Mel Gibson's new film, Apocalypto, is a rancid salmagundi that mixes the Raiders of the Lost Ark trilogy, The Fugitive, and the Three Stooges into one of the most punishing movie experiences of the year. It's the cinematic equivalent of being held down by older siblings while they dangle ropes of spittle above your forehead.
Gibson's intentions are suspicious immediately. After a solemn Will Durant quotation about conquered societies that destroy themselves before outsiders come to destroy them -- is Gibson trying to justify the rapacity and savagery of the European explorers by showing us that the New World's original inhabitants were nasty too? -- Apocalypto's opening scenes depict the everyday lives of a peaceful, jocular tribe who live and hunt among the bright green foliage of the Mexican jungle. Alas, their peaceful existence is interrupted by a sneak attack from a vicious warrior army, which captures the villagers and sells them as slaves. The film's hero is the villager-turned-prisoner Jaguar Paw, who risks certain death and narrative plausibility countless times as he tries to return home to his wife and son, whom he has hidden in a well near the ashes of his former village.
As a human drama, Apocalypto is shallow even by the standards of the most calculating blockbuster. Fear is a weakness, and revenge is the only sustenance a starving prisoner needs. As an adventure story, the film is contrived at best and ludicrous at worst. How many starving prisoners can outrun a jaguar in the jungle? As a historical epic and anthropological inquiry, the film is a disgrace. To pick one example, the so-called Mayan sacrificial rituals are actually much closer to Aztec practices. Gibson's inattention to such cultural differences is consistent with the still-shameful history of American adventure-film casting, where the word "Indian" means "savage" or "person in a loincloth" or, at the very least "someone with reddish-brown skin." But maybe audiences don't want cultural knowledge or historical understanding. Judging from the financial success of Gibson's previous film, The Passion of the Christ, maybe all they want are troughs and troughs of gore, often filmed in shocking close-up and hammered home with as many sinew-splitting and bone-crunching sound effects as possible.
Let's start with the animal-based brutality: A tapir is impaled on a gruesome trap, a mother uses insect heads to cauterize a son's wound, small animals are tortured by heartless city children, a woman beats a monkey to death, and a jaguar is speared by some angry savages. Gibson also lingers on the human atrocities with psychotic concentration: A man's temple is cut to reduce the swelling from a blow to the head, a man crashes into the rocks beneath a waterfall, and a jaguar (remember him?) gnaws a hunter's face off. There are throat-slittings, disembowelments, beheadings, organs ripped steaming from victims, you name it. Oh, and the tapir-trap gag is reprised as well. Either this catalog of atrocities will thrill you or disgust you; I was disgusted and then bitterly bemused by the onslaught of Gibson's brutalities.
From any perspective, Apocalypto is a work of staggering incompetence.
Opening Friday, December 8th