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MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Poor Mel Gibson was making headlines not long before Apocalypto was released. Much of the buzz around the movie had less to do with the film than with Mel’s off-screen troubles.

In the case of Apocalypto, then, a little distance is good. Maybe in a decade we can objectively evaluate this movie. Even the distance of half a year makes Apocalypto seem better than I had expected, given the publicity at the time of its release.

Humble in the Jungle

Perhaps this is what Mel does instead of therapy
Perhaps this is what Mel does instead of therapy

The characters in Apocalypto are pre-Colombian Mayans. The actors all speak Yucatec Maya, which is a first in cinema history. It’s a daring idea, but not unprecedented. Gibson also directed The Passion of the Christ, which was acted in Aramaic and Latin.

The story is simple: a peaceful jungle village is raided by slavers. Our protagonist, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), has hidden his pregnant wife and young son in a cave. Jaguar Paw is captured and marched to a Mayan city, but his thoughts drift back to his family as he tries to escape and return back home.

Therapy

The movie depicts violent images of Mayan civilization that haunt the thoughts of fourth-graders everywhere: human sacrifices on a bloody altar, ripping out someone’s beating heart and showing it to him before he dies; human heads lopped off and rolled down an ancient pyramid. The body count is high, and Gibson again seems to revel in the bloodbath, as he did in The Passion and The Patriot. Perhaps, as my wife said while Jaguar Paw crossed a pit of corpses, this is what Mel does instead of therapy.

The coup de gross comes at the very end when a woman gives birth. Granted, childbirth is a natural and beautiful thing, but in the hands of Gibson, it seems to be another excuse to squirt some blood, flesh, and guttural screams toward the audience.

Civilizing Savages

The movie also seems to comment on the very nature of civilization. I would guess that Gibson has given it some thought, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a religious take on the decadence and immorality of a civilization before its fall (although If he sees a specific modern parallel, it’s not clear from the film.)

The movie condemns the idea that an individual can be swallowed by a large enough group. When a village becomes a city, it’s easy to lose your identity and humanity. The good people in Apocalypto are the simple villagers living in harmony with the land; the bad people are the Mayan politicians and savage slave-sellers in the big city.

And the movie implies that as fearsome as the Mayan city is to the villagers, the civilization of the arriving Spaniards will make Mayan civilization seem rustic and insignificant.

DVD Extras

There is one deleted scene of about 30 seconds. It could have been left off the DVD.

The audio commentary by Gibson and writer/producer Fahrad Safinia is jovial; they are talking to each other and not necessarily to viewers at home. Their commentary is not expository or educational, but you can learn a few things about the production by listening. They talk about “Genesis” without ever spelling out that it’s a new high-definition video camera system, but it’s clear from the context that they loved the quality and flexibility of it.

They are a little too enamored of their own work, but sometimes it seems justified. Toward the end, Safinia repeatedly praises Gibson for telling the story without dialogue, and he’s right. That’s one of the hardest tricks for many filmmakers to achieve, and Gibson does it well. But the audio commentary gets thinner and thinner, until the last scenes simply play without comment at all.

The best of the three extra features is the 25-minute documentary. It is slickly produced — Gibson is interviewed in a studio; producers are green-screened in front of promotional material, beautiful footage from the movie is generously intercut. As usual, the polished look makes me think I’m being hustled. But once it starts exploring the costumes, makeup, sets, and weaponry, the documentary becomes interesting.

The section on weaponry is interesting, but it’s an odd choice to include in the documentary. Apocalypto is a very ambitious movie, but not because of the weapons. Why not tell us something — anything — about the language, history, and culture that went into Apocalypto, rather than focusing on the ways one can club and hack another person into submission or death.

Then again, that seems to reflect Gibson’s own focus, so perhaps it’s a good fit after all.

How to Use This DVD

The movie’s a little long at just over two hours, but watch it in its entirety anyway. For most audiences, that will be enough; you can return the DVD after that.

If the movie sticks in your brain for more than a day or two, watch the documentary to see some of the work that went into the costumes, sets, and weapons. Skip the deleted scene and skip the audio commentary, unless you’re really interested in a casual conversation between Gibson and Safinia.