Sunday, December 10, 2006

Film Review: Apocalypto

5 out of 5 decapitated heads.
- Excellent Acting
- Excellent Sets & Costumes
- Excellent Story
(Not for the kids, though)

Plot Rundown:
Mel Gibson's Apocalypto tells the tale of a young Mesoamerican man, Jaguar Paw whose village is overrun by slavers. The slavers kidnap him and a group of other villagers, and rape and kill the rest. Before he is captured, Jaguar Paw manages to lower his pregnant wife and young son into a cave. As he is being tied up, Jaguar Paw's father is brutally killed in front of him by the slavers. As the slavers lead the kidnapped out of the village, one of them notices the rope Jaguar Paw used to lower his family into the cave, and cuts it. While being led to the slaver's city, the troop encounters a diseased young girl, who warns them about an impending curse. Upon arrival at the city, the kidnapped women are sold as slaves, and the men led off to be sacrificed. The city's crops are dying and to compound that, there has been a drought for some time. The kidnapped men are taken to the top of a Mesoamerican pyramid, and several are disemboweled and decapitated, to the great applause of the city, who believe every sacrificial victim brings them closer to rain, a good crop, and eternal power. Just when Jaguar Paw is about to be sacrificed, an eclipse occurs, and the city shaman announces that their god has smiled upon them, and stops the sacrifices. The slavers then take the kidnapped to a small arena to be killed off. Jaguar Paw escapes, but slays the slaver leader's son in the process. The slaver then takes his best men and chases Jaguar Paw back into the jungle.

As Jaguar Paw is hiding in a tree, he stumbles upon a jaguar. The jaguar almost kills Jaguar Paw, but instead mauls one of the slavers. The slavers try in vain to save their friend, but kill the jaguar in the process. Jaguars, in ancient Mesoamerican mythology, were seen as particularly important creatures; shamans even sought to transform into them since it was believed that a jaguar could transcend this reality and enter into the supernatural realm. The slavers realise their transgression, remember the diseased girl's prophesy, and consider giving up the chase. The slaver leader however, blind with bloodlust and rage, forces them to continue the chase. Two more slavers are killed, seemingly by accident, during the chase, until Jaguar Paw is cornered after running toward a waterfall. Sensing his immediate death, Jaguar Paw jumps off the waterfall, survives to swim ashore and inform the slavers that they have now entered his ancestral jungle. Undaunted, the slavers follow Jaguar Paw over the waterfall, only to lose two more of their men: one murdered for showing what appeared to the slave leader to be fear, and the other by cracking his skull open on an underwater rock.

Jaguar Paw makes his way toward his razed village, only to fall into a mud-pit and nearly drown. Rising from the pit however, he is energized and then prepares himself to battle the slavers. After killing two of the remaining five slavers, Jaguar Paw faces off against the slaver leader, who is a far superior fighter. Jaguar Paw turns and flees from the fight, knowing that the leader will pursue him wherever he goes. The leader manages to wound Jaguar Paw, and rushes in to finish him, but is impaled by one of Jaguar Paw's hunting traps which dotted the jungle around his village. The last two slavers find Jaguar Paw and chase him to a beach, whereupon Jaguar Paw collapses, looking out to sea. Just as the slavers catch up to Jaguar Paw, they pause immediately behind him, joining his gaze. The camera moves out to sea to show four European ships carrying Spanish colonizers and Catholic missionaries. Ironically, it is those who would eventually destroy the viscious Mesoamerica who save the protagonist. Jaguar Paw leaves the beach, rescues his wife and children (she gave birth while in the cave), and moves deeper into the jungle to find a new beginning.
Reviews of the film have generally been favourable, which is not surprising. Apocalypto is a magnificent film, albiet with much more visceral depictions of violence than most films will ever show. The key difference between this violence and the violence of, say, the Saw movies, is that the story is not about grossing out the audience. Via this graphic display of violence Gibson manages to bring the audience into the final days of one of the bloodiest civilizations the world has ever seen. As one who has studied the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations, I can assure you that we know a lot about the ritual and senseless violence which eventually rotted out the heart of these cultures. Public sacrifice and drug use was common. Life was nasty, brutish and short. When the colonizers are seen at the film's finale, they arrive to sighs of relief - change is finally here, the apocalypse has come for the city and its rulers.
One of the last impressions Gibson leaves upon the viewer is the contrast between the family oriented forest villagers, and the powerful city dwellers with their jewels, shows, markets, and slavers. The villagers practice a peaceful religion (which bears, somewhat unrealistically, a semblance of Christian belief); the city dwellers practice a murderous religion. For the city dwellers, their salvation and success is achieved through the sacrifice of innocents. For the village dwellers, salvation comes from trust, rising above fear, and love. I'm reminded of Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech right about now.
I've read in several reviews that despite the name, Apocalypto contains no allusions or allegories to the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse. Oh, the press just doesn't get religion. Think about it: this film shows us a society which has began to prey upon the weak and innocent in a perverse venture to bring about material comfort. For many Jews and Christians, we now live in a society which is doing just that. To hell in a handbasket we go, as our leaders enforce population control upon us and the Third World. Still see no similarity? Well, the Judeo-Christian tradition predicts the Apocalypse will occur in such a way, as society slips into an unprecedented era of barbarousness. The big difference is, there will be no foreign barbarians to speed up the process - we have chosen our own babarians to do it for us.
(updated December 11, 2006)

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