Mel Gibson trades The Passion of the Christ’s hooked noses for noses decorated by hooks (and a character named “Curl Nose”) with Apocalypto, though don’t let that fool you into thinking that the controversial director has given up on religious mythmaking. An epic about the fall of the Mayan empire populated predominately by unprofessional actors and shot in a subtitled Mayan dialect, Gibson’s follow-up to his hugely popular and divisive crucifixation saga is bursting with spirituality rooted both in primitive polytheism – his protagonists regularly thanking or beseeching ancient Gods – and distinctly Christian imagery, to the point that its hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) receives a Jesus-like wound to the side as he valiantly attempts to save his family from impending destruction. The specter of doom certainly hangs over the film, which traces the world-shattering ordeal of Jaguar Paw and his fellow Mayan villagers after their homes are burned to the ground, countless are slaughtered, and the rest are captured and taken to the heart of the kingdom, where the women are sold into slavery and the men offered as human sacrifices to a god in return for respite from poor crops and the lethal pestilence sweeping the land.
Apocalypto’s sociological portrait of its extinct culture has been lavishly conceived by Gibson, which never matches The New World’s aura of poetic authenticity but nonetheless has a lived-in realism that – by lacking any measure of exploitative exoticism – remains both alluring and convincing regardless of how many liberties may have been taken with regards to historical accuracy. With fallen warriors removing their necklaces before succumbing to death, a mother healing her son’s leg wound by inserting live ants into the gash, or the horrific sight of decapitated heads plummeting down a towering temple’s steps, the film gracefully taps into a sense of competing rituals between the “urban” oppressors and “rural” innocents whose conflict stands at the narrative’s center. The relationship between men and their ancestors, as well as the importance of maintaining long-held customs, is an omnipresent factor throughout. Such bonds certainly stand in direct opposition to the Mayan rulers’ callous use and abuse of their fellow brothers and sisters, with Gibson’s consistent depiction of their cruel mistreatment of the sick, the elderly, and the young speaking to the foreboding introductory quote from William Durant that “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Is Mel analogizing his version of the downfall of the (decadent, greedy, and consumed by corrosive fear) Mayans with the modern West? The director has suggested as much in interviews, but if so, his political argument is akin to a street corner soapbox preacher bellowing about the end of times through a megaphone. Mercifully, though, any intended contemporary parallels – which are largely rendered moot by a final image [Spoiler Alert] that makes clear that, regardless of their moral decay, the Mayans were destined for doom by the coming of the Spanish – are severely underplayed in favor of action movie clichés. That’s right – Apocalypto, for all its exacting attention to period detail, is at heart something of an extravagantly staged chase flick, one in which Jaguar, pursued while trying to return to the pregnant wife and child he hid from his enemies at the bottom of a deep hole, must leap off a waterfall to escape his adversaries à la The Fugitive, and later, must defeat the villains’ psycho second-in-command with a super-cool Matrix-y move shot in slow-motion. The film is overflowing with hackneyed but thrilling blockbuster-familiar moments, the majority of which, in another context, could have proven entirely comfortable in a mid-‘80s Schwarzenegger vehicle (come to think of it, even the Governator’s “I’ll be back” line would have been appropriate).
Any chance that such adherence to outsized Hollywood tropes might make the film formulaic, however, is largely squashed by the director’s affection for bizarre allegory – which most hilariously comes in the form of a climactic birth that occurs underwater while the mother is about to drown – and gruesomeness, the latter of which will come as no surprise to those who endured The Passion’s New Testament bloodbath. An intro prank involving the eating of a wild boar’s testicles, a Temple of Doom-style centerpiece involving a ruler’s sacrificial removal of a man’s still-beating heart (which he then shows to the unfortunate soul), and a gratuitously extended circular camera pan around a warrior’s bludgeoned head as it spurts blood like a geyser – Gibson is obsessed with liberation and triumph through human (bodily) suffering to the point of laughableness. Yet such excessive violence ultimately serves the director’s own faith-through-torment convictions no more than it does standard genre obligations, as Apocalypto never transcends its fundamental nature as a regally decorated, efficiently paced rock-‘em, sock-‘em adventure – a status apparent right through to its finale, which does less to impart weighty thematic ideas than to provide a handy set-up for that most hoary of action film clichés: the sequel.