Apocalypto (2006)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 March (10.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve been catching up on History Channel’s Vikings, which isn’t quite as visceral as it might be but is cracking drama all the same. One of the things I like best about it is the interaction between the Vikings and Anglo Saxons. When we’re focusing on either group exclusively, they all speak English, but on the occasions when they communicate with each other then the ancient Nordic and Old English languages come out to illustrate the barrier that separates them. I love hearing those ancient ‘tongues’ brought back to life, even for the sake of screen drama; I’d be lost without the subtitles, obviously, but there’s something ‘earthy’ about the long lost dialects, a connection between the people and the land they inhabit that brings out the harshness of the Vikings’ way of speaking, the Latin and German influences on those old Britons, the occasional word that has made it through the ages and is still in use today.

There’s something of that spirit in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, in which the characters speak Yucatec Mayan throughout. You might see that as a gimmick. The counter-argument is that it adds to the film’s sense of authenticity, the way you can almost picture the language growing from the jungle environment and lack of contact with the outside world. Similarly, the film works hard to build the Mayan ‘world’. Based on existing sights that are still in existence, with a level of imagination thrown in, the aim of the film is to create a place you have never seen before, a civilisation that is now buried in history but once thrived and grew strong.

Much of the film’s point is that even those good times are in the past. The Mayan culture depicted in Apocalypto is dying, suffering from seasons of drought and, unable to explain what’s happened beyond the anger of their gods, they start offering human sacrifices in an attempt to regain divine favour. The film follows Jaguar Paw (Rudy Younglood), a young hunter who’s part of a peaceful Olmec tribe living in the Mesoamerican forests of Mexico. His is presented as an almost paradisaical existence, dependent on hunting tapirs and other jungle animals yet happy in his little tribe, where everything is based on families and the circle of life. One night, his village is raided by Mayan warriors, and Jaguar has just enough time to get his heavily pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son, to safety inside a deep vertical pit before he’s captured. Tied to a pole alongside other survivors whom the raiders haven’t killed, he’s led across country to the teeming Mayan city, where they’re all to be sacrificed by having their hearts cut from their bodies and then beheaded. A resigned Jaguar Paw is led to the chopping block, but before he can be killed a solar eclipse occurs, which the Mayan priests interpret as a favourable sign. The remaining Olecs are no longer needed and led to the warriors’ training area to be slaughtered. Jaguar Paw manages to escape and makes it back into the jungles, pursued hotly by a band of fighters, led by the legendary Zero Wolf (Carlos Emilio Baez). As the wounded hero starts a desperate race back to the remains of his village, it starts to rain, and the water levels in Seven’s pit rise.

The attention to detail in Apocalypto is simply outstanding. Considering it’s a film costing a comparatively modest $40 million, they create an entire city featuring thousands of extras, all wearing costumes and hair decorations that make clear their status in society, from the King with his enormous, feathered cape, through to the poor clad in rags. The contrast between the pastoral Olmec village and the city is also stark. Whereas the former depicts a real community in which everyone knows each other and laughs together, the city is a decadent ruin in waiting, overcrowded, motivated by selfish desire and with a pall of sickness surrounding it. The overall effect is astonishing, a riot of colour and endless sights, so vivid that it’s almost possible to smell the food, blood and sweat.

All the more impressive considering that Apocalypto, at heart, is an old-fashioned action adventure, an almighty chase through the jungle that never lets up. It works because the odds against Jaguar Paw seem so high – the calibre of those pursuing him, being in the middle of nowhere, the fact he’s taken an arrow wound before he even starts. Zero Wolf makes for a brilliant warrior; there’s a genuine sense of elation about his pursuit because he actually has something worth chasing for a change, not just rounding up miserable villagers for the sacrificial block. True, Jaguar Paw has killed his son when beginning his escape attempt, but it feels like this is subservient to the sheer thrill of the chase, the opportunity to prove himself as a high calibre hunter at last. And yet it emerges the fleeing hero is just as capable in his environment, using all manner of natural resources to deal with Zero Wolf’s men; at one thrilling, albeit gory stage a Jaguar is involved.

