A film review by Craig J. Koban



RANK: # 4



2006, R, 138 mins.

Jaguar Paw: Rudy Youngblood / Seven: Dalia Hernandez / Zero Wolf: Raoul Trujillo / Middle Eye: Gerardo Taracena / Snake Ink: Rodolfo Palacios / Blunted: Jonathan Brewer

Directed by Mel Gibson /  Written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia


APOCALYPTO is such a stunningly realized vision that it begs the viewer to stand up and take notice of one thing:  If you can excuse his very public, anti-Semitic drunken rants, then Mel Gibson has developed into a powerfully effectual filmmaker.  Only a director with a bold, sprawling, and daring grasp of his own abilities could have made APOCALYPTO. 

There is kind of an inspired, almost fanatical, spirit and energy that Gibson brings to the film and it is dripping with lush atmosphere, opulent and magnificent scenery, and searing, take-no-prisoners violence and action.  From the man who brought us BRAVEHEART and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the mayhem and bloodshed APOCALYPTO contains should be of no surprise.  This is not a film for those that are weak-stomached.  What is a surprise is that the film surpasses Gibson's two previous works as his most confident, assured, and wonderfully realized film.  It surely is one of 2006’s most memorable and transcending experiences I've had at a cinema.

Perhaps the overall key to its success is in how the film taps into our most basic, primordial reactions.  APOCALYPTO is a film that works primarily as one to be simply experienced, not watched, per se.  Like many great films of the past, APOCALYPTO is a resounding triumph on the level of being an “out-of-body” experience.  I have commented in previous reviews of how the most powerful entertainments are one’s that transport us to different times and/or places and how they are subsequently so redolent and so stunningly crafted that we consciously become less and less aware of the fact that we are in a theatre watching a movie.  Instead, we live in the moment of the film, almost as if we are silent, neutral bystanders involved in its proceedings.  In essence, we become embroiled in the world of the movie.  The exotic and otherworldliness of STAR WARS comes to mind, or the grandiose scenery of frontier life in DANCES WITH WOLVES, or stark realism of gangster life in GOODFELLAS or – more recently – the depravity and desolation of Depression-era life in CINDERELLA MAN

Gibson’s APOCALYPTO achieves the same sort of ethereal vibes.  The movie is a period piece, set presumably during the tail end of Mayan civilization on the eve of visitors from the Old World.  Films have dealt with the peoples that have populated the New World before, but Gibson here makes it all feel even more vivid and exotic.  Filming in the state of Veracruz and on the Yucatan Peninsula – along with getting the services of Oscar winning cinematographer Dean Semler (DANCES WITH WOLVES) - Gibson is able to craft unbelievable images that transport the viewer six hundred years back in time.  The film is – like his previous entry – all done in a foreign language (the Mayan language of Yucatec with English subtitles), but its dialogue is kept to a serviceable minimum and the story’s overall narrative is sparse and simple.  The reasoning here is kind of crucial to the overall effect: Gibson is going for mood, tone, and ambiance and is not trying to craft interesting personas or a complex and meaningful story.  As a film that works as a primal visceral experience, nothing in 2006 has the sort of adrenaline-raging, punch-in-the-gut forcefulness as APOCALYPTO. 

However, like other terrific out-of-body films (like STAR WARS, oddly enough), APOCALYPTO has a strange familiarity to it.  The locales, costumes, and dialogue seem irrepressibly foreign and alien, but some of the emotions contained in the film are universal, as are elements of the film’s plot.  Obviously, a film in an old Mayan dialect with subtitles may seem like the act of a filmmaker in love with his own eccentricities, but Gibson here kind of does something ingenious and resonating at the same time: APOCALYPTO is a historical film set in a strange time and world, but it has definitive echoes of other very familiar films of the past.  Parts of the film – especially it’s third act – owes considerably to more mainstream fare like THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE FUGITIVE, FIRST BLOOD and – in terms of unadulterated chaos and stomach churning intensity – Gibson’s own past films like MAD MAX and BRAVEHEART.  If anything can be said of APOCALYPTO, it is irrefutably one of the first, great foreign language art house period films that just happens to be a high octane, edge of your seat thriller.   The film alone contains some of the most incredibly sustained scenes of spectacular action that I’ve seen. 

Yet, let it not be said that the film is void of any meaning.  At its core, APOCALYPTO uses the story of one lone man’s struggle to speak towards the larger theme of an entire civilization’s struggle to stay alive.  The film begins with a hunting sequence and an opening shot that will have many remember an equally beautiful opening visual in APOCALYPSE NOW.  Here, Gibson slowly dollies into the luscious foliage of the forest and lets the sights and ambient sounds immerse us.  Soon, we segue into the hunt as Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, in a performance of astonishing poignancy and passion) leads his clan with his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead).  Jaguar and his clan live a peaceful existence in their nearby village and he seems to – on some levels – want what all men aspire to have – a great, loving family and father who is proud of his achievements.  Jaguar seems fairly content, already having one child with his caring and devoted wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) who also has another bundle of joy soon on the way.  Jaguar, however, has a lot of work ahead of him and perhaps feels pressured by his father’s legacy…or maybe stamina.  After all, Flint Sky is daddy to ten children.

