During Apocalypto’s midpoint climax, you might get a glimpse into how difficult it is to be Mel Gibson. As decapitated human sacrifices are thrown from a Mayan pyramid in delirious slow motion, one wonders how it’s possible to spiritually reflect on such barbarism when it looks so goddamned great. Extrapolate that into a dichotomy — content versus cool — which becomes the film’s central battle, not the war between city and village, past and future, or new world and old.
Buy into the marketing and you’ll expect Gibson’s new movie to explore the end of a civilization through the struggle of a single man. For the first hour, that almost seems possible.
The warrior Jaguar’s Paw is the son of his village’s chief hunter. While roaming the jungle, father and son lead their hunting party straight into the path of a refugee group fleeing some devastating force. Paw’s pop allows the refugees to pass, little realizing that they might auger bad fortune for his own village.
Indeed, hell comes to their gentle settlement, and the villagers who don’t die quickly are forced to march into the heart of a sprawling, decadent city. There, they’ll be sacrificed to improve the harvest and dispel sickness. According to Gibson, the Mayans may have known the secrets of the calendar, but they weren’t smart enough to realize that building-high piles of sacrificed bodies might engender plague rather than prevent it.
As the camera winds through the reconstructed byways of the city, it’s easy to be impressed by the film’s craft. The costumes and makeup are almost succulent — bodies drip with colored robes and are adorned with stones and jewelry, right down to teeth inlaid with turquoise. The film’s early scenes prove that Gibson can still shoot vicious action, and the Mayan city reaffirms that after spending millions on exotic, semi-authentic costumes, you can point the camera anywhere and keep the audience’s attention.
And then, at the halfway mark, a switch is flipped. Where there was an ominous level of threat and the possibility that Gibson’s vision might be more than skin deep, abruptly there’s merely a big chase scene. Faster than you can say ‘rip-off’ this event picture becomes a remake of First Blood, with Mayans instead of Brian Dennehy.
Stallone’s movie crescendoed with John Rambo’s credible breakdown, full of pathos and commentary on post-traumatic stress disorder. Apocalypto merely teases with content beyond the chase. You’d think the self-indulgent Mayan city, in conflict with Jaguar Paw’s idyllic village, would express Gibson’s faith-based world view. But he doesn’t linger on more than the blood-drenched stairs of the sacrificial pyramid. No understanding of the Mayan culture or its demise is forthcoming.
Perhaps sensing that he’s shooting blanks, Gibson throws in a few half-hearted images recycled from his last movie: a lame baptism and a spear thrust into his hero’s side. But these allusions to Christianity (and therefore also to the encroaching Spanish empire) are no more meaningful than the film’s paper-thin veneer of Mayan culture. As Jaguar’s Paw flees back to his village, he argues for nothing more than Gibson retreating to his action-movie roots.
I’d be lying if I claimed that I wasn’t entertained on some level by the action — I don’t remember nodding off, and more than a handful of scenes achieve the sort of pounding thrill that made Gibson famous in the first place. But there’s the promise of so much more, and reflecting on the experience is like ruefully recalling that sidewalk shell game that you bought into, all the while knowing that the odds were rigged.
It may be that I’m trying too hard to bring this film together with the map I’ve concocted of Gibson’s psyche. I’ll allow that it’s entirely possible that he intends this movie as nothing more than an action flick in 15th-century clothes. But as the final act waxed boring and ludicrous, I wished that Mad Mel had bothered to make some comment. Anything. Because the only thing worse than the ravings of a right-wing nutjob is the abject lack of a point of view, which leaves a vacuum like the one at the heart of Apocalypto.