Thursday 2 August 2007

Apocalypto (2006)

Thursday 2 August 2007
DIRECTOR: Mel Gibson
WRITERS: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
CAST: Rudy Youngblood (Jaguar Paw), Dalia Hernández (Seven), Jonathan Brewer (Blunted), Morris Birdyellowhead (Flint Sky), Carlos Emilio Báez (Turtles Run), Amilcar Ramirez (Curl Nose), Israel Contreras (Smoke Frog), Israel Rios (Cooca Leaf), Maria Isabel Diaz (Mother-in-Law), Iazu Larios (Sky Flower), Raoul Trujilo (Zero Wolf), Gerardo Taracena (Middle Eye), Rodolfo Palacios (Snake Ink), Ariel Galvan (Hanging Moss), Bernardo Ruiz (Drunkards Four), Ricardo Diaz Mendoza (Cut Rock), Richard Can (Ten Peccary), Carlos Ramos (Monkey Jaw), Ammel Rodrigo Mendoza (Buzzard Hook), Marco Antonio Argueta (Speaking Wind) & Aquetzali Garcia (Oracle Girl)

A Mayan native is kidnapped and taken to a barbaric city, before escaping to rescue his stricken family...

The Greek word "apocalypto" translates as "to uncover, disclose, or reveal", and that's certainly what co-writer/director Mel Gibson does regarding the Mayan culture in his movie of the same name...

You have to admire Gibson's recent cinematic ventures. It's not every day a movie-star hunk, most famous for being one half of an 80s buddy cop franchise (Lethal Weapon), makes the leap to bigshot film director.

Audiences got a taste of Gibson's verve with Braveheart (1995), the Scottish epic about William Wallace's fight for freedom against the English. It was historically inaccurate throughout, but captured the mood and emotion that enticed audiences in their millions... and he scooped five Academy Awards for his efforts, including "Best Picture" and "Best Director". Not a bad debut, huh?

Oddly, we had to wait nearly a decade for Gibson's next project -- religious epic The Passion Of The Christ (2004); a film that was dismissed before release, but went on to become the most financially successful independent film of all time (without Star Wars in the title, natch.)

Thankfully, we only had to wait a few years for Apocalypto, Gibson's latest historical adventure -- and one that combines elements of his previous two: as it's another violent period piece spoken in a foreign language (Yucatec Mayan.)

And, just like Braveheart, it's terribly inaccurate: the temples in the film were part of a far earlier Mayan dynasty, the Mayans were not that keen on human sacrifice (that was the Aztecs), an eclipse occurs in seconds rather than hours (a clear case of "movie logic"), and the Spanish conquistadors actually arrived 300 years after the larger Mayan cities had been abandoned.

But, just like Braveheart, the essence of the film's world survives intact. I'm no expert on the Mayan culture, so for me the film smelled authentic and was sufficiently "alien" for me to become totally involved in its storyline, its characters and its sumptuous landscapes.

Apocalypto concerns a small jungle village being attacked by aggressors, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujilo). The interlopers slaughter dozens of innocent people, including the father of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), at the hands of Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena). During the mayhem, Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernández) and young son Turtles Run (Emilio Báez) down a hole, before he's captured along with his friends.

The film essentially boils down to a simple chase story, with Jaguar Paw trying to escape a barbaric Mayan city, after he's branded a slave and sent off to be sacrificed to sun god Kulkukan. Can the young man escape and retrieve his family before they starve to death?

From the opening, exciting scene of villagers hunting a tapir, culminating in an ingenius trap, Apocalypto will have your attention. Gibson immediately makes the people relatible to modern audiences, as the villagers play jokes on each other and have clearly defined marital problems all modern men can identify with.

From there, Gibson's taste for the darker side of humanity's past comes to the fore again, particularly once the film arrives at its Mayan city. It's a hotbed of stunning architecture, bizarre costumes and gruesome rituals. That said, there's nothing here to rival Passion Of The Christ's unflinching gore, while the characters are paper thin when compared to Bravheart's. So, while Jaguar Paw makes for an adequate lead character, you're never particularly engaged with his struggle until he makes his desperate escape bid...

Apocalypto is basically an entertaining and visually-punchy chase movie, enlivened by Dean Semler's roving camerawork (who worked with Gibson on Mad Max 2 and 3.) The film was also shot on high-definition Genesis cameras and is certainly indistinguishable from film.

The film is also helped enormously by the fact Mayan culture is poorly represented in cinema. Any concerns over slavish historical accuracy can be easily overlooked, allowing you to sit back and enjoy watching one of the world's more mysterious cultures come to life for a few hours.

But, while the film is clearly trying to capture an epic greatness, it ultimately just bubbles along and eventually draws to a close. Your interest is mostly kept alive by various moments of horror: people being decapitated, someone plucking a beating heart from a chest, a man getting a spear through the head, or seeing arterial blood erupt from a man's battle-scarred face. But, amazingly, the violence is never overbaring (a lesson learned from Passion?) and the film's attitude to death is quite interesting: the characters fear it, but treat it as a natural progression of things, with many of them uttering "travel well" before kicking the bucket.

This is slick, excitable filmmaking, that simply has great fun telling a straight-forward story in a graphic, freewheeling nature. But it's unlikely to stick with you or demand repeated viewings.

Touchstone Pictures
Budget: $40 million
139 minutes