Mel Gibson’s new film, Apocalypto, is definitely not a family film — though a member of my family endured the savagery alongside me. The last time I walked out of a theater that stunned, it was after Saving Private Ryan. Absent, however, was the inspiration and gratitude Spielberg managed to evoke with his film.
Much has been made of the gore and brutally Gibson infuses into this story about a Mayan culture’s descent into bloodthirsy madness. It has been called “relentlessly violent,” with some even suggesting it is “the most violent movie ever made”. The film is merciless in many regards, making the scourging scene in the Passion of the Christ look almost routine in com- parison. If you ever wanted to know what a headless corpse looks like cartwheeling down the steps of a Mayan temple, showering tranced-out savages with its blood, look no further. Freddy Kruger, eat your heart out (oops, Apocalypso does that too!).
The incessant graphic bloodshed has turned many critics into social commentators. In his review, Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) launches into a sermon about the moral decline of a culture, concluding that Apocalypto is
“Exhibit A of the rot from within that Gibson is worried about. If our society is in moral peril, the amount of stomach-turning violence that we think is just fine to put on screen is by any sane measure a major aspect of that decline. Mel, no one in your entourage is going to tell you this, but you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. A big part.”
Uh, this is from the same fella that called Brokeback Mountain, “Powerful!” Funny how films about bloodthirsty Amazonian natives puts us in “moral peril,” but films about homosexual tolerance do not.
Gibson is obviously attempting to juxtapose the violent decline of one civilization against our own. The movie opens with a quote from historian Will Durant on the decline of the Roman Empire. â€œA great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.â€ Apocalypto is about this internal collapse. But what exactly do the ancient Mayans teach us? Hmm? Maybe be suspicious of men in loin cloths and face paint who growl, drink blood and wander rain forests in search of sacrificial victims for fertility gods.
Really, the dehumanization and disregard of human life for power and convenience may be the film’s primary moral lesson. (But did he need a vat of blood to make that point?)
There are many memorable (or should I say, unforgettable) scenes. One of them involves the protag, Jaguar Paw, who while fleeing from the Mayan madhouse, stumbles into a ravine filled with decapitated bodies — hundreds. He must wade through a virtual plain of grey, lifeless limbs and torsos in order to survive. In a recent interview with Michael Medved, Gibson countered the charges of gratuitous gore by citing statistics on abortion. Are we not, he suggested, slaughtering our sons and daughters on the altar of convenience? At the rate of 1.4 million a year, maybe WE are the barbarians.
At the film’s center is a grueling trek to the Mayan temple. Standing on its blood-drenched peak, encircled by deranged devotees in psychedelic headgear plucking pulsating hearts from their victims’ chests, while overlooking a frothing mob, is one of the most disturbing, surreal celluloid sequences I’ve witnessed in a long time. From there, Apocalypto morphs into a chase movie — past jaguars and poison-tipped arrows, through quicksand and over waterfalls, to the final and greatest enemy of all: WHITE EUROPEAN MALES.
There’s a lot to like about Apocalypto. . .if you can stomach its brutal imagery and relentless pace. (And, did I mention, it contains the most fantastic assemblage of body piercings ever filmed?) So leave the kiddies at home and save dinner for after the date — that is, if you still have an appetite.