Films

Published on January 14th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck

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Apocalypto

Apocalypto, set on the Yucatan Peninsula in the 16th century, starts with a tapir hunt. Among the hunters are Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), the protagonist, and his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead)… At this point, I should note my attention wavered.

Prior to the film, Snelling purchased a suitcase-sized bucket of popcorn. Despite my best intentions, I found it hard to focus on the film. The cinema resounded to the sound of Snelling rummaging through his bucket of popcorn, and then – at a lawnmower-like volume – chewing the popcorn he didn’t rain down on patrons within a five-foot radius. It didn’t particularly bother me, but I was acutely conscious of the woman sitting directly in front of Snelling. I could see her flinch each time he launched an assault on the popcorn.

Anyway, back to the film. The hunters return to their idyllic forest village, where Jaguar Paw has a loving, pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and a cute son, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez). You can tell by the banter and joking of the villagers that these are good people. Sadly for them, this is a Mel Gibson film, and that means a grisly fate will be visited on them in inverse proportion to their goodness.

And so it goes… A band of Mayan marauders, led by the formidable Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), attacks the village. Bludgeoning, rape, and throat-slitting ensue. Gibson’s relish for the bloodletting is palpable – it’s there in the gurgle of blood from Flint Sky’s cut throat. There’s no part of murder, torture, and pain that Gibson’s not willing to lavish with attention; and judging by all the hooting from Snelling’s seat, there’s obviously a demographic for this.

The marauders capture Jaguar Paw, but not before he hides his pregnant wife and child in a cave. Lashed together with other captives, Jaguar Paw is marched to a great Mayan city. Set design and CGI combine seamlessly to produce a teeming, spectacular city. From the shanties on the city outskirts to the slave market where the female captives are auctioned, to the city’s central plaza, set between looming pyramids, the city’s strikingly imagined. So too are the city’s Mayan inhabitants, especially the haughty, dead-eyed aristocracts, with their green-painted skin, weird hairstyles, and elaborate costumes.

And the Academy Award for Best Geyser of Arterial Blood goes to...

And the Academy Award for Best Geyser of Arterial Blood goes to…

But the captives see that the city, despite its grandeur, is afflicted. Deforestation, crop failure, smallpox, inadequate sanitation, Gibson hints at a bunch of reasons for the decline of a once-great civilization. Most glaringly, he suggests a Roman-style decadence in the cruel, indolent aristocracy that rules the city.

The female captives are sold as slaves. The males are marched to the top of a towering pyramid. There, under the gaze of the royal family, the city’s high priest bends them backward over an altar, and eviscerates them to propitiate the gods and restore the city’s fortunes. Gibson luxuriates in the introduction of blades to bodies. The high priest, arms slathered up to the elbow in gore, disembowels his victims, cutting out their still beating hearts and brandishing them at the roaring crowd below. Meanwhile, the city’s king and queen watch with eyes narcotized by boredom.

By the time it’s Jaguar Paw’s turn on the altar, such is the momentum of all these eviscerations, you suspect Gibson must have exercised superhuman control not to unzip his insides too. But even Mel’s not gonna gut his protagonist halfway through the film; if he does, how’s he gonna string together all the other killings he’s got planned?

So, the badly wounded Jaguar Paw escapes the city. With Zero Wolf and his band of warriors in pursuit, he flees back to his village, where his wife and son remain trapped in a cave. This is the film’s centrepiece: a chase sequence rather reminiscent, in parts, of The Last of the Mohicans. It’s pretty well shot and spliced together, but hardly inspired.

I guess this is where I part company with a lot of other reviewers, most of whom have expressed qualified enthusiasm for Apocalypto. Always suckers for a pleasing antithesis, most reviewers have treated readers to a million variations of

Gibson may be…

  • an anti-Semite
  • a sadist
  • a masochist
  • a sado-masochist
  • insane

but he certainly can…

  • direct
  • string together an action sequence
  • depict violence artfully
  • bring a medieval sensibility to a contemporary art form
  • film a great decapitation

I concede that few can match Gibson’s enthusiasm for a jaguar chewing on a man’s head. What I’m not prepared to concede is that it’s particularly artful, beautiful, or exciting. To be sure, Snelling was braying with excitement at this juncture, but that’s Snelling. (After five standing ovations, Snelling excitedly declared the jaguar a moral for best supporting actor.)

Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler strain to devise a fresh way of filming someone running through jungle. We get slow-mo, overhead shots, underneath shots, parallel shots, shots from behind, and shots from the front – this last always with Zero Wolf and several beefy warriors in the background running in formation. You name it, Gibson tries it.

But despite the barrage of angles and shots, it’s all a bit meh. Semler and Gibson are like photographers who always put their subject in the centre of the frame. Directors with a great ‘eye’ – I’m talking Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott – know you don’t always need your subject front and centre. But there’s none of this artful framing in Apocalypto. It’s well-shot, I guess, but in a thumpingly obvious way.

Amid a welter of caved-in skulls, impaled torsos, and sprays of arterial blood, the film works toward its outcome. The story’s predictable, but I guess it was only ever a pretext for lots of killing anyway.

–HS Fruck


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