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Survivor Testimony: The Case for Apocalypto

When Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto premiered in late 2006, the sheer ambition of the film caused audiences – and critics – to forget that it was, in fact, an action movie. Opinion was divided on the merits of this bloody yarn of crumbling Mesoamerican civilization, but the universal respect the film seemed to command was nicely summed up by A.O. Scott in his review for The New York Times: “Say what you will about [Gibson] — about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews — he is a serious filmmaker.”

Surely, if asked, no audience watching the relentlessly-paced invasion of central hero Jaguar Paw’s village by marauding Mayan warriors would label Apocalypto a romance or a comedy. But a film of such complex technical achievement and thematic resonance, spoken in an invented antiquated language (with subtitles), set in a time and place far distant from modern viewers, demands a level of serious consideration that seems at odds with a populist genre picture. The ambition and skillful execution of Gibson’s work on Apocalypto redefines action filmmaking: it succeeds by transcending the tropes and archetypes of the genre and speaking to universal interests.

Gibson intended to make a film about civilizations and what undermines them. The Yucatan peninsula, approximately at the beginning of the 16th century AD, is, as Gibson notes “merely the backdrop.” Though he presents an aesthetically masterful, compelling examination of civilization, layered throughout with boldly pronounced ideas on the nature of fear, survival, environmentalism, and the relationship all of these things have with politics and religion, perhaps the most impressive trick Gibson displays here is moving the audience so far from their comfort zone that they barely realize they’re watching a direct descendant of the action/chase movies that first made Gibson famous.

The young hunter-gatherer at the film’s center is a man named Jaguar Paw. He lives in a small and prosperous village on the outskirts of the Mayan Empire in its waning days. The aforementioned invasion of his village is an expertly choreographed battle sequence in which the invaders brutally maim, rape, kill, and enslave the community with ruthless efficiency. The jungle landscape is brought to life in all its severe and exotic wonder by Director of Photography Dean Semler, who garnered a number of richly deserved prizes for his efforts. As the tribe is led through fields of tree stumps toward their destination, their surroundings increase in ways equally glorious and foreboding. The costumes, stylized as they are, have an air of authenticity, depicting a culture unfamiliar to the history of cinema in the grotesque extravagance of the city-dwelling bourgeoisie and the peasants working their fields on the edge of town, dusted white in the lime they harvest. Not even the knowledge of his impending demise can distract Jaguar Paw from marveling at the meticulously detailed sets designed by Thomas Sanders, particularly the towering pyramid at the center of the city. The heads of victims roll down the steps of this pyramid toward the watching upper class who celebrate in a trance of worship which, from a distance, resembles a mosh pit. This compelling drama hits full stride in its third act, where Gibson transforms classic elements of the chase and complex set pieces into some of the most original action sequences in recent years. Jaguar Paw’s escape leads back into the harsh rain forest of snakes, jungle cats, waterfalls, and a survivalist’s manipulation of the elements to make Bear Grylls proud.

Proud and courageous, Jaguar Paw is an archetypal hero: he is stronger and faster than his friends and foes, possessed of a preternatural instinct for detecting dangers and escaping harm. As a feat of visual storytelling, the young actor Rudy Youngblood deserves as much praise for his performance as the casting department does for finding him. What he lacks in polish he makes up for with dexterity and power enough to win viewers’ belief. Classic genre techniques like the slow motion used when Jaguar Paw is chased by a jaguar could have seemed hokey in such a setting (see 10,000 BC) had Youngblood not looked entirely natural running from jungle cats.
 
These techniques, slow-mo, shaky cam, heroic upshots, etc., are used, to varying degrees of success throughout the film and are integral to its hold on the viewer. Apocalypto separates itself from mediocre genre aesthetics with sweeping aerial shots of pristine white rapids rushing over the captured villagers heads, and crane shots of jungle trails that descend swiftly into chases from spears and arrows, dodging the vines hanging from trees and hurdling their surfaced roots. The rich, saturated greens, blues, and yellows, and deep focus of the jaguar chase distract from the fact that significantly less impressive versions of this shot are on cable TV every weekend, usually framing racing cars or cowboys on horses.
 
The psychological focus of Apocalypto, perhaps a fitting thematic focal point for a film about a man running for his life, bears its teeth just after the teaser when Jaguar Paw’s father chides his son for faltering behavior in the face of an alien tribe: “I did not raise you to see you live with fear.” Fear spreads through the inhabitants of Mel Gibson’s vision of the Yucatan faster and with more lethal force than the many plagues that we see slowly eroding their communities. The film’s most intriguing dissection of fear-mongering involves the transparent manipulation of the panicked citizens by a Mussolini-esque Mayan politician who exerts dominance by claiming credit for a solar eclipse–proof that his sacrificial executions have sated the bloodlust of their sun god. This is the sort of scene for which some criticized Gibson’s perceived condescension toward his characters, but in the context of the film it much more an exploration of dirty politics and a rather Marxist depiction of the opium of the masses in full effect. The consistent displays of supernatural fears informs the tone of the film in a much more sympathetic light than it might have, considering the convictions of Gibson’s notoriously confrontational previous work, 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. In light of Gibson’s well documented reactionary Catholicism, Apocalypto is a much more nuanced take on the role of religion in society. It is presented here as a major part of the bedrock of civilization, an inevitable source of strife and conflict (a Spanish-held crucifix steadily approaches the beach in the movie’s final minutes) as much as a defining factor of a lifestyle.
 
