by JAMES BRIGHAM
After directing his hugely successful biblical drama, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s decision to helm Apocalypto – a subtitled, Mayan language chase picture – had quite a few Hollywood analysts and film fans scratching their heads in response. Although it proved to be not nearly as controversial (or as lucrative) as Gibson’s last directorial effort, the notorious ex-action star still managed to deliver another visually arresting film capable of brewing negativity amongst select demographics. Apocalypto’s focus on a Mayan civilization embroiled in lavish and gory displays of human sacrifice offended certain descendents of said ethnicity and members of the scientific community.
Now I’m no historian, but I’m fairly certain that such rituals did occasionally happen from time to time in that region of the world. Does that mean it’s fair game for cinematic exploitation? As depressing as it may be to recall such periods of man’s inhumanity to man, I have to admit with guilt that it makes for an exciting backdrop for an action movie. Part of my brain recognizes that Apocalypto is likely playing fast and loose with historical accuracy and using only the barest of reality’s bones upon which to build its story, but then again so did Gladiator and Gibson’s own Braveheart.
The main thrust of the tale concerns the raid on a jungle tribe by city dwelling slavers. Chief amongst those captured is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young man desperate to escape at any cost and return home to rescue his pregnant wife and child – both of whom found shelter in a deep cave during the attack and are now trapped. With this countdown scenario firmly established, we’re forced to march along with the would-be slaves as they ford treacherous rivers and tiptoe beside perilous cliffs to eventually arrive at the metropolis: alien in both its beauty and its horror.
Although the details may be off, the lush splendor of the costuming, jungle flora, and temple sets combine to glue your eyes to the screen in a way that few movies are able to achieve. Jaguar Paw’s subsequent escape and later cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers was easily one of the most gripping movie sequences of 2006. When it comes to dramatic action, Mel Gibson continues to take inspiration from great directors he’s previously worked with in the genre (George Miller, Richard Donner) and then put his own spin on the proceedings.
While Apocalypto doesn’t add up to be anything other than a faux-historical Rambo movie, it rarely pretends to be much more than that. Those incendiary elements that ruffled the feathers of several prominent anthropologists are dampened a bit by the film’s chiefly positive reception by Mexican filmgoers. It will be interesting to see how well Apocalypto’s larger-than-life aesthetics play on big screen systems and in the minds of film buffs who missed its theatrical run. Now that the furor has somewhat died down, it can be viewed more on the R rated action movie qualities and less on its director’s spotty personal history.
Apocalypto’s DVD is available in a standard widescreen and a Blu-ray edition (making this one of those times I wish I owned a high-def DVD player). The standard widescreen version comes with a commentary track by Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia, a making of featurette, and a sole deleted scene with optional commentary. Presumably, the Blu-ray version just has to make due with its high-end sound and picture quality. Choose, but choose wisely.
Other new releases this week: Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, Constellation, Epic Movie, Fay Grim, The Good German, The Italian, Letters from Iwo Jima, Venus