Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is like The Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart and Gladiator all rolled into one, although the amalgam is not quite as good as any single one of those movies. Regardless, Apocalypto is one of the most intense, entertaining and ambitious movies of 2006.
There is no need to drill into the analysis of Mel Gibson's disastrous fall from grace, as it has been discussed time and time again for half a year. Instead, let's focus on the positives and the reasons why, even months ago, Apocalypto had the makings of a great film. Two of three of Gibson's films have been in most senses masterpieces. Braveheart was just plain good, and The Passion of the Christ was one of the biggest movies of the 21st century. The man has a gift for visuals and capturing emotion, not to mention the uncanny ability to combine drama, comedy and action into highly entertaining and successful ventures.
Apocalypto takes place five hundred years in the past during the end of the decline of the great Mayan empire. The action starts in the jungle, as a small group of innocent villagers face the wrath of a corrupt and religious-touting empire. In one swift movement, a band of invaders sweep through their village and capture or kill all of the men and women. The captives are then sent on a trek through the jungle and finally to a place they've never even dreamt of before, a place of large stone temples, industry and religious zealots. There they are sold into slavery or sent for sacrifice. But one man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), knows his pregnant wife is still out in the jungle and will die if he does not return to her. Though injured, he manages to escape, but followed by several armed hunters his chances of survival or slim.
Apocalypto first and foremost is an action movie. It may be set hundreds of years in the past, have subtitles and be deeper than most action movies, but it is still an action movie. Better yet - the action is excellent. In Mel Gibson's style, the movie is violent, bloody and exciting. Gibson knows how to make action work, and he has pulled it off once again here. The last half of the movie is one big chase sequence, and includes everything from Gladiator-style games to people getting mauled by jaguars to poison darts to booby traps to jumping off waterfalls. The film is amazingly engaging on a pure entertainment level.
As a drama, Apocalypto is extremely good, but not perfect. Gibson does a good job of developing several of his characters quickly, but the emotional connection to those characters seemed to be lacking just a little bit by the time they inevitably die. The only characters we really care about are Jaguar Paw and his wife; everyone else is just fodder, despite Gibson's attempts to make them more than that. While Gibson engages the audience through excitement, he never achieves the emotional power of, say, The Last of the Mohicans, which probably is the movie most similar to this in terms of style and setting.
Strangely enough, Gibson's choice of going with a standard 16x9 widescreen format actually hurt the impact of the film. Had he gone with a wider format, the movie could have achieved a more epic and sweeping look. As beautiful as the film is, the movie could have been even better.
As for reports that Apocalypto is too violent and even more bloody than The Passion of the Christ, I don't know what people are talking about. Yes, the movie is violent, but no more so than others. I was expecting something much gorier.
Apocalypto is not Mel Gibson's best movie, but a Mel Gibson movie is still better than 98% of other films that come out in a given year. Easily his most ambitious movie to date, Apocalypto, regardless of its historical accuracy, gives the Mayan empire some rare exposure and audiences one of the year's most exciting and suspenseful movies. Whatever you think of Gibson as a person, this is a movie that should be seen on the big screen.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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