I admit I was thrilled from the start of the chase, overwhelmed by the visual treats beforehand. The heel turned out to be Gibson himself. Involved in a string of discrepancies and saying some very unfortunate things in the build-up to Apocalypto’s release, the director’s character was a divisive element in his own film’s success, ensuring its share of awards and box office were not all they could have been. Arguments have been posited that the film is entirely allegorical, returning to themes that had been explored in his previous The Passion of the Christ and suggesting a unhealthy level of anti-Semitism. I suppose those elements are present if you want them to be; personally, I didn’t get any of that and suspect there’s an element of digging too deeply into the alleged meanings behind what is a reasonably straightforward story. An altogether sad turn of events because Apocalypto, almost unique and at times savage, is a blast.

Apocalypto: ****

7 Replies to “Apocalypto (2006)”

  1. I have mixed feelings about this film, although I haven’t seen it for some time. I remember seeing it in the cinema in Athens on release and I had to concentrate hard – the subs were in Greek naturally and I struggled at times – I’m better now, obviously.
    It is visually impressive and the chase forms the heart of the story, and maybe that’s my problem. I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this before in The Most Dangerous Game and, perhaps more closely related, Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey.

    1. Thanks Colin, I can only imagine the varied joy of watching something in a different language where the subs are no help either. I’m sure I read somewhere that when Gibson was making Passion of the Christ his initial intention was not to use subtitles at all! As though it isn’t enough to have the actors speak ancient languages..

      I absolutely love The Most Dangerous Game, both the book and film, also that the former is/was used in American English Literature classes – what an exciting story to read! and I think what you say is right – Apocalypto is an old-fashioned chase flick, but dressed up in such a way to make it look original and to raise the stakes.

  2. I saw this when it came out and was impressed by the recreation of the ancient world and the thrill of the chase (which, like Colin, I think owes a debt to THE NAKED PREY). I still think it’s an impressive feat and glad you featured it as I think it certainly deserves attention for its ambition.

    1. Thanks Sergio. I wonder how much the Gibson factor did for not making it more of a success, or whether it was the language issue or the 18 certificate and there’s a tendency to overplay people’s issues with the director – ‘I’d like to see it but that awful man’s involved’ and so forth. It’s certainly not the sort of film you get to see very often, and The Naked Prey is now definitely on my top priority, to watch list.

      1. I must admit, ever since his CHRIST film made everyone aware of his extreme religious views, and than the assorted scandals that have followed, it does ultimately have an impact. There are too many films, books, operas, plays, CDs etc to try and so you end up drawing the line somwhere, so it doesn;t surprise me. At the time when the film came out my brother and I had opposite responses – he found the philosophy troubling (cf the arrival at the end) and didn;t care enough about the kinetic aspect. I think it is a very interesting text, a very unusual one, but I am a bit ambivalent about soem of it. Which makes it great to talk about!

      2. Speaking of PASSION OF THE CHRIST, perhaps I’m hopelessly naive too think this way (I’d like to think of it as open minded but then of course I would), but I didn’t really think too hard about the religious groups for whom he was gunning, the so called agenda, and just found myself gripped with the tale of someone who was prepared to go to the extreme lengths of suffering for the sake of others, and for that reason found it all very powerful. I’m an atheist and not in any way linked to any of the races in the film so possibly there was nothing there for me to get resentful about, but I thought it was very good on the whole. Good but gut wrenching, I must add. I’ve no real desire to go through it all again; I don’t recall the last time something had me squirming in my seat quite so forcefully.

        Anyway, there it is, and I suppose it makes me more open to something like APOCALYPTO than others might be. Incidentally the arrival at the end struck me as a neat endnote of irony, and nothing more than that really.

      3. Images of torture and immolation recur so frequently in Gibson’s movies that the extended scourging in THE PASSION was certainly a predictable extension of the theme. The critique of other religions I did not need and does not in fact aid the film in my view (the fact that it’s in the New Testament is not much of an excuse). I have no axe to grind in this regard as I’m not a believer either

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