Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Jaguars and Sacrifices and Mayans - Oh Mel!

A few years ago I had East Indian neighbors, who were very passionate about their Bollywood movies. I would try and watch some of them (on Indian channel so no subtitles), but could never really get into them. I always meant to show them an American movie that didn't need subtitles, a movie where you could enjoy it without knowing what the characters were saying. At that time I thought of 'Hoosiers' as a choice, but never had the opportunity to show it to them. I'm telling you this because one of the reasons I enjoyed 'Apocalypto' so much was thinking how it could be enjoyed by any culture.

Yes, there are subtitles, but I would argue that it would be an even more entertaining movie without them simply because 95 percent of what the characters say could be deciphered from director Mel Gibson's visuals. Everything in 'Apocalypto' is visual, every single detail adds to the experience, because there is a sense from the very first frame that you're in an entirely alien world.

You think you know about the Mayan Empire, but you don't. I thought I was pretty brushed up on their culture from high school and college, yet nothing prepared me for the female aristocrats and their startling hair, jewelry and piercings. This is due perhaps to the fact that there really are no Mayan movies prior to this one -- the basis of most of our interpretations of their civilization is based on paintings and drawings. We have all seen photographs of Mayan ruins and perhaps drawings of what the civilization might have looked like, but to see it on a big screen just blows all those memories away.

At its core, 'Apocalypto' is an action movie set against the backdrop of the Mayan Empire. It is thankfully not an attempt to give a complete account of the downfall of their society. Gibson goes to great lengths to make it a story that is a snapshot of one person's experience in the Mayan world -- there is no 'stand at the top of a hill transition into overhead shot of the Mayan city,' nor are there any political scenes. In this respect it is similar to 'Full Metal Jacket,' showing a soldier from his conception and giving us the war through his unique experience. The furthest 'Apocalypto' gets from this strategy is the ending -- which is amusing, but also predictable and somewhat unnecessary.

We are introduced early to Jaguar Paw, a nimble Mayan family man, who sees his village burned to the ground by a brutal war party. He manages to lead his very pregnant wife and small son to 'safety' (a deep hole/cave), and the rest of his tale is his relentless pursuit to come back and save them no matter what his predicament. Jaguar Paw faces certain death many times (sacrifice, various large drops and bigger cats) and seems to emerge stronger after each escape.

'Apocalytpo' is raw, unmerciful and sometimes creative in its unrelenting violence, but never cruel or menacing. During the extended raid scene early in the movie, I braced myself for a gruesome shock as the prisoners were being tortured -- but it never came. Largely off-camera, there is obvious brutality happening against women, but the worst we see is pretty harmless. When the violence and gore does shock, it's (mostly) believable, what we see is horrific, but it's also part of their culture. Only in the third act, when the action is ratcheted up a few notches do we get any kind of cartoony violence.

It's in this final act that 'Apocalypto' changes from a historical survival tale into a spin on the Ten Little Indians-style of one-by-one elimination seen in so many horror movies, as the hunted becomes the hunter. I couldn't help but chuckle as this final sequence reminded me of the last scenes of 'Predator,' and it may be the most excitement you find in a theater this year.

If you're looking for a hidden message in 'Apocalypto,' they're here, but it's nothing overwhelming or anything that hasn't been said before. References to contemporary war and corruption are relavent, but to me it was saying that they're relavent to every civilization -- they all had problems, and there wasn't television or the media to blame. There's also the constant theme of survival, of how even the most astronomic odds can be overcome by sheer will -- again nothing earth shattering.

Though the violence will turn a lot of people off (my wife counted among them), it's hard not to appreciate what Gibson has made. He has a cast of apparent non-actors (no Wes Studis or Lou Diamond Phillipses to be found here), he had a tempting opportunity to give us a sprawing, CGI Mayan city (we get only glimpses from atop the pyramid, this is no 'Gladiator') and he resisted all chances to input at least a shred of contemporary issues or pop culture (no, George Lucas, none of the Mayans give Tarzan calls in the jungle). It's a huge production, but also feels bare-bones. I'm ready for Gibson to not receive much credit for his direction, but I'm having a hard time believing anyone else could have done something more impressive or entertaining.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like this movie has nothing for me that I can't already get from Surviving The Game.

1-18-08 said...

Good review.

Anonymous said...

Hi Adam,

Father in law retired football-coach/history teacher tells me that Mell Gibson got it all wrong. The Mayans were gone for 300 years when the Spanish arrived. It was the Aztec culture at their height of power and culture when the Spaniards arrived.

Good blog Adam! I've added your site to my blog.

Ing, Portland, Oregon

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