When it comes to Mel Gibson, it's hard to separate the man from his work. When most people think of him now, they think of two things: his anti-Semitic ravings one night, and The Passion of the Christ (both of which South Park memorialized in the award-winning "The Passion of the Jew"). I have been a fan of his movies for as long as I can remember; Lethal Weapon (92) is one of my favorite movies of my childhood, and so is Braveheart (93), which he directed, produced, and starred in. But the strange latter-day Mel is still the same man I loved as a child, warts and all: the amazing Mayan-language action epic Apocalypto is, if anything, a cross between Braveheart and The Passion, an uncompromisingly brutal movie shot entirely in a foreign language about one man who takes on an evil empire and wins. It's hard to understand how $40 million ever got greenlighted to make this movie -- for Heaven's sake, it's shot entirely in the Yucatec Maya dialect -- and if The Passion hadn't grossed half a billion dollars, this movie would never have happened. It's a good thing it did.
The plot is relatively simple, and its most trenchant piece of social criticism is a Will Durant quote that serves to open the film: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Jaguar Paw, the son of village chief Flint Sky, is captured by an imperial raiding party for the purposes of human sacrifice, along with those of his fellow villagers who were not slaughtered in the ransack. He manages to hide his son and pregnant wife in a well, but the rope is cut, and we are frequently reminded that she is waiting down there to be rescued, as he's marched across scorched earth to a sacrificial altar atop a magnificent Maya pyramid. He manages to escape, however, and flees into the jungle to get back to his wife, with his captors in hot pursuit. The movie is unrelentingly violent, as were both Braveheart and The Passion, and the sacking of Jaguar Paw's village is nearly a note-for-note reprise of the burning of William Wallace's village in Braveheart, right down to a climactic throat-slitting. Jaguar Paw's sacrificial altar likewise recalls the executioner's table on which William Wallace lay at the end of Braveheart. (His sacrificial blue body paint also recalls William Wallace's famous blue face paint.)
But these thematic similarities are overwhelmed by the sheer, stunning visual spectacle of it all. One of the filmmakers on the DVD special features compare the scale of their production to something by Cecil B. DeMille. Another comparison might be The Lord of the Rings. They constructed a near-complete Mayan city, with multiple quarters and the great pyramid at the center; they dressed hundreds of extras in extensive makeup, jewelry, and prosthetics; and, of course, they shot their entire movie in a foreign language that few of the makers (and not all of the actors) spoke fluently; moreover, most of the actors had never appeared in a film before. Most of the characters are covered in little but paint, scars, loincloths, and jewelry inserted into facial piercings. An hour and a half into the movie it becomes a heart-pounding jungle chase, a survival tale to rival First Blood (rating: 82).
Obviously, because it's a movie by a white guy which takes significant license with a foreign civilization, and especially because that white guy is Mel Gibson, the movie weathered a fair amount of criticism on grounds of historical inaccuracy and political incorrectness. (The magazine Archeology published three separate academics enumerating the film's flaws.) I can't speak to the history, obviously, but I didn't draw the same conclusion about the film's argument as they. The film shows massive deforestation and lime quarrying in service of temple construction for the benefit of the heartless leadership; to me, the argument is that the Maya had mismanaged their natural resources and were literally bankrupting themselves. But the film's critics read into that a moral condemnation of the civilization as a whole. Frankly, I tend to think that the film's critics read too much of Mel's personal life -- and very famous faith -- into the movie, seeing things that just aren't there. There's also a great extent to which they simply don't seem to accept the idea of making an action movie about the Maya, that displaying violence among the Maya is itself irresponsible due to persistent modern racism against the Maya. I simply disagree with that.
What is Apocalypto? An insane adventure when conceived that somehow, impossibly, became reality. A brilliant director applying his love of violence to a rarely-depicted civilization which he had no right to feel he could inhabit. A modern classic with some of the most striking images ever filmed. One of the most ambitious action movies ever made.