"Mel Gibson's Apocalypto" opens with a quotation from the philosopher-historian Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." This is a great quote, but extremely problematic for the movie that follows. The campaign by the Spanish conquistadors against the Maya states began in the early 16th century and ended at the end of the 17th century when the last Maya stronghold, the Itza capital of Tayasal on Lake Petén Itzá, fell. The Maya were organized into a number of independent states that had to be conquered one by one, in contrast to the Spanish campaigns against the Aztec and Inca nations where overthrowing a single political center proved to be the key to conquest. Durant's quote talks about corruption within being followed by external conquest, what we usually associate with the decadence that preceded the fall of Rome, but that does not apply to what happened to the Maya. Besides, even those Mesoamerican cultures that did not engage in human sacrifice were going to be immune to the myriad diseases that Europeans brought to the Americas and which decimates entire peoples.
By the time this movie came out in 2006 the fact it was entitled "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto" hurt rather than helped it at the box office. On July 28, 2006, Gibson was arrested in California for speeding and on suspicion of drunk driving. During his arrest Gibson made a series of anti-Semitic remarks, and since his previous film, "The Passion of the Christ," was criticized for alleged anti-Semitic elements, this was potentially a major nail in the coffin for Gibson. "Apocalypto" cost $40 million to make and took in just short of $51 million in the U.S., which would make it a major disappointment. But beyond the bad publicity for the man who co-wrote (with Farhad Safinia), directed and produced the film there was the additional hurdle that all of the dialogue is spoken in the Yucatec Maya language, which is still spoken today. The fact that there are subtitles involved will remind many viewers of Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," as will the depictions of violence (to a lesser degree). Just let me say that I ended up watching this DVD by myself because nobody else wanted to "read" the movie. This is too bad, because the film is a visual delight.
"Apocalypto" is set in Mesoamerica on the eve of the arrival of the Spanish, presumably on the Yucatan peninsula. After a tapir hunt, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and the group of young hunters led by his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) encounter a group of refugees who seek permission to pass through the forest. More important than the Durant quote is the story told that night by the village elder of how human beings always want more, despite having the best gifts from each of the animals of the forest. The fable comes to life when a party of Maya raiders, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), attacks the village. Jaguar Paw is able to lower his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and his young son by a vine into a small ground cave before he is captured by the vicious Middle Eye (Gerardo Tarcena). While the captives are taken to a Maya City, Jaguar Paw worries about his wife and child, trapped in the cave and unable to escape..
Actually, for most of the last act of this film you will not be doing a lot of reading, because "Apocalypto" turns out to be, in the end at least, a chase movie. "Death Proof" was suppose to be a big time chase movie, but I have to tell you "Apocalypto" is a whole lot better in that regard. The movie I was reminded most of us ended up being "The Last of the Mohicans," not just because most of the action takes place in a lush green forest, but also because most of the memorable moments in both films have to do with people look at each other. It has been a long time since I have seen somebody bore holes through people with their eyes the way Zero Wolf does in this movie. Actually, there is another point of comparison between the two movies in that Jaguar Paw runs even more than Nathaniel ever did. I want to add that my favorite performance in the film was by Morris Birdyellowhead: in his final scene as Flint Sky, I was no longer aware that he was acting, so thoroughly had he become his character for me.
The title does not have anything to do with the related term apocalypse, despite the obvious implications, because "Apocalypto" is a Greek term that translates as "new beginning." The significance here is more ironic than anything else, because the story really is about an ending more than any beginning that takes place after the final credits. "Apocalypto" was nominated for Oscars for Makeup, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, and certainly the makeup and costumes we see in the Maya city are absolutely spectacular. However, while the depiction of Maya culture, architecture and dress is visually impressive, it has been criticized by scholars as being unauthentic and superficial. Apparently the film takes bits and pieces from various people and time periods to create this picture of the Maya. Fortunately I never take what I see in movies as gospel when it comes to history and culture, and I would encourage you to check out what you can find online about the Maya once this film sparks your interest. I have already learned a lot on the subject.