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Review: Apocalypto (2006)

Apocalypto (2006)

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Premise: In 15th century South America, Mayan rulers sacrifice villagers in the belief that blood will satisfy the gods and stop the decline of their empire. One villager (Rudy Youngblood) escapes and is pursued through the jungle while trying to get back to his wife and son.

What Works: Apocalypto is a well-produced piece of film. Its cinematography and editing are very well done and the film’s storyline works very well, as it establishes characters and themes early on that pay off later in the film and this allows the protagonist room to grow and change within the limited time span of the story. Taken as an action adventure, which is the genre in which Apocalypto most closely resides, the film does a great job maintaining a high level of excitement and has some standout action sequences. The film is very violent, but it shows far more restraint than the pornographic depictions of suffering and torture that Gibson displayed in The Passion of the Christ. Here the violence is far more instrumental and in many places it has dramatic and symbolic context that makes it more frightening and meaningful. Some critics and indigenous groups have proclaimed that the film is defamatory. On close inspection, the film is not so slanderous. Its depiction of the ancient culture evades both the stereotypes of the noble savage and the tree hugging ecologists and aims for something more complex.

What Doesn’t: As an action adventure, Apocalypto falls into some of the same traps that other entries in its genre suffer from, namely the hero suffers injuries that should be terminal and is yet able to sprint through the jungle as though it were just a scratch. Apocalypto runs into trouble when it reaches beyond action adventure. The opening of the film includes the quote “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” by Ariel Durant, but in fact the film shows just the opposite (unless this is meant to allude to the destruction of the Maya culture by the Europeans, but this is only hinted at in the picture). Although the film shares genre space with other historical pictures, Apocalypto has less to do with 1492: Conquest of Paradise or The New World than it does with Cannibal Ferox, The Wicker Man, and especially The Lord of the Flies which dealt with similar themes but far more effectively. Although the portrayal of the natives in Apocalypto avoids traditional clichés, the characters do seem out of time, particularly in their dialogue, which sounds very contemporary in many places.

Bottom Line: Apocalypto is a very satisfying action film that falls short when it aims beyond the goal of entertainment. The film is constantly exciting and has been filmed and assembled in a very effective and entertaining way.

Episode: #121 (December 10, 2006)