Less the semi-experimental, doomsday polemic that pre-release speculation had supposed it might be, than a rollicking piece of good, old-fashioned, Cecil B. DeMille-style spectacle, Mel Gibson?s Apocalypto, like his previous Barnum-esque gorefest The Passion of the Christ, shares deep exploitation roots with the likes of Mondo Cane and the roadshow grindhouse entertainments of Kroger Babb, David Friedman, and Dwain Esper. You?ve got your blood, your jungle exoticism, your buxom, half-nekkid native girls, and he even throws in the birth of a baby ? all that?s missing is a carnival pitchman outside to bring in more rubes.
The fairly straightforward plot portrays the decline of the early 16th-century Mayan empire as seen through the eyes of a na?ve forest-dwelling native, and it?s pure Hollywood hokum of the best kind, filled with easily-identifiable good guys and bad guys, a love story, chases, escapes, and most importantly, a happy ending. After his village is destroyed by a band of violent slavers, young and idealistic forest dweller Jaguar Paw (played by American-born artist Rudy Youngblood) must escape from the living hell of a decadent Mayan city in order to rescue his pregnant wife and child, trapped in a deep pit during the village attack but miraculously still alive. Along the way, he begins to embody a self-fulfilling prophecy told to the city-dwellers by a disease-ridden, but seemingly clairvoyant young girl they meet on the roadside ? that ?the Jaguar? will bring death to their kingdom and herald the downfall of their civilization. And so Jaguar Paw must rely on his wits and well-honed survival and hunting skills to fight his pursuers and avoid the natural perils of the jungle before the prophecy comes to pass, and before his family is discovered and killed.
Combining the best elements of ?running in the jungle? films like The Most Dangerous Game, Last of the Mohicans, and The Naked Prey (look for this one on cable TV if you?ve never seen it ? it?s where the entire chase sequence in the film comes from, and is an amazing movie in its own right), Gibson really tries to achieve an almost ?pure cinema? feel with Apocalypto, keeping the latter half of it virtually dialogue-free and wisely emphasizing the visual nature of the story. Technical specs are top-notch, with the cinematography boasting some of the most amazing visuals seen onscreen in quite a while. Again, pre-release buzz was a bit misleading ? not only was the movie not shot in a ?lost? language (many thousands of Mexicans speak Yucatec in their daily lives), it was also not shot entirely in the remote jungle. In fact, much of it was filmed very close to the city of Veracruz, and some was even shot on indoor soundstages! Nevertheless, the seams between the locations never show and the copious CG and special effects actually enhance the enjoyment of the film rather than detract or distract from it. The slow build as the prisoners enter the corrupt city is one of the film?s best highlights, with Gibson gradually introducing the jungle villagers, as well as the audience, to the decadent delights of the urban milieu, culminating in the absolutely jaw-dropping spectacle of the mass sacrifices atop a temple pyramid, with seemingly thousands of frenzied citizens in the throngs below. Gibson can stage a freak show with the best of them, and the sacrifice scenes not only feel historically accurate (and according to the commentary, they actually toned down the physical violence that historical accounts have chronicled, like priests cutting the skins off living victims and wearing them!), but they are right up there with the shock moments of Fulci?s best work in terms of satisfaction value for gorehounds and geek show deviants.
Like the prophecies in the film, the very basic DVD from Buena Vista ? which has stellar audio and video credentials, by the way ? pretty much portends a more elaborate special edition on the horizon, complete with deleted scenes and multiple making-of documentaries. For the present, however, viewers will have to make do with a 25-minute ?Becoming Mayan? featurette that is so self-congratulatory, it must have had a previous life as an HBO puff piece or some other kind of promotional tool. Nevertheless, it provides a good visual glimpse behind the scenes of the production of the film, which was large-scale all the way. Literally hundreds of make-up artists are seen working on crowds of background extras, all of whom needed tattoos, piercings, and specialty costumes, hairdos and jewelry adornments for the city-set sequences ? it?s an amazing achievement, and it really pays off in the final film. Also worthwhile was the seemingly endless amount of research, testing and experimentation that went into ensuring the historical verisimilitude of the production design, right down to coloring the costumes using only hues that were able to be created from natural ingredients that would have been available to the inhabitants of that particular area ? talk about nit-picking! Finally, several shots of Gibson running around the gigantic sets barking into a bullhorn, right into the faces of his crowds of extras, further reinforce his connection with movie moguls of old.
A single, forty-second deleted scene of a scorched deer fleeing the destructiveness of the city-dwellers adds little to the package, but it?s more than made up for in an affable audio commentary by Gibson and co-writer, co-producer Farhad Safinia. The track manages to be simultaneously humorous and informative, with Gibson?s well-known, pun-filled sense of humor making its presence known from time to time. The pair talk about casting the film with non-actors, although most of the main roles were filled by performance artists, dancers, painters, and other people in related fields; they also identify which of the secondary performers were actually of the same Mayan descent as portrayed in the film, and thus were native speakers of the language. The commentary at times lapses into some over-technical explanation, with Gibson pointing out shots that were achieved using 35mm film, Super 16mm film, or most often, the Panavision Genesis HD camera (could there be a more appropriate name for the system, given Gibson?s well-known religious beliefs?). Both he and Safinia also offer high, well-deserved praise to cinematographer Dean Semler, who apparently worked magic in low-light conditions on location, capturing rich images when the rest of the crew was sure it was too dark to shoot. And only on occasion does Gibson break his good behavior and offer up a political opinion about what?s going on onscreen and its direct relation (he believes) to what?s happening today. (?I think it?s a little bit the same now, don?t you?? he says to Safinia at one point, referring to the Mayan practice of humiliating enemy rulers before killing them.) But still, this is mostly a Gibson you can love and root fors, a Gibson who has great respect for the native performers in the film, a healthy skepticism toward modern, urban excess, and a definite preference, it would seem, for low-impact, back-to-basics living. Plus he?s one of the few filmmakers around today who can still guarantee a bang for your buck, and not make you feel like a complete idiot in delivering it ? we can overlook a few drunken rants for that, can?t we?