These elements are coordinated beautifully to enhance and promote the overarching examination of civilization, its foundations and means of survival, and the cancers that expose its fragility and susceptibility to domino-effect disintegration. As Jaguar Paw and his comrades are led in captivity toward their destination, they emerge from the jungle into an area of mass deforestation. The next 20 minutes or so are dialogue-free, as the villagers are shown through barren white grounds of early lime stucco, further into a small village of slaves and peasants who suffer from disease and complain of drought. The quicksand of civilization proves unavoidable, as corrosive causes and effects pile upon one another, and the villagers enter a marketplace outside of the city where the men are marked for sacrificial death and the women are sold into slavery.
 
Finally they enter the city to meet their death at the hands of the manipulative aristocracy, who adorn their bodies and buildings with the fruits of the environmentally destructive labor forced upon the poor. This is civilization blindly tying a pretty noose around its own neck and preparing itself for extinction at the hands of a more powerful invader. Many of the negative reviews for Apocalypto claimed the Will Durant quote which opens the film–“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”–typified Gibson’s condescension to the Mesoamericans. This is unfair, and I wonder whether these critics watched the second act of the film, which is a carefully constructed, step-by-step examination of the process by which this civilization unwittingly eroded itself. The ominous specter of the Spanish conquistadors, as Durant might have testified and Gibson here so skillfully realizes, is merely the grim reaper coming to see the Maya out. Gibson is not, as so many critics moaned, condemning the Maya to collapse for their sins and failures; he is sympathizing with the fearful, and acknowledging that a resolute and efficient civilization would not so easily succumb to its annihilation. He is drawing parallels to modern American civilization, and confronting some of the challenges we fail to rise to even now.

At its core, Apocalypto is as much an exercise in genre filmmaking as it is a thematically potent aesthetic achievement; co-screenwriter and producer Farhad Safinia has said, “We wanted to update the chase genre by, in fact, not updating it with technology or machinery but stripping it down to its most intense form, which is a man running for his life.” Strip away Mad Max’s leather jacket, his cool sunglasses, his sawed off shotgun, pull him out of that fuel tanker-pulling semi, arm his pursuers with bows and arrows and knives of jade, and stick him in the middle of the rainforest, and you’ve got Jaguar Paw. The expositional and technical clichés provide a lens through which we can view familiar characters (the wizened father figure, the damsel in distress, the goofy but loyal friend, the psychopathic henchmen counterpart, his big bad boss, corrupt politicians) in extraordinary circumstances, injected with unusually complex ideas. The advantage of adopting the tropes and archetypes of a genre that audiences love is that it affords an artist a wealth of opportunities while maintaining accessibility.
 
Mel Gibson’s reputation for outrageous misbehavior in the public eye has been enough to turn off some viewers, but not enough to stop Apocalypto from grossing over $120 million internationally. Why then, if he has so obviously invested his ideas in such familiar and popular forms, doesn’t Apocalypto come up in conversation when the era’s best action movies are discussed? The reluctance to accept the marriage of artistic merit and pop genre, particularly action, movies is an unfortunate snobbery of contemporary culture. The disconnect we impose on art and entertainment was strengthened in the last thirty five or so years, in what could be called the blockbuster era. Many of the best recent action movies, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, are the products of filmmakers who possess a deep understanding of the genre’s history and know a very important truth which informs their work greatly: the genre picture is an extremely useful means to tell a story. Apocalypto is a perfect example of a unique story focused primarily on aesthetics and thematic exploration that ensures its impact on the viewer by sweetening its foreign content with recognizable genre tropes.
 
Gibson’s emergence as the celebrity-pariah of the era is unfortunate for at least one reason: it overshadows his indispensable value to the cinematic landscape. His unflinching control and conviction as a director have come a long way since he won an Oscar for directing Braveheart in 1995. His attraction to exploring historic epochs as they might have been in their natural state seems perfectly suited for his brand of harsh but romantic stylization, as the historicity of his presentations get progressively more authentic. Gibson’s aesthetic interests are unique in mainstream contemporary film, and they may be unprecedented. Cinema has maintained a science fiction tradition of presupposing the frontier of futurity which dates back to the medium’s roots, but the past one hundred thousand-plus years of the human story are disproportionately uncharted territory cinematically. Along with the American Western and the English Royalty drama, the only prominent cinematic historical fiction traditions in the vein of Gibson’s own work are the Chinese wuxia and Japanese jidaigeki genres. Gibson’s stylization of ancient periods for popular consumption is hugely important precisely because of his willingness to challenge cultural barriers with relatively scrupulous authenticity and his attraction to the mainstream form of like action/adventure.
 
Part of the wonder of a pop art medium like film is the vast array of subgenre offerings to accommodate dissenting tastes. The prevailing wisdom of recent action cinema is the recognition that genre is society to a motion picture’s individual; the genre’s influence on a film is equivalent to the film’s impact on the genre. When a great filmmaker like Mel Gibson invests a genre picture with the same care he would a traditional drama the art of cinema can become revelation: the transformation of guilty pleasure into something more important. It seems to me that the halt on Gibson’s new Viking project (another culture tragically underrepresented in film) caused by his latest public embarrassment should be met with more public demand for continuation than it has been. I, for one, will await its arrival eagerly for as long as it takes to get the film off the ground.
 
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Casey Fiore is a film student and critic working in Boston. This is his first piece for Open Letters.

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