The disturbing violence is juxtaposed with scenes of broad humor. "Apocalypto" reflects Gibson’s renowned penchant for practical jokes. It plays tricks on the characters and the viewers. But the script by Gibson and Farhad Safinia also plants plenty of early clues that pay off in satisfying ways. The preview audience howled in disbelief and delight at some of the most audacious moments.
Many reviews may focus upon Mel Gibson’s sanity rather than the film itself. A cryptic dedication in the credits, "In Memory of Abel," is ripe for speculation. Irrespective of Mel's personal indiscretions, he has entered a creative zone where few filmmakers have gone. His working method, combining acclaimed professionals with a committed local cast and crew, has once again produced profound visual results. Like "The Passion," "Apocalypto" resurrects an ancient language. Yet, Gibson’s command of film grammar keeps viewers enthralled.
"Apocalypto" is pure cinema, a throwback to early silent film spectacles such as "Cabiria" (1914) and "Intolerance" (1916). It is a high-risk project, equal parts folly and genius. Like the movie pioneers, Gibson is intoxicated by the power of cinema. He wields that power as a potent bully pulpit. "Apocalypto" resembles the fevered dreams of the ancient prophets.
Gibson offers a chilling revelation, full of hope and doom. It echoes the scariest passages of the Biblical Revelations, but points to the Maya’s own astronomical predictions for a cataclysmic 2012. Love him or hate him, Gibson makes certain, with his latest project, that we cannot ignore him or his unsettling vision.