Mel Gibson is many things, but subtle is not one of them. APOCALYPTO, his latest work as a filmmaker, is an example of why this is and isn’t a good thing. Taking on the pre-conquest New World, he is at once vibrant and excessive as he plows along using as his motto that too much is never enough. He has taken Mayan culture and conflated it uneasily with Rambo, unimaginative video games, and a rather fine film from the 1960s, THE NAKED PREY. Along the way he tosses in an eclipse, perhaps because it would look so very cool on the poster, death-defying leaps from towering waterfalls, human sacrifice on a grand scale, an irked jaguar, and a child in danger. And not just a child, but also, and for good measure, the child’s very pregnant mother.
Slaughter is the keyword here. The first is of a tapir and the slaughter will provide a feast for the otherwise peaceful tribe that took it down. It will also provide an opportunity to use the anima’s gonads to tease one of the hunters, who has yet to produce children despite prodigious attempts and the nagging of his mother-in-law. The hilarity and the feasting end when a marauding band of warriors ravages the village and takes the men off on a death-march to the capital for a fate that they cannot imagine.
The story returns to the Gibson favorites of bloodshed and sadism, institutionalized and not. In this he has chosen wisely in using as his protagonists the Maya, for whom ritual bloodletting was an integral part of their religious observance. He starts small, though, with a gentle forest tribe far removed from the grand cities with their pyramids and organized religion. When the warriors come, with their extreme paint, rich tattoos, and abundant piercings, the audience, like the tribe, has a visceral jolt that has nothing to do with the wanton killing that is to follow. By introducing the sophisticated Mayan through the eyes of the captives, now led by the young tribesman, Jaguar Paw, the film also gives the audience time to take in this culture that is at once alien and familiar. The elaborate turquoise and coral of both the body ornaments and the headdresses are truly breathtaking. The rituals of sacrifice are, too, for different reasons. That Gibson inserts someone from the Maya screaming and pleading for salvation from the captives is more problematical authenticity-wise, and can’t help but hearken back, awkwardly, to his previous film, THE PASSION.
This is a visually dynamic film, capitalizing smartly on the spectacular scenery and the mysterious otherworldliness of a culture too little explored in narrative feature films. The characters are vivid and the performances solid, particularly Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw. He is excellent, with an impressive emotional and physical commitment that is at odds with a story that, almost by the second, becomes less and less credible. His journey to the capital features a deathly ill, barely verbal little girl who suddenly begins spouting prophecy. His journey back to what is left of his family is conceived as a race run at full tilt despite numerous wounds, never mind the forced march that took him away, and the lack of food since the feast that started things off, always outpacing the unwounded, better nourished warriors who are after him with their own particular grudges. It is, alas, beyond Mr. Gibson’s abilities apotheosize said increasingly unlikely events into something mythic in the way, say, Tom Tykwer did with RUN LOLA RUN. Instead, these contrivances play like a mediocre Saturday morning serial, circa 1935 without even that idiom’s naive charm of wide-eyed wonder to carry them. While the camera lingers effectively on a human sacrifice from the sacrifice’s point of view, and a child becoming bored with the process as it is repeated over and over again, it also lingers in an unsettlingly loving way on a face being crunched by a wild beast, as well as various and sundry spurts of blood and other assorted bits and vistas of gore.
As a parting blow, APOLCALYPTO ends with the Europeans arriving, adding a sense of futility to all that has come before. So much effort, so much sturm and drang and for what?