Lowdown: The Mayan culture going down, and this time - it's personal.
For the record, I like Mel Gibson. I mean, I like his films, not necessarily the person. The guy took part in some brilliant stuff - The Road Warrior, entertaining stuff - Lethal Weapon, and even directed films I liked - Braveheart. So yeah, when he opens his mouth off the screen he projects an image of a true idiot, and The Passion of the Christ was a masochist's delight; but who cares? Just let me watch his good films.
So how does his recent effort as a director, Apocalypto, fair? Well, it's a mixed bag. I will start by saying that although I liked Braveheart, I never thought that highly of Gibson's skills as a director. Apocalypto did not make me change my mind.
The story is set in the last days of the Mayan culture. Not that there is anything to tell you where and when the story is set (other than the DVD cover); you just have to collect the clues as you go along watching the film, but you need to do it all the way to the end. The story follows a member of jungle tribe who looks a lot like Ronaldinho (and given that there are absolutely no familiar actors in Apocalypto, that is the name by which I am going to remember him). Ronaldinho's tribe is nice and small and very family like, but they're also pretty tough characters. They eat their prey's balls without cooking it first. But tough as they may be, they are not tough enough to survive an attack by an outsider army of particularly vicious Mayan people who take most of the tribe as captives with some vary nasty purpose in mind. Rest assured, though: by the time Ronaldinho finishes with them, they will wish they never left their bowl of cereal at their respective moms' breakfast table. After all, in Gibson films revenge is very, well, vengeful. As nasty as it can be, Apocalypto is highly entertaining as a thriller - I found myself quite excited. I was also annoyed with the way too frequent rate of miracles saving the day for Ronaldinho, but once again - these can be taken for granted in a Mel Gibson film, at least those coming after Passion of the Christ...
I was told the film is quite full on blood and gore, and indeed it is; but to be honest, there is not much in there on top of what you see in Temple of Doom. The difference, though, is in the seriousness of it: when a heart is taken out of someone's body in Apocalypto, it looks and feels real. And there's a good reason why: there is a heavy emphasis in Apocalypto on authenticity, so while I have no real idea how much like real Mayan culture Gibson's vision is, there is no doubt the film's firm commitment to the authentic portrayal of alternative cultures to ours. I have to add that given what I do know about Mayan culture, the film does a very good job portraying it. You could argue that Apocalypto is quite the anthropological delight; I was quite fascinated by the result.
What is not so delightful is the message that Gibson is trying to convey with his film and the way in which he conveys it. Gibson is not being around the bush - his views are made very clear the second the film starts. Basically, he's saying that it's not the Spanish that took the Mayans down, it was the Mayans that had a rotten culture to begin with because at its basis the heart of men is corrupt. Basically, he's implying that we (Westerners? Citizens of the planet earth?) are all on the brink of an apocalypse, and the apocalypse can only be averted if we repent and go back to nature. The true nature of his natural solution is not specified; given Passion of the Christ I have my suspicions, but Apocalypto leaves that area relatively open for personal interpretation. Which, however, does not compensate for a very childish, black and white way of looking at the world.
Talking about Passion of the Christ again, all actors speak Mayan exclusively in Apocalypto. Given that most of the actors here are not exactly Academy Award material, the film suffers a bit with their linguistic efforts. That said, the Mayan does contribute to the authenticity of the film; it would have been hard to accept this very different culture if the characters were to speak English and sound like the guy from the supermarket down the corner.
Best scene: An eclipse takes place during a ceremony in which live people are being sacrificed to the sun god on top of a pyramid with thousands of people in the crowd. Viscerally, this is a very impressive scene, and again a tribute to the film's authentic feeling.
Picture quality: Very good indeed, with lots of details and zero noise. There is, however, a slight weird feeling to the colors, as if the film was shot with a video camera.
Sound quality: Ok, but not half as impressive as it should have been.
Overall: Exciting and controversial. The story of Mel Gibson. 3.5 out of 5 stars.