There is a great difference in excellency, usefulness, and comfort between people of clear, digested knowledge, and confused, undigested apprehensions. -Richard Baxter

20+ Film Review: Apocalypto

Proud to inaugurate our 20+ Film reviews with one from our own Matthew Anderson on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. Feel free to share your own observations. And if you’d like to offer a film review of your own, just email us with your submission. If you need help in formatting your thoughts, have a look at a film review site we often visit for recommendations, lookingcloser.org.

r161541429.jpg   [aside: looks like Mel may have been right–>

Anyhow, here’s Matthew:


Mel Gibson’s action-drama, Apocalypto is set in Mexico at the height of the Mayan civilization and follows a young, rural villager’s capture and escape from a Mayan raiding party, intent on obtaining victims for ritualistic sacrifice. What ensues is a game of meso-american cat and mouse, full of close calls, boobie traps, and unpleasant deaths. Think Die Hard set in the Yucatan Peninsula and you’ve got the gist of this film. Simple… yes. Bloody… oh, yea. Thoroughly entertaining… absolutely.

The short of it is, Apocalypto does what good cinema is suppose to do: take you to places you’ve never been and show you sights you’ve never seen. Indeed, you’ve never seen Mayans quite like this. Being the first big budget movie director film to explore this civilization, Gibson spared no expense in recreating all the color, beauty, and savagery of this culture. The costumes (which are supposedly historically accurate) are so unlike anything you’ve seen before that they feel like something out of a sci-fi movie. The Mayan capital city is alive with detail and absolutely does not feel like a movie set. The overall effect is a visual palette that is both unnervingly strange, yet completely believable. It’s evident that Gibson cares deeply about doing his subject justice.

The story is simple yet, worthy of fantastic visual treatment. You’ll also find yourself truly caring what happens characters (at least the good guys.) Mel Gibson tends to have a “medieval” sensibility in his storytelling: good is good and bad is bad. Like a fairy tale, he leaves us little gray-area as to with whom we should sympathize. We love the virtuous good guys while hating the wicked bad guys. Ironically enough, despite the violence it is one of the more wholesome films (in terms of theme) to come out in ’06. This isn’t really a complaint: Gibson’s simple platitudes about the value of courage and decent living are actually the most “shocking” thing you can show in a film these days.

In fact this medieval sensibility flows over into a social statement that permeates much of Apocalypto. It is the classic theme of urban immorality verses rural nobility. The Mayans in the film are portrayed as a decadent, ingrown, and rotting people, who have resorted to depraved practices in order avert their own extinction, while the rural villagers are shown as heathly, brave and living in the midst of happiness. Gibson is presenting us a cautionary tale of what happens to a society when it forsakes a previous way of life and becomes too prosperous and ambitious. It’s a fresh (and controversial) theme for a Hollywood film, yet comes across as sincere.

But sincerity doesn’t make a flawless film and there are certainly flaws in Apocalypto. There are some long and tedious scenes that should have been cut short and every other Gibson film, there are some poorly timed and executed attempts at humor. These things combined give the film an awkward pace that, fortunately, improves by the end of the film

Also, the script feels lazily written and contains some eye-rollingly awful dialogue. Apparently Gibson saw fit to translate Apocalypto’s subtitles (film’s actors speak in an ancient Mayan language) into 21st century dialogue. I squirmed in my seat during one particular scene when I heard the main character taunt the bad guys by yelling “Come on!” Gibson goes as far as having the gruff and tuff Mayan warriors use(via the subtitles) modern profanity. It’s pretty goofy and, overall, doesn’t work.

These flaws are very forgivable and in no way take away from the fact that Apocalypto is rare film that successfully combines both eye-candy and compelling drama. There is a kind of gracefulness and love in this film, despite it’s extreme violence (which has been greatly exaggerated by others). A flippant, mean-spirited movie like Borat, may contains no physical violence, but contains plenty of vicious hatred for humanity. Apocalypto is a film that uses extreme violence as a storytelling tool. But also has a conscience, and a deep one at that. Its interesting to note that when compared with a film like Borat, Apocalypto seems so simple and innocent, some would say naive.

Think what you will of the man, Mel Gibson can craft a fine film. full if vigor, strength and a love of humanity. It’s not the greatest film of ’06 and it doesn’t try to be, nor does it need to be. Apocalypto just needs to exist; letting us know that solidly entertaining films can still be made.

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