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December 01, 2006

Apocalypto: Aptly Named?

It's a bit strange to see commercials with Mel Gibson explaining what the hell his movie is about for two reasons. One, it's just something that isn't done very much generally, two, you'd figure that, given Gibson's alcoholic tirade, they'd want to soft-sell his involvement with the project.

But having seen numerous trailers -- without Gibson's explanation -- in the theater, I had no idea what the movie was supposed to be about. I guess the studios felt similarly-- they were showing a lot of quick-cutting, dramatic images in the jungle, panthers and painted warriors, but nowhere in the trailer was there any indication of what the plot was. Unless the plot was actually nothing but running through the jungle and being eaten by panthers.

Enter Gibson, explaining, vaguely, it's a movie about one man's courage in trying to save his family. Presumably from panthers.

I have no interest in seeing this, partly because I still don't know really what it's about -- specifically. This pan from FoxNews' critic is savage:

With the subtlety of several thousand flying mallets and arrows, here comes Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," a two-hour plus torture-fest so violent that women and children will be headed to the doors faster than you can say "duck" when the film opens on Dec. 8.

Indeed, "Apocalypto" is the most violent movie Disney has ever released, with so much blood spurting out of orifices that even Martin Scorsese would blush.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see heads and hearts removed without anesthesia, then this is the movie for you. "Grey's Anatomy" it is not.

What it is, Gibson says, is the story of a civilization in transition, as the Mayans 500 years ago fought among themselves until visitors from Europe arrived by ship and spelled their doom.

Unfortunately, though, that part of the movie lasts maybe three minutes and takes place at the very end.

"Apocalypto" really is a video game, a sort of "Survivor" set in what would become the Mayan ruins as we know them today.

The action is often cartoonish, and the dialogue — which is all spoken in some ancient dialect with subtitles — is often preposterous.

In one scene, after what seems like the umpteenth bloody killing, one Mayan quips to another and the translation is, "He's f—-ed."

Just for the record, I don't find that so preposterous. I'm pretty sure that most languages have expressions that can be translated, more or less, to just that, if in spirit if not actual word-for-word translation.


The problem is that, unlike in "The Passion of the Christ," there is no noble goal here. The Mayans are merely fighting among themselves. There's no indication that the triumph by one side over another will achieve anything.

Sometimes, the result of this is a vivid portrait of death. For example, a jaguar eats a man's head, and masticates. Half-dressed Mayans are shot through the head, heart and chest with arrows and knifed sometimes without notice and almost always in the most gruesome ways possible. Heads roll and bounce, for real, down the long stairs of the Kukulcan Pyramid, or what we now regard the centerpiece of the Mayan ruins.

Not all of "Apocalypto" is awful....

What kind of man is so interested in making this kind of violent movie? What motivates him?

"Apocalypto" surpasses "The Passion" in every way as a movie about pain, flagellation and wounding. The grotesqueries are almost numbing, and at some point they become laughable.

But all the while, you're thinking, what's the point here? If "Apocalypto" was supposed to be about that transitional civilization, where is it? After two hours and several minutes of squirming and covering eyes, you start to think that "Apocalypto" exists just to show violence for itself. The point is lost.

I don't know if the violence per se would bother me, but if there's not any clear point to it, it's just people being killed.

He's an odd cat. One could see the reason for taking such risks for The Passion -- not only was the movie important to him personally, but, to be crass, there always was a big possible financial upside to it. Sure, he might have lost a lot of money, but he also stood to make a lot of money. Which is of course what happened.

But where's the built-in audience for an ultraviolent Mayan Braveheart minus the whole "freedom" plot? I don't question his love of cinematic gore -- a lot of people have been known for making gory movies, like Sam Peckinpah -- but what drives him to take such a risk to produce a film with no discrenable base demographic? The art house crowd will stay away because it's violent and because it's Gibson; the action movie/horror demographic (e.g., me) will stay away because it's all subtitled and doesn't seem to have a point.

Goofy. I think we're looking at a box-office trainwreck here.

Here's a glowing review from Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, but it seems that Travers is big on Gibson's political messaging:

Here's a thought: instead of rehashing Mel Gibson's Jew-bashing rants when L.A. cops got him on a DUI in July, let's stick to his movie. Apocalypto brings out what's unique and gripping in Gibson as a director. It's pure adrenaline -- a tremendously exciting chase movie, shot in Mexico, that just happens to be set in ancient Maya with dialogue spoken in Yucatec Maya, with English subtitles. Heck, you lived through Latin and Aramaic in Gibson's Passion of the Christ, so don't be a wussy. Actually, you'd better not be gore-shy, because Apocalypto is one brutal and bloody ride.

The plot, cooked up by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, focuses on Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a braveheart if ever there was one. Even women and children are killed when his village is attacked by another tribe. After hiding his pregnant wife and young son in a cave, Jaguar goes on the run experiencing adventures that would give Indiana Jones the screaming meemies. The movie flies by fast enough to cause whiplash. Youngblood, 25, is a Comanche and Cree Indian from Texas, and he holds the screen every treacherous inch of the way, suffering penitential hardships from spears, snakes and tribal rulers intent on removing his heart while it's still beating.

This being Gibson, there's more to the film than the rush. It's impossible not to see parallels to our own cultured civilization, one that knowingly destroys its environment and sends troops to Iraq as human sacrifices. Gibson has made a film of blunt provocation and bruising beauty -- it's breathtaking to watch a jaguar racing in the jungle alongside the man who is named after the beast. Say what you will about Gibson, he's a filmmaker right down to his nerve endings.

Gibson's not really a conservative, of course. Or at least not a conservative by normal definition. Certainly he's a major isolationist, and frequently makes noises about old men sending young men to die in meaningless wars.

So I'm not sure how much Travers enjoyed the actual movie and how much he enjoyed considering that Gibson's Passion-inspired fanbase would be instructed by this movie in no uncertain terms that War is Bad.

Either way: Just not that big on jaguars. Or subtitles. I can't imagine many people are.

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posted by Ace at 08:42 PM

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