Here’s my pitch for an Apocalypto video game, which also serves as a synopsis of the movie:
We begin the game with a training level so you can get used to the controls. You’re country Mayan Jaguar Paw, and you’re hunting tapir in the Central American jungle. You have to run, jump and use ingenuity and the natural environment to trap the animal, which you eat in a full motion video cut scene. Then, in another cut scene, evil city Mayans show up, burn your village, kidnap you and your buddies and leave your wife and kid stranded in a deep hole. You get taken to the Mayan city and escape – now you must run through the jungle, avoid pitfalls like quicksand, mean animals and waterfalls, while knocking off your city Mayan pursuers. At the bottom of the screen is a timer – it’s your wife and kid in that hole, which is rapidly filling with water. If you beat the game on Medium you unlock Mel Gibson as a playable character.
When viewed through the lens of standard Hollywood action picture, the kind that get turned into Playstation games, Apocalypto works. If you’re listening to all of Mel Gibson’s blather about his movie having meaning beyond “Hey, wouldn’t it be fucking AWESOME if a jaguar ate a guy’s face off?”, you’re going to be quite disappointed. Is it fair to judge a movie based on the filmmaker’s stated intentions? I guess, but it seems counter-productive here. We all know Mel Gibson’s a little bit nuts, but it turns out he’s a whole bunch nuts if he thinks he’s made a movie that tackles issues, subjects, themes, characters, story arcs, etc.
So let’s not look at it that way. Let’s concede that Gibson has just made a very nice looking action film, complete with clichés like guys jumping off waterfalls and sliding underneath swinging clubs in slo-mo and sneering villains…. See, here’s where I’m torn. As a big dumb action film, Apocalypto works, except for the glaring gimmick at the center. Gibson has shot the film in some Mayan language and has used local Central American actors who look suitably pre-Columbian. He’s spent tens of millions of dollars on this, he went on location, he tried to make everything feel as authentic as possible – just to churn out First Blood in a different time period. What’s the point?
The point is that Gibson seems to be a little bit ashamed of his penchant for mayhem, which is fully on display here. In the name of accuracy Gibson gets to have people’s hearts torn out, heads bounced down steep pyramid steps, limbs chopped, bodies mangled, arterial blood spraying in an almost comic way. I don’t want to get into the guy’s psyche – you can find enough people delving into that icky subject elsewhere – but I do wish that he would do away with the pomp and importance and just accept the fact that he likes, and is very good at staging, scenes of intense violence. There’s nothing wrong with that; I don’t want Rockstar Games explaining how the new Grand Theft Auto is an indictment of the welfare state or something. I just want to enjoy beating hookers to death with a dildo.
Accepting the gimmick of Mayan language and actors, my biggest grip with Apocalypto is how very, very standard it is. Gibson seems to feel like making it in a foreign language and in this setting is taking chances enough, so he doesn’t see the need to make any of the characters or concepts or action feel new. It’s like he spent so long in Hollywood that he doesn’t know how to approach an action scene any other way than the ways it has been done before. And in this context that often comes across as silly or laughable.
Fans of gratuitous, plot-light action films will be very happy with Apocalypto. Passable but not really memorable, it’s a movie that should have been released over the summer, which still reigns as the best time of year to see a guy get killed with frog-poisoned darts.