Taking on the Mayans

Twenty-five years after bursting onto screens in his breakthrough role as Mad Max, Academy Award-winning director/actor Mel Gibson shocked the world by releasing a graphically violent depiction of the final days of Jesus Christ. Surrounded by controversy regarding its violence and potentially anti-Semitic elements, The Passion of the Christ earned more than $370 million in the United States alone and returned Gibson to the forefront of Hollywood filmmakers. Rather than relishing in The Passion’s success and embarking on a more commercial project, Gibson followed the film with an even more ambitious endeavor.

Apocalypto, which is released on DVD tomorrow, attempts to recreate the Mayan civilization for modern viewers, giving them the opportunity to discover a long-lost society. While the film essentially represents the Mayan culture, its narrative focuses on Jaguar Paw (played by newcomer Rudy Youngblood), a young villager who escapes being sacrificed and must make his way back to his family. Throughout the film, Apocalypto demonstrates a strong yet tragic message about how even the most elaborate cultures ultimately fall prey to the ravages of time.

Starring a cast of unknowns and shot using the original Mayan language, Apocalypto truly makes every effort to transport viewers back in time to the traditional Mayan civilization. The makeup, costumes and art direction are all breathtaking, and James Horner’s pulse-pounding score perpetuates the film’s emotional intensity. Gibson succeeds in capturing the essence of this ancient Mesoamerican culture.

However, the film’s technical aspects cannot hide its numerous flaws. While the cast offers solid performances all around, the film has an unpleasant propensity for gratuitous violence and gore. As in The Passion, Gibson hides behind his apparent reverence of historical events to showcase one repellent scene after another. Although some of this violence is inherent to the storytelling, Gibson relishes in it, making some moments of the film seem unnecessary and drawn out.

Relying on gore and spectacle for entertainment value, Apocalypto’s greatest weakness is its script. Written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the film’s leisurely pacing and scant plot seem more akin to a documentary than a dramatic representation of a long-lost civilization. With so much attention paid to accurately recreating the Mayan society, it fails to emotionally involve viewers in Jaguar Paw’s plight. Still, Gibson’s respect for history and his undeniable visual flair maintain interest. In addition to the film, the DVD offers a director’s commentary, a very brief and rather pointless deleted scene and a standard making-of featurette, which provides a brief glimpse into the intricacy involved in bringing the Mayan culture to life. A fairly bare-bones release, this edition of Apocalypto is almost certain to be followed by a Special Edition, giving Gibson another opportunity to tinker with the film.

While Apocalypto is by no means a great film, its rich style and meticulous design are worthy of admiration. In a time when most filmmakers seem content to merely regurgitate familiar content again and again, Gibson deserves to be commended for attempting such an ambitious project. He has proven that he has a distinct flair for direction, but perhaps next time he will pay equal attention to the script. Apocalypto could have been a masterpiece, but in Gibson’s hands, it is nothing more than a gorgeous bundle of missed opportunities.