Nevertheless, Jaguar and his friends live a good life, but disaster soon strikes his home in the form of a dreadful warrior attack on his village.  The siege – all daringly and fantastically shot by Gibson – is gruesome and brutal, as the invaders maim, kill, rape, and destroy everything in their path.  Thankfully, Jaguar is able to take his pregnant wife and young son to a nearby hole in the ground before they are killed.  However, the marauders attack is too much for Jaguar and his villagers to withstand, and he and his friends and captured.  Flint Sky, unfortunately, does not get out alive and he's sadistically killed in front of his son’s eyes.  As for Jaguar and his companions?  They are bound and tied up and are taken away from their burnt-to-the ground village.

It seems that the invaders have taken Jaguar and his friends as ceremonial trophies.  The invading tribe has seen severe famine on their homelands, which they see as being caused primarily by their gods.  In order to appease them, they plan to use Jaguar and company as sacrifices to the gods in hopes of reversing the wretched drought.  The march towards the Mayan city is long, arduous, and not without both physical and emotional torture.  As the treacherous journey comes to an end the posse leads Jaguar and the other captives to the Mayan city during the film’s most captivating and awesome moments.

The Mayan city – both astoundingly conceived and created - ranks high up there as one of the most unforgettable film environments.   Using state of the art computer generated visual effects, awe-inspiring and spectacular sets, and incredible costume design, Gibson creates such broad and eerily beautiful sights.  The details here are remarkable.  Yet, just as we are becoming engrossed and enamoured by the inconceivable scope of these images, the film takes a dark turn towards utter depravity when some of Jaguar’s friends are sold into slavery while he and the rest are taken up to a tall temple to be malevolently tortured and sacrificed in a barbaric ceremony. 

Obviously, Gibson is not shy to on-screen violence, and the temple sacrifice scenes here are sickening and sure to repulse many watching.  Taking a page out of Mola Ram’s playbook from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, the native priest carves out hearts from the still alive victims after which he decapitates them and sends their heads bouncing down the temple stairs to the thousands below who scream and cheer.  However, Gibson does not get too extreme here, nor does he hammer the gore and blood down our throats as he did with THE PASSION.  Much of the torture is seen from afar or is cut away from.  Again, the power of the film is in creating mood.

Amazingly, Jaguar is spared – thanks to an eclipse, which the priest sees as a sign that the gods have been appeased enough.  And, as if the temple sacrifice scenes were not forcefully extreme enough, Jaguar escapes his captors and leads them in pursuit through the wilderness back to his home in a long, extended third act chase scene that emerges as one of the most potent of recent memory.  It is a pure adrenaline rush.  Not only does Jaguar have to elude his captures, but he also has to contend with all of the other variables, like dreadful waterfalls, decrepit sand pits, poisonous snakes, carnivorous and hungry panthers, and so on and so on.  The film’s final forty minutes is a masterpiece of tension and pacing.  Gibson, like any visionary filmmaker, goes for broke here and APOCALYPTO becomes unapologetically exciting during a time when most action-thrillers have already run out of gas.  You can sense Gibson behind the camera giggling with glee at his penchant for shocking and awing the viewers and – in one unforgettable reveal – he surprises us even in the middle of the mayhem with a twist some may have not seen coming.

Some mention needs to be made of the performances in the film, which are almost as extraordinary as the scenery and action.  Youngblood – in his first big screen performance – is outstanding here as Jaguar and it is equally powerful how he inspires audience empathy and understanding with him despite his cultural differences with us.  He speaks in a foreign language and is several centuries removed from us, but we relate to him as the hero figure as we would in any other film, regardless of time and place.  Also strong is the work of Raoul Trujillo as Zero Wolf  and Rodolfo Palacios as Snake Eye.  Some say that “action” films are only as good as their villains, and APOCALYPTO provides not one, but two.  Palacios’s Snake Eye is a venomous and sneering baddy that is an annoying thorn in Jaguar’s side, but Trujillo steals his thunder as the main antagonist.  Zero Wolfe is equal parts devilish, ruthless, and cunning.  He’s not cartoonishly evil.  There is a palpable reason behind his limitless hatred of Jaguar, all of which is developed to lead us successfully into the film’s great final act.

Mel Gibson – as a public figure – sure has a lot of room for improvement in terms of dealing with his own inner prejudices, but as an artist his APOCALYPTO proves that he is a pure filmmaking talent that is able to legitimately marvel us with his magnificent visions.  With jaw-dropping scenery, immaculate costume design, intrepid performances, and an unrelenting level of kinetic action, tension, and bone-crunching, blood spattering carnage, APOCALYPTO is a brutal and compellingly fearsome period thriller.   It’s deceptively easy to chastise Gibson beyond the camera, but while he’s behind it there is no doubt that he is a director of conviction and strength.  There is a obsessive and haunting immediacy to his film, which successfully transports us back six centuries to look at ancient Mayan culture in manners never attempted.  It is one of those rare film-going experiences that is purely visceral.  It’s not the story and characters that enthrall, but the way the whole package just works on us by taking the us to a time we've never seen.  Watching APOCALYPTO never made me conscious of my surroundings and that feeling took a long time to leave me as I walked out of the theatre.  That’s what great films - and filmmakers - do